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A sign prohibiting smartphone usage, featuring a black-and-white drawing of a smartphone inside a red circle with a diagonal slash through it.

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A few months ago, as I made my way to the surf lineup in Rincón, Puerto Rico, my relationship with technology fundamentally changed. One hundred meters or so from shore, a man paddling nearby seemed to be talking to himself. Then I saw an earpiece, a tiny wire and headset, and a smartphone-sized plastic box fastened to the small of his back. This was the end of an era: the last place where people gather in public without smartphones abruptly became a thing of the past.

New to ocean (but not web) surfing, smartphones have been ubiquitous on campuses for some time, but I have never had one. This puts me in a control group of sorts. There is one other faculty member whom I know of at my university who does not have one; to my knowledge, there are no students. In a sense, this corporatized, attention-seeking, behavior-altering, surveilling, data-farming, manipulative device has become a—if not the—definitive infrastructure of contemporary university life.

That’s troubling.

While there are many reasons to avoid smartphones, almost no one does: their presence has a high cost on both the cognitive and social aspects of academic life—which is to say, the essence of what we do. Constant connectivity and relentless information streams tap into evolutionary quirks of the brain and make the devices similar to a drug in their addictiveness.

Even so, they can be useful in class. After 45 minutes, I sometimes invite students to examine the day’s topic via X, Facebook, YouTube, TikTok, Wikipedia and the like and to share what they find. There is a marked pause, 45 seconds or so, when their notifications inspire a collective nose-down scroll, then most take to task. Linking digital to analog can result in generative and creative insights. Students build new content, connections and speculative complexity that can be thought through, debated and analyzed in real time. Such activities add anticipation to the first—off-line—segment of class, when students shape queries they will make online. Limited access is key: when students have phones throughout the class hour, addictive elements take hold and focus is lost.

Outside the classroom, I imagine one needs incredible discipline to abandon a smartphone for long periods of time. No matter the self-control I want to exercise, I am confident the notifications and algorithms designed to bring about my distraction will eventually win. There are whole industries and a generation of programmers who have devoted their existence to ensuring that an addictive, semipassive engagement occurs. They have succeeded so utterly that the only method of self-defense I see is to remove myself from the context.

If not having a smartphone protects me in my personal life, the devices already overwhelm the academy and its basic activities. Some are surely reading this on a smartphone, an environment designed to manipulate you away from these words and toward purchasing things. Typefaces designed to coerce obedience (like the IRS favorite, Helvetica) are one aspect of an intense battle for your eyes. Did you receive a notification just now, calling you to an email, meme, tweet, Facebook post or weather report? If one comes, how will it change your relationship to the ideas in this sentence? What if you are reading on a computer or tablet, with a phone beside you: How often is your attention driven to the phone? To what extent do you choose what you see, read and evaluate?

The obvious solution—turning off the device—doesn’t always work, because powered-off smartphones still demand their users’ attention. Describing a study that found that the “mere presence” of a powered-off mobile phone led two people talking to judge their conversation, and their relationship, as less close, Naomi S. Baron observes, the phone’s “sheer physical presence reminded subjects that someone or something else might be waiting to grab their attention.”

As the first thing many see in the morning and the last at night, the devices ensure a relentless, habit-forming gaze to the point that one wonders, is a smartphone and its AI-informed reality one of your own desire or creation? The average person looks at their phone about 150 times a day. COVID-19’s digital turn has drawn users into device dependence to the point that separation from one’s phone is for many a significant source of anxiety (psychologists have a term for this, nomophobia).

This digital pandemic intrudes on the geography of the mind, delivering interference during every thought—and thereby clouding each lecture, meeting, reading and writing session, and human interaction. “What I’ve seen … is a massive paradigm shift—much of the attentional resource that we devoted to our personal ecosystem has been shifted to what’s virtual,” says Larry Rosen, an emeritus professor of psychology at California State University, Dominguez Hills, and co-author of The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World (MIT Press, 2017). “That means you are not attending to what’s in front of you … It’s affecting every aspect of our lives, and sadly, I don’t think the pendulum has swung as far as it will go.”

“It is not true that distances are abolished,” observes Héctor Huyke in his forthcoming book, Elogio a las cercanías. “The kinds of engagement generated in face-to-face encounters are not reproducible.”

My rejection of smartphones ties back to my family. My sons know the workday is over when my computer is off. This creates a pleasant ritual of turning down my laptop lid, a moment that heralds the beginning of bike rides, swimming and surfing, drawing or playing music together, time punctuated with puns and sometimes foliage jokes (because trees, like Dad, access the internet by logging in). Daily time with my sons without electronic intrusions relaxes all of us and provides much-needed distance from campus affairs. It also benefits stress management: rejections for grants, publications, funding, fellowships and the like arrive via email, and this routine separates my home and family time from those experiences.

The benefits reach beyond our home and Puerto Rico. Academic travel is more enriching with the knowledge that a visit to Sandra Cisneros’s family home in Mexico City or a journey to study the Kichwan structures in Ecuadorean Spanish will not be interrupted by email, tweets or Instagram tones. Scholarly travel unmediated by technology creates a more complete form of concentration and experience.

Not having a smartphone makes me more reliant on handwriting and non-GPS-informed spatial orientation—and the cognitive connections that make skills in those domains possible. The desk at my home has three Post-its, each with a list: semester, month and week. Each weekday morning, I write a fourth (daily) list on a mini Post-it that I stick to my driver’s license before leaving the house. These papers often have small maps that I draw when going someplace new. Like cheat sheets from high school, writing things down in a tiny space connects them in my mind in such a way that I rarely consult the notes.

Studies in digital amnesia warn that brains may lose recall capacity when electronic devices become external drives for the anatomical mind. There’s no reason to think about if it’s online. Use of a smartphone reduces reading comprehension and even impacts how we write, pushing us toward truncation over elaboration. These shifts in method, form and consumption of words change what can be argued and how. Both digital writing and reading set argument coordinates that preference the superficial over the comprehensive.

In the same way that construction of roads and unwalkable city layouts have forced people into automobiles, our contemporary hypercommunicative, digitized contexts misleadingly link freedom with specific behaviors and material consumption. The rise of smartphones and automobiles are similar in that both were first used by the wealthy, then state and corporate actors pushed incredible numbers of people into specific—often destructive—behavior patterns linked to their use. Cars and smartphones are tools that fundamentally change concepts like distance, communication and community, and also the human body itself, along with aesthetic tastes: my car inasmuch as my smartphone demonstrates who I am. Automobiles and smartphones are both designed to seem organic, granting a user “freedom”—but in the long run, the infrastructures ensure you cannot freely choose either.

Due to the smartphone’s overreach, data recently surpassed oil “as the world’s most valuable resource.” The attention-dominating power of these devices is far too valuable for corporate and state actors to ask real questions about impact, about culture and society, about justice or access, about linguistic imperialism in online spaces, about whether or not students and faculty looking into their hands every six minutes enhances the mission of higher education. These questions will have to come from scholars.

Indeed, if smartphones challenge intelligence, cognition and critical thought, scholars have a responsibility to look first at themselves and to consider the destructiveness of overcontact with them. “Make no mistake,” University of Rhode Island professor Scott Kushner observed during a recent lecture, these platforms “shape possibilities of thought and being” and manipulate “the environments in which existence happens.” They have a “powerful impact on the ways societies form.”

If the universal presence of smartphones on campus seems inevitable, physically avoiding them is not merely a symbolic action—it is an empowering, affirmative practice.

Jeffrey Herlihy-Mera is a professor of humanities at the Universidad de Puerto Rico–Mayagüez. He is the founding director of the Instituto Nuevos Horizontes, which is funded by the Mellon Foundation.

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