Upon acquiring an iPhone in 2017, I kept it close at all times, rarely letting a slow moment pass without popping in headphones and mainlining podcasts, or checking my email, or checking the news, or checking a recipe I’d made 100 times — checking, checking, checking. Sticking headphones in my ears and cueing up a new podcast before cooking dinner, I would say to my wife, “I’m going into phone land, if you need me just text and Siri will read it to me.” I removed myself at nearly every opportunity from the sensory world I share with my most beloved beings. My wife couldn’t say my name and conjure me through the air; only through Apple’s proprietary medium could she reach me. The cat would chirp for treats and I, oblivious to her presence, would step on her paw as she approached coyly from behind, letting out a shriek that barely penetrated my awareness as I distractedly spun around the kitchen.
How did I get here? How did we?
In his pathbreaking work of ecological philosophy, The Spell of the Sensuous (1996), David Abram uses the history of literacy to show how technological progress has come at the cost of intimate relationships between humans and what Abram calls the “more-than-human” world. While we may think much in our lives isn’t human, there is a persistent human frame around pets, lawns, showers and food from the grocery store. As members of a modern technological society we so rarely have contact with any kind of radical otherness — wild animals, old-growth forests, riverbanks — that as individuals and as communities, we have lost the ability to engage in intimate discourse with the beyond-human world around us. This lies at the heart of our ecological crises and, according to Abram, it was the technology of literacy that set us on such a course.
Why literacy? Abram’s thesis is that with the development of writing around 3,500 years ago, oral cultures that had previously co-created meaning with their ecosystems via sensory perception began to fix meaning into text, a tool that would evolve to have no connection to that ecosystem and only narrowly to the senses. Pictographs representing specific objects or acts gave way to phonetic alphabets that could be rearranged and combined to create entirely new meanings, words and worlds that could exist separately from the more-than-human. The very process an individual undergoes in the course of becoming literate engenders a reflexiveness, a self-reflection, which in turn produces an intuition that the mind and the sensing body are separate.
“The literate self cannot help but feel its own transcendence and timelessness relative to the fleeting world of corporeal experience,” writes Abram.
The reflexive self, the self of the inward-facing mirrors, existed before literacy. Human beings were capable of self-possession long before the alphabet. But the reflective power of that mirror grew when we began to read, so much so that our vision was overwhelmed by ourselves, and our selves became subjects of intense interest. Nature progressively faded from view and we could see ourselves as part of a new global identity: humanity. Digital information technologies such as the smartphone threaten to eclipse our view of even that human identity, so that the only things we can care for are our individual selves.
But there is another way to be, and it starts with the air you are breathing now. Since the first green algae on a sea-sprayed rock metabolized carbon dioxide and released oxygen, giving birth to aerobic life, air has been the network that connects the beings that fill the landscapes of the earth. For the oral and indigenous cultures Abram examines, air, wind, and breath constitute a network in which every earthly being participates, not just human beings. He writes that “the ineffability of the air seems akin to the ineffability of awareness itself, and we should not be surprised that many indigenous peoples construe awareness, or ‘mind,’ not as a power that resides inside their heads, but rather as a quality that they themselves are inside of, along with the other animals and the plants, the mountains and the clouds.” With the introduction of the phonetic alphabet, the literate self began to think of mind — psyche, from a Greek word for breath — as something encased within an individual body, rather than something in which an individual body participates.
With the forgetting of air inaugurated in ancient times by literacy, we began to lose an understanding of ourselves as parts of an enveloping earth full of animate beings all breathing the same air, all sharing, in some sense, the same mind. And with the utter replacement of air with media as the medium through which meaning flows into and out of us, a replacement under way and gaining speed: We are losing even the understanding of ourselves, that literacy introduced, as beings which are part of an enveloping humanity.
• • •
The presence of the smartphone, almost exclusively a media-delivery tool, insists through its notifications and its design. The “ping” is an immediate relief from my own thoughts, always occluding the possibility of absence, of the mystery of otherness, of anything but a spectral, unattentive version of myself and the phone’s content. There is no space for air in a smartphone, a solid block of glass and metal, perceivable to us only as a heavy, full density through which nothing could or should ever flow. A breeze can’t flutter the pages of your Kindle to remind you that you are surrounded by earthly, beyond-human power.
Our senses, which attune us to the world, are overwhelmed and under-used, made both raw and numb by their constant exposure to self-reflective technological media. The more time we spend with the black mirror of digital media, the less coherence we have as individuals because our individuality is made up of our interactions with that which is other than ourselves. The black mirror has only ourselves to show us.
A student volunteer in the library where I work recently talked to me about their latest hobby: taking photos with a point-and-shoot camera, the kind I used when I was their age, the kind without an instant means to share the photos once taken.
The New York Times reported on the trend of teenagers using older digital cameras, in part for the nostalgic effect it produces. But I argue that the appeal goes beyond nostalgia. Disaggregating the functions of the smartphone, putting air between the creation of the image and its being shared, even having to put down the camera and walk to a computer and plug in the media card to begin editing and sharing, opens space for the world outside to intrude on our thoughts and feelings, for the slant of the sun through the window and the song of the bird in the tree to affect the way we see the photos we’ve taken, to re-establish the link between our sensory experience and our interior experience.
Young people face a future of work and culture and politics that will demand they participate in the digital economy at the expense of their well-being, demand that they pay rent to Apple or Google in order not only to access their photographs but to function as a member of a society. Some kids feel this and respond by finding ways to reopen themselves to the world, make themselves vulnerable to its nourishing intrusions and to re-introduce air into their lives.
• • •
What’s going to happen to us now that hundreds of millions of people live most of their days enveloped in the digital world? Abram helps us see what a paradigm shift in knowledge technologies has wrought, and what it might still write. If the next step for digital technologies is a metaverse generated largely by artificial intelligence for the sake of colonization and extraction by corporations, how will this further deteriorate our care for the beyond-human world, our prospects of averting ecological disaster? It seems obvious that we might finally and completely lose not only our awareness of and care for nature, but our connection to other human beings.
With no air, is it any wonder that we are suffocating on our selves? That we are losing social unity and psychological coherence in this suffocation? That the political reality of most Americans has wrapped itself around the pillars of identity and information, the very contours our technologies define? Ultimately we must go beyond individual acts of refusal such as mine and work for social changes at an institutional level.
The story we have allowed the ruling class to sell us is: Give people the technology to enlighten themselves [to light up their self] and democracy will flourish. Technology is the means of human progress. This is partially correct, for what technologies in areas as different as agriculture and literacy share is that they put once-communal powers into individual hands. They “empower” individuals within, but also over communities. When a society takes up a radical new information technology, it is elite individuals who often draw the greatest benefit, while the rest are left to defend our communities and ecosystems from the technology’s fracturing effects.
The dramatic “democratization” of media technology in recent decades hasn’t resulted in the flourishing of democratic institutions. It has tuned up political divisions and acclimated millions to the idea that online activism and participation or representation in mass media are suitable replacements for community — while simultaneously numbing our senses with a torrent of content, declawing the populace.
Communal institutions that connect us to the enveloping earth must be strengthened, reinforced, perhaps remade, in the face of individualizing technology if we hope to prevent ecological catastrophe. Rather than pump more atomizing, geographically agnostic information technologies into our cultures, we must reinvest in local, communal forms of knowledge production. Public libraries are particularly well-suited to serve these democratic functions, given their historical role as maintainers of communal knowledge, their highly local nature and their popular support as trusted institutions.
A healthy relationship with digital technologies may not be impossible, but it is readily apparent that we do not have such a relationship now. Now, we pollute and mine and exploit the earth so that Google can turn our lights off for us at bedtime. This calls for acts of civil disobedience, and I don’t know where else to start except to say, with Bartleby the scrivener, “I prefer not to.” If that reference is obscure, I have a solution: go ask your public librarian.
• • •
On a social scale, solving ecological and psychological crises means first solving our politics, our collective means of getting things done. On a personal scale it means first changing the way we get things done. So I am giving up my smartphone. It is an act of refusal, first and foremost. I refuse to behave any longer as though I cannot think without my smartphone, as though I can’t sustain relationships without my smartphone, as though I can’t have a healthy body without my smartphone, as though I can’t participate in community, storytelling, activism or leisure that isn’t mediated by Apple or Google.
Although it causes headaches for myself, my family and the editor of this essay among others, I have found that there is nothing I can’t do without my smartphone except tune out the outside world. Without a smartphone, no longer can I spend my time with headphones pouring podcasts into my ears, muting out my own thoughts as well as the delightful intrusions of the earth.
I make dinner to the sounds of the garlic frying, I notice the cat slinking into the kitchen to beg for a bit of cheese, I’m attuned to the sounds of my wife turning the pages of a book on the couch, and I feel more at rest within myself, more at home among these others than harried and agitated and concerned by the paucity of otherness that envelops me in Phone Land. Last night I saw lightning and heard thunder, and I could distinguish them from flashing headlights and the M train rolling by. For a moment, even in this city, I was relieved of the crush of humanity.