Do you remember the first day you owned a smartphone? I do. In the fall of 2010, I was about to start college and Apple had just launched the iPhone 4. It was a quantum leap in the evolution of phones, nothing less.
We had it sent to a friend in France, because it was a bit cheaper, if that word even applies to a 700 € piece of technology. When my Dad brought it home, I couldn’t wait to take it out of the box and set it up. Afterwards, me and my family examined it in amazement. No buttons, crystal clear colors, great photos. High resolution, fast surfing, tons of apps, and, again, the screen!
I remember what it felt like, too. To now be part of this new, shiny, ever-connected world. It felt like I was joining a revolution. Rebellious. Enough with the old, it’s time to disrupt! Little did I know how right I was.
It didn’t happen the way I expected it, but life would never be the same.
Through the Hedge
I grew up in three different places, but each of them was a dead-end street. Ten or so houses, lined up in a perfect little row, ours always being the very last. To this day, my favorite remains the smallest one we lived in.
There was a tiny, square patch of grass attached to our back porch. You could barely call it a garden, but it connected to that of our neighbors, separated only by a tall hedge. Luckily, there was a huge hole in it, so us kids always snuck through to surprise each other and play games.
Another thing we did, which is rather unheard of today, is whenever we were looking for company, we walked down the street and rang the doorbell. You know, to see if our friends were home. A decade after Apple made smartphone history, I feel this is the part of the story that’s most dramatically changed.
A Strange Place Indeed
When sat navs made it into serial production, paper maps disappeared from the glove compartments of our cars. So did our ability to read and interpret those maps. To some extent, smartphones are doing the same to our communication skills. They allow us to get any message across with minimal effort, so after a while, minimal effort is all we’re capable of.
Sometimes, when friends visit me, they will text me that they are at the door. That is insane. And if I don’t see it, they might call me before considering to ring the bell. To you, that might be as obviously nuts as it is to me, but to kids growing up today, it’s probably the norm. They don’t know any other way and if we don’t teach them one, they never will.
I’m no exception to all this. For example, I was never strong in face-to-face confrontations, and if anything, owning a smartphone has made me weaker. But more than that, people’s reactions to those making an effort have also changed. I miss the days when I could call someone or show up at their doorstep unannounced and it wasn’t weird. Nowadays it’s mostly voicemail and awkward smiles. So on top of lacking fundamental human skills, many of our rewards for becoming better at them have disappeared.
It’s funny. Those things are considered creepy and annoying when at the same time, we get excited about strangers adding us on LinkedIn or following us on Instagram every day. It seems the joys of human attention now heavily depend on the medium that attention is received in. Being asked for coffee is terrifying, but getting a random comment on your Instagram story about being hit on is cool. Huh. Okay.
Smartphones hurting our capacity to talk to one another isn’t a particularly new or unobserved issue, but so far, that hasn’t stopped it from being a problem. It’s also only half the story.
Back in the Old Days…
Though unverified, Albert Einstein supposedly once said there are only two ways to live your life:
“One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is.”
It’s a quote about curiosity. About exploring, adventure, and imagining something new. But since technology has exploded so much in the past three decades, I think we‘re now suffering from miracle-fatigue. New Yorker cartoonist David Sipress captured it brilliantly with this quip:
Barry Schwartz expands on the idea in his acclaimed TED talk:
“The reason that everything was better back when everything was worse is that when everything was worse, it was actually possible for people to have experiences that were a pleasant surprise. Nowadays, the world we live in — we affluent, industrialized citizens, with perfection the expectation — the best you can ever hope for is that stuff is as good as you expect it to be. You will never be pleasantly surprised because your expectations, my expectations, have gone through the roof.”
As much as I love Apple products, I can’t shake the feeling that the iPhone, the smartphone in general, really, has been the greatest catalyst in exponentially raising our expectations. It’s the perfect weapon against surprise. You can use it not just to eradicate surprise from your interpersonal relationships, but also from those you maintain with yourself. Think about it.
Any experience you even remotely suspect you might have, you will prepare for using your phone. We look at purchases through the eyes of thousands of reviewers in advance. We read accounts of other people’s vacations, once-in-a-lifetime adventures, restaurant visits and what it’s like at work. And no matter what emotional state you’re in when you look into the mirror, the world will gladly explain to you what feeling comes next.
As a result, we’re used to everything but surprise itself. For this same reason, we’d rather send a signal to a tower miles away, that then sends another one to our friend’s phone upstairs, than to press the button that makes a piercing noise. We’ve come to hate the unexpected so much, we go out of our way to not impose it on others.
The day we turned on those phones is the day surprise died. And while it’s come to haunt us in a great many ways, the following may be the worst.
The Secret to Happiness
Isn’t it ironic? As a result of being equipped incredible communication technology, we’ve become hard to talk to and even harder to please. Because our new, default expectation is to always know what to expect.
While it’s bad that we’re not willing to be pleasantly surprised by serendipitous events, rejecting the notion of surprise altogether is what’ll really make us miserable. If we do that, we won’t just miss out on happy coincidence, we’ll also forever overreact to negative developments. How can we deal with life’s curveballs if we can’t even handle a sure home run pitch?
One obvious answer to address many of these problems is to just use your phone less. A lot less. Don’t google everything. Delegate and let people sweep you off your feet. Show up unannounced. Bring flowers. Be a nice surprise.
And in all that, mind what Barry Schwartz said next:
“The secret to happiness — this is what you all came for — the secret to happiness is low expectations.”
Maybe, we’ll even dare go a step further than that. Maybe, the secret to happiness is no expectations. Whatever you do, make room for surprise in your life. Give good things a chance to happen and wait for bad things to actually arrive. I hope that some day, we can all say we were indeed part of a revolution.
It just wasn’t the one we thought it would be.