When we can’t see the world for our phones

By Felix Salmon
December 5, 2012

Mobile devices are wonderful things, just as cars are. But both can cost lives, as Robert Kolker explains in a great NY Mag article:

Cars still speed, drivers still drink, and jaywalkers still pay no attention, especially with smartphones to distract them. “I wonder if we’ve reached a critical mass where so many people are looking down and so many people are listening to headphones and so many drivers are texting that the probability of an inattentive walker and an inattentive driver is much greater,” says Sam Schwartz, a.k.a. Gridlock Sam, the transportation consultant and traffic guru.

Schwartz is speaking purely anecdotally, of course: there are no reliable statistics on such matters, and I doubt there ever will be. But it’s undeniable that when people are staring at a mobile phone, they become much more oblivious — and much more dangerous.

As smartphones make our streets increasingly dangerous, it’s incumbent upon local government to try to mitigate things as much as possible. A world where everybody’s looking at a screen cannot be a world where cars can careen around the city at 40mph without any risk of getting a speeding ticket. Fast cars are lethal things, and have no place anyway in a dense city where the interplay of automobiles, bicycles, and pedestrians constitutes a highly-complex dance. So we should slow them down, using all manner of traffic-calming measures. (My favorite, which seems to be used far too sparingly, is to put louvers on traffic lights so that cars can’t see the color of the light at the end of the block. When they can, they often speed up to make it through.)

But the distraction of smartphones isn’t just physically dangerous: in reducing our awareness of our surroundings, it has broader corrosive effects. Alastair Bland has a good post on the way that GPS devices mean that we stop needing to pay attention or to learn the kind of things that maps can teach us:

A study conducted in Tokyo found that pedestrians exploring a city with the help of a GPS device took longer to get places, made more errors, stopped more frequently and walked farther than those relying on paper maps. And in England, map sales dropped by 25 percent for at least one major printer between 2005 and 2011. Correlation doesn’t prove causation—but it’s interesting to note that the number of wilderness rescues increased by more than 50 percent over the same time period. This could be partly because paper maps offer those who use them a grasp of geography and an understanding of their environment that most electronic devices don’t. In 2008, the president of the British Cartographic Society, Mary Spence, warned that travelers—especially drivers—reliant on electronic navigation gadgets were focusing mainly on reaching a destination without understanding quite how they got there.

I love maps, be they old or new, paper-based or digital. And if I’m on a hike, or even just giving directions in a car, I feel lost without one. (The main thing I hate the most about Apple’s iOS maps compared to Google’s is that if you use them for directions, they won’t let you zoom out, examine your route, look where you’re going next, etc. Apple’s maps infantilize: they basically say “we know where you are, we’ll tell you what to do, don’t worry your pretty little head about it.” While Google’s encourage you to explore your surroundings much more, look at alternative routes, and generally be aware of where you are.)

Sadly, I’m in a tiny minority here. Most people have no love for maps at all, and positively dislike map-reading, avoiding it as much as possible and finding it quite difficult. For decades they were a regrettable necessity — but now that we don’t need them any more, we’re jettisoning them as fast as we can, and relying instead on passively receiving turn-by-turn directions from some algorithm. Those algorithms are undoubtedly helpful, but insofar as they allow us to stop paying attention to our surroundings, they also hasten our evolution into people whose entire experience of the world is intermediated by some kind of digital device. Which cannot possibly be healthy.

I’m a huge fan of Google’s driverless car, and I can’t wait for its broad adoption: it promises to reduce accidents and fatalities enormously. But it also promises to reduce our real-world horizons even further. I’m reminded of this anecdote from Chrystia Freeland:

The wife of one of America’s most successful hedge-fund managers offered me the small but telling observation that her husband is better able to navigate the streets of Davos than those of his native Manhattan. When he’s at home, she explained, he is ferried around town by a car and driver; the snowy Swiss hamlet, which is too small and awkward for limos, is the only place where he actually walks.

Our phones are cutting us off from the world: they’re turning us into mini versions of Eric Packer, the cloistered billionaire in Don DeLillo’s Cosmopolis (and played by Robert Pattinson in the movie). It’s unhealthy, and yet it’s also inevitable, and of course it carries much more upside than downside. I do wonder, however, what the logical conclusion is, and how the world will change as a result.

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