Over-use of iPhones fails to make ad­dicted users any smarter

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - HK COMMENT - PAUL SUR­TEES The au­thor is a Hong Kong-based commentator and univer­sity lec­turer on cross-cul­tural is­sues, who does not use an iPhone.

Un­doubt­edly, the util­ity of an iPhone (or any sim­i­lar elec­tronic de­vice) can­not be de­nied. Peo­ple have come to rely upon them; per­haps for­get­ting that not so many years ago, life pro­ceeded sat­is­fac­to­rily enough with­out any of them — that is, be­fore they were even in­vented. That they of­fer some great con­ve­niences is man­i­festly the case. How­ever, when bear­ing in mind their ubiq­uity, the ques­tion may fairly be asked, has their ob­vi­ous util­ity en­cour­aged a lot of peo­ple, es­pe­cially young peo­ple, to be­come ob­sessed with them, us­ing them al­most con­stantly? As English poet Wil­liam Henry Davies once asked, ’’ What is this life if, full of care, we have no time to stand and stare.’’

For those few lud­dites among us who are still elec­tron­i­cally un-en­cum­bered it is a strange sight to see peo­ple per­am­bu­lat­ing this city’s streets whilst con­stantly car­ry­ing one in the hand, where so ever they go. Can’t a pocket, belt or neck pouch, or hand­bag hold them, when not ac­tu­ally in use? I re­cently saw some­one trans­port­ing a large iron­ing board un­der one arm, heavy shop­ping bags in the other hand and yet, yes, there was the ap­par­ently oblig­a­tory iPhone also perched in her hand. Why make life more dif­fi­cult for your­self, in such a way?

An­other re­cently seen ex­am­ple makes a sim­i­lar point: a young mother was get­ting out of a taxi with her two tod­dlers and at­tempt­ing to ex­tri­cate and un­fold the pram from the ve­hi­cle’s boot at the same time. When her iPhone rang dur­ing that hec­tic mo­ment, she did not hes­i­tate to an­swer it im­me­di­ately, as though her life de­pended upon it. Can’t the call­ers leave a mes­sage? Does ev­ery text have to be re­sponded to ab­so­lutely in­stantly? Peo­ple here com­monly strug­gle to send text mes­sages while strap-hang­ing in the MTR, while get­ting on a bus, even while walk­ing up or down stairs. They never give them­selves a break from be­ing so con­stantly con­nected — and was that nec­es­sary?

In places where a quiet mo­ment’s thought or re­flec­tion might once have oc­curred, such as on a bus or MTR jour­ney, at a bus stop or bank queue, these days al­most ev­ery­one is fill­ing that time busily op­er­at­ing a por­ta­ble elec­tronic de­vice. They do so con­stantly, even when walk­ing along. That is the cause of many a col­li­sion in Hong Kong’s crowded streets and on our busy pub­lic trans­port, as iPhone users and oth­ers equally elec­tron­i­cally be­sot­ted stroll along giv­ing more at­ten­tion to the de­vice in their hands than they do to mov­ing safely around our teem­ing city. Other pedes­tri­ans are forced to take eva­sive ac­tion. When two or more strollers in crowded places are in­sen­sate be­cause of their in­ces­sant iPhone use, a col­li­sion be­comes es­pe­cially likely.

Such ap­par­ent in­dif­fer­ence to their sur­round­ings be­comes par­tic­u­larly strik­ing, and in­deed dan­ger­ous, when they be­came obliv­i­ous to the sounds sur­round­ing them be­cause they have wires plugged into their ears. I have sev­eral times ob­served those so at­tired wan­der un­heed­ingly into the road, in front of on­com­ing fast-mov­ing traf­fic, risk­ing life and limb in the process.

In­vest Hong Kong is cur­rently, and very ap­pro­pri­ately, pro­mot­ing Hong Kong as the best con­nected city in Asia. Few could doubt the ve­rac­ity of that claim. But when are the peo­ple here ever dis­con­nected? When can they ever ex­pe­ri­ence rest­ful down­time?

I hap­pen to live near a univer­sity and sev­eral schools. In years gone by, stu­dents would laugh and play with each other on their way home from their stud­ies. That was an im­por­tant way for young­sters to build up those vi­tal skills of in­ter­act­ing so­cially with oth­ers, which will one day be needed at the work­place. But most of the young­sters I see nowa­days are com­pletely cut off from their peers, since they in­ter­act only with the mo­bile de­vice held a foot in front of their noses, with­out any respite. They thereby iso­late them­selves from those around them; and con­stantly at that.

Hong Kong’s em­ploy­ers, like any oth­ers, seek new re­cruits who can in­ter­act ef­fec­tively with oth­ers and who can think in­de­pen­dently. Nei­ther of these abil­i­ties is granted at birth, as breath­ing is. Both of these im­por­tant life skills need to be built up grad­u­ally as adult­hood ap­proaches. It seems that the cur­rent thought­less pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with play­ing end­less com­puter games will in­hibit fu­ture gen­er­a­tions from de­vel­op­ing such skills dur­ing youth, which will likely limit their use­ful­ness — or even em­ploy­a­bil­ity — in their even­tual po­ten­tial work­places.

Then there is the self-ex­clu­sion from re­ceiv­ing any other in­put, caused when we see iPhone users be­sot­ted with their de­vice dur­ing a film, meet­ing, lunch with col­leagues, con­cert, lec­ture, coun­try walk, fam­ily din­ner or even while the tele­vi­sion is turned on. They ap­pear to view the world through their iPhones and noth­ing else could pos­si­bly be as im­por­tant as that!

Sadly, the over-use of smart phones fails to make the ad­dicted user any smarter. As sug­gested above, it can re­duce a young per­son’s so­cial and men­tal devel­op­ment and it can also very ef­fec­tively cut them, and any­one else, off from re­ceiv­ing all other stim­uli to in­de­pen­dent thought.

Paul Sur­tees

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