Editor's letter: Adjusting to change

In human affairs as in nature, change is constant.

Society is always in a state of evolution. In human affairs as in nature, change is constant, so we have to adapt to new technology and economic conditions. The business world calls it “disruptive innovation,” with the best example being iTunes’ deathblow to CD sales. More interesting than the bottom line results, though, are the ructions that new inventions cause to human behavior. Much as our ancestors had to learn new standards of etiquette when fire was tamed, when agriculture took hold, and when the automobile transformed the landscape, we’re still trying to figure out how to properly deal with the instant, vast, and indelible effects of the smartphone. President Obama was slammed for beaming into the leggy Danish prime minister’s “selfie” at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service (see Talking points), but there’s more than political embarrassment at stake here. Lives risk ruin from ill-considered pictures or utterances passed on and preserved for eternity, and more teenagers now die from driving while texting than from driving while drinking.

We’ll adjust to the smartphone, just as we’ve adjusted to everything else. Public figures may think twice about grinning into a selfie at a somber occasion. Social pressure and new laws may curtail texting behind the wheel. Still, we’ll never be quite the same. A recent study (see Health & Science) has found that hyperconnected students tend to be less happy than those who give precedence to the immediate world outside their smartphones. The holidays ahead offer us a chance to do just that—up to a point. I’ll be spending Christmas with my family in a snowbound log cabin with a woodstove and really poor cellphone reception. Luckily, though, we’ll have Wi-Fi.

James Graff

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