Sebastian Junger Never Owned a Smartphone (and Why This Matters)
Junger’s Radical Simplicity
Last November, journalist Sebastian Junger appeared on Joe Rogan’s podcast. The conversation lasted over two hours, but it was the first two minutes that caught my attention:
Joe: You have a real flip phone?
Sebastian: I do have real flip phone.
Joe: And you said you didn’t go back to it, you never left…
Sebastian: I never left her.
Joe: You never went, like, iPhone…Android…never?
Sebastian: No, I never even thought about it
Joe: There’s no draw at all? Using the internet, answering email?
Sebastian: Well, I have a laptop at home and I do access the internet, yes.
Joe: But when you’re out, you don’t want to mess with it?
Sebastian: No, when I’m out, I want to be out in the world. If you’re looking at your phone, you’re not in the world, so you don’t get either…I just look around at this — and I’m an anthropologist, and I’m interested in human behavior — and I look at the behavior, like literally, the physical behavior with people with smartphones and…it looks anti-social and unhappy and anxious, and I don’t want to look like that, and I don’t want to feel like how I think those people feel.
Joe: Wow, that’s deep. I’m a junkie.
In addition to being provocative, this exchange is important because it presents a cogent example of a new type of thinking I’m pleased to see gaining prominence in our cultural discussion surrounding technology.
From Materialism to Humanism
The last thirty years, in particular, have supported an ethic of techno-materialism, in which we assess the value of new technologies on the technologies’ own terms.
We need the Pentium because it’s faster than the 486. We need the latest retina display becomes the resolution is twice as sharp. We need to use Snapchat because 150 million people already do.
The problem with techno-materialism is that just because a new technology was better than the old, or did something new and interesting, didn’t mean that it made us happier.
Throughout this extended period of the Silicon Valley superhero, we kept ending up surprised to learn that faster, newer, more exciting technologies sometimes even made our lives feel worse.
In the above exchange, Sebastian Junger is implicitly promoting an alternative philosophy: techno-humanism. This philosophy* says that a new technology is only useful in so much that it makes our lives more meaningful and satisfying.
He would agree that the ability to connect with a vast network of people and information, through a high-speed digital radio link, delivered into a sliver of glass and silicon thinner than a deck of cards, is an amazing feat of technological wizardry. By the standards of techno-materialism, it’s a triumph!
But he doesn’t think these smartphones will make his human life richer. Indeed, based on his training as an anthropologist, and his recent (excellent) journalistic work on human sociality, he has reasons to fear that its net impact would be to make his less rich.
So he sticks with the flip phone. Apps be damned.
Examples of techno-humanism seem radical when first encountered, but I think more people are coming around to this philosophy’s self-evident logic.
* I’m somewhat wary to use the term “techno-humanism” because it has been co-opted, to some degree, by the transhumanists, who believe that humans will increasingly merge with technology until the point that we arrive at a transcendent singularity. The techno-humanism I’m talking about here is much more grounded and much less grandiose; it’s simply about prioritizing quality human experience over the self-referential benefits of the technological.