Do Our Phones Make Us More Selfish or Self-Centered?

As a New Yorker I navigate the city in a variety of ways - subway, walking, running, biking, driving, car-service passenger - and I relish seeing the city at different scales and speeds. One of the biggest changes I’ve seen in my 18+ years here to all of these modes has been the smartphone. The iPhone was introduced ten years ago, and I’ve only noticed the impact of smartphones accelerating, good and bad. So I have to ask: do our phones make us more selfish, self-centered, or is everything ok but just different?

Although they appear to be similar in meaning, the differences are subtle. Selfish (of a person, action, or motive) means lacking consideration for others, and/or is concerned chiefly with one's own pleasure. In contrast, self-centered means being preoccupied with oneself and one's affairs. I like to think people are merely disengaged with their surroundings in most cases.

Its important to recognize that when we are talking about smartphones, its the connected capabilities along with the amazing processing power, that makes these things so impactful. So what has that connection and power done for us?

  • Ask any New Yorker about pedestrians with poor sidewalk etiquette, drifting, stopping suddenly, not watching where they’re going, people exiting subway stations slowly as they check their phones, etc. The pride New Yorkers took in their ability to navigate crowded sidewalks seems gone.

  • GPS has been sending trucks to incorrect or inappropriate destinations for years, with drivers blindly following until hilarity ensues. There are even reporting mechanisms for people to try to influence the god of traffic routing.

  • Dining out takes longer now, and the smartphone is to blame.

  • Uber/Lyft drivers are driving like drunk drivers - like pedestrians, they weave, drift, slow down and generally behave erratically as they search for an address or drop-off point. Being a passenger is sometimes terrifying, and riding a bike near them is often dangerous.

Of course its not all bad. Certainly having eyes and ears all over now has had a positive effect on crime and emergency response. Also, as a parent, being able to know my child’s whereabouts and safely get them across town when the subway isn’t convenient, all from the comfort of my couch, has been a huge boon. 

I think we’re still at an early stage of understanding what the effects are at an individual as well as societal level. App and device makers are aware of the dangerously addictive (and crude) mechanisms they’ve used to hook users. Like a lot of new methods, “gamification” seemed like a great way to create engaged users a few years ago, but few thought of how all these would add up to people disengaging with the physical world. Perhaps we’re just not built to handle these devices, but more likely, we haven’t built devices for us.