When Samsung announced its latest flagship device Galaxy Note 8 this week, for all its drool-inducing features there was one question on everyone's mind: Will it explode? So notorious was its predecessor's fiery battery troubles — an almost unprecedented brand disaster that saw many Note 7's catch fire and prompted a massive recall — that it's almost brave of Samsung to come out with a new model.
But release it they did, and it looks gorgeous and functional, with a $900+ price tag to boot. And if the phone is almost sure to not literally blow up, it is nonetheless exploding with features. Beyond the standard top-of-the-line specs, there is the signature S-Pen, which lets you write on the screen, send animated messages, and annotate documents. You can attach a mouse, keyboard, and monitor to a dock and the Note 8 will function like a Chromebook computer. There is a dual camera that allows for zoom, and crisp, sharp shots. Then there is the obvious wealth of things that all smartphones can do: not just email or social media, or news and updates, but also apps for dating, food delivery, banking, smart homes, and on and on forever. The Note 8 is less a portable computer than a digital smorgasbord.
And therein lies the problem: The Note 8 is emblematic of how overstuffed with functionality digital devices have become. On a smartphone, a thing we carry with us all the time, each new feature is one more thing to demand your attention. And perhaps as the first smartphone decade comes to a close, it is time to reconsider the idea of digital distraction — that tech is now not only deliberately meant to be all-consuming, but is so because of the economic incentives that underpin it.
I say "reconsider" because the trouble with most "digital is ruining us" arguments is that they are generally divided into two, equally unsatisfactory camps. The first, such as found in a long, recent Atlantic article about the dangers of the smartphone for youth, thinks of technology as a corruption of something pure, and thus a thing that needs to be expunged or at least quarantined. The proposed solutions are always about restraint and restriction — to be glib, about limiting screen time to get back to nature. Indeed, that's why this approach so often leads to the so-called "digital detox"; you are drawing out that viscous poison of digitality to be left with something clean.
The problem is that this gets the diagnosis half right and the treatment entirely wrong. As the opposing, technophillic camp often points out, the hierarchy of the non-digital as more real and more grounded makes no sense. Digital experience is full of deep connections, limitless information, and the churning fires of culture. What is and is not digital becomes useless in establishing importance, depth, or humanity, in no small part because the web and social media are full of as much brilliance and genius as they are anything else. Cutting oneself from your phone or from social media may mean removing fundamental parts of your life, often to your detriment.
Where this approach can falter, however, is in ignoring the structural or psychological effects of digital tech and platforms. We now know, for example, that even a phone that is off and lying on a table can act as a distraction. It makes sense when one thinks of all the things that, say, a Galaxy Note 8 can do. Its near limitless potential is drug-like in its allure, promising new hits of dopamine every time you open Twitter or Facebook, but also everything from news to a hookup. We establish a psychological relation to the screen, and are conditioned to always expect it to bring us something new, and the more it does, the worse it gets.
You can hardly blame Samsung for feature creep, though. There is no way to induce desire in consumers unless a new phone can do things the old one could not, and so the choice is always to pack more and more into a device until one might, for entirely reasonable and practical reasons, spend the day forever pawing at one's phone, using it as a simple computer at home, a navigation system or iPod in the car, and for a thousand other things in between.
Perhaps just as importantly, if the Note 8 is the result of one set of incentives to induce consumer lust, then tech in general operates under a bigger tangle of them. In fact, all of tech operates under a set of structures meant to induce compulsion. Facebook and Instagram's ever-shifting algorithms encourage repeated checking. Twitter's timeline and culture has exacerbated the downsides of call-out culture and alarmism, or the awful incentive for abuse caused by the celebration of "the ratio," i.e. when a tweet has few likes, but vastly more angry, dismissive replies.
The twinned economies of capital and attention online are structured to elicit our worst tendencies: our desire for a platform and recognition, a will to pin neat interpretations of speech into ongoing culture wars, or just the usual human craving for more. But there is little to no incentive for tech companies to counter these trends. Quite the opposite: The pull is in the other direction, as ad-based services require an ever-higher share of our time in order to remain profitable. Even Apple, which is unique in refusing to make money from ads, still fosters a fetishistic relationship to their devices which, like the Note 8, seduce with sleek designs to leave us idly caressing them in search of something new to feel good about.
It would be needlessly negative to say that technology is in some simple sense ruining us. There are so many good things also brought about by digital: connection to others across the globe, a wealth of information, and new ways of social and political organizing. But we are at a strange moment in history in which large economic forces are also built in such a way to also appeal to and bring out the worst in us. In digital, capitalism has found its most perfect manifestation — one that may in fact be too perfect. But in the absence of any real alternative, it is hard to see a way out of the quagmire. There are only screens, each exploding with information, and our minds and souls left cowering under the bombardment.