Citizenship and smartphones
By Mark Hurst • June 10, 2022

When I ride the New York City subway, I read books. Printed books. Pulling one out of my bag as the train leaves the station, I often notice that I’m the only person in view who isn’t plugged in – with face buried in screen, or nubs jammed into ear canals. Once in awhile I spot another rider holding a book, and I want to reach out: Hey. What are you reading? Any good? Look what I’ve got. But I stay quiet and try to turn my attention to the pages at hand.

I used to pull out my iPhone, I’ll admit. Years ago the situation was reversed: the subway used to be full of people reading books, newspapers, and magazines, or just sitting and watching the other passengers. I bought the first iPhone model shortly after it was released and was transfixed, for a time, by the possibilities. I remember reading the entire 450-page Civil War history, Bruce Catton’s This Hallowed Ground, on the iPhone screen. (Never again.)

To be fair, some of my fellow subway riders gazing at their screens these days are actually reading books. (No judgement: after all, here I am sending these words for you to read on a screen!) But from what I see on the screens lighting up on all sides of me on the train, glowing and blinking around me like a portable Times Square, the usual activity on these devices is not reading. What I see instead are social-media videos, addictive mobile games built with slot machine-inspired dark patterns, and once or twice, actual slot-machine apps – complete with three boxes with spinning icons, slowing to a stop (banana, cherry, lucky 7) before prompting the user to spin again.

Reading a printed book, rather than staring at a screen, feels like a small bit of resistance – though it’s not likely to change anything, as hardly anyone notices me, or anyone else, as they gaze, mesmerized, at the glowing rectangle in their hand.

Life on street level is beginning to look a lot like the subway. People walk down the sidewalk in New York while looking down at their phones, only occasionally glancing up to avoid other pedestrians. Even people who aren’t walking – doormen, police, pedestrians waiting to cross – stand reverently with heads bowed, as though praying to a luminescent god. In cars at stoplights, drivers hold their phone in front of the steering wheel for a few precious seconds before the light turns green. The city has ceased to be an environment, a destination, an aspiration – and instead has become an annoyance for people who would rather float in a frictionless, comforting cloud of pixels.

Reading is an antidote to all of this, at least for me. Picking up a printed book and entering into its world is a journey full of friction and challenge. The path is not via a screen, mediating and manipulating the experience. Instead I engage directly with the author’s thoughts, sometimes wrangling or even disagreeing, but almost always leaving with an enriched, broadened view of the world.

This came to mind as I read Jeff Deutsch’s new book In Praise of Good Bookstores, in which he writes about the act of reading (emphasis mine):

The ability to question our own beliefs, to dwell in uncertainty, empathy, or curiosity, to pursue knowledge, beauty, and meaning unstintingly, so that we might make our best attempt at understanding, and to continually put ourselves in spaces that will challenge, not just echo, our assumptions, is an act of citizenship as much as its own individual reward.

That phrase leapt out at me when I read it: “an act of citizenship.” Here is Deutsch writing an entire book on the role of the independent bookstore, and how it offers a vital experience for “the bookish thousands,” and then he slips in those words introducing yet another dimension. Reading books is not simply a rewarding experience for the reader, though it certainly is that. As an act of citizenship, reading also becomes a duty, a service, a privilege for a responsible member of the community. (Jeff was my Techtonic guest on May 30, and I recommend listening to him: see playlist, stream the interview, or get the episode as a podcast.)

Does this sound old-fashioned, talking about citizenship in a tech newsletter? Recent events in this country have me wondering if we shouldn’t be talking about citizenship more. At least more than we talk about pixels, platforms, updates, algorithms, and billionaires – and all of the other day-to-day concerns trumpeted in the tech media.

In a recent Techtonic episode called “Buffalo and Big Tech,” I sketched out the links between Big Tech business models and the racist massacre in a Buffalo supermarket. (See playlist, listen by streaming the show, or download it as a podcast episode.) My point, which I’ve repeated for years, is that publishers like Facebook and Google make money by pumping toxic sludge into our communities – and face no liability, due to the insane exemption known as Section 230. As Rashad Robinson, president of Color of Change, posted: “This isn’t about freedom of speech, it’s about what folks are willing to profit from and amplify.”

Then Uvalde happened.

I’ve been wondering: What trajectory is our country on? Do we know what citizenship means, what it requires? Do we know how to foster healthy communities, or have we given up? Is our answer just to try to forget, to ignore what’s happening, to relax into the numbing distractions of the smartphone screen? That’s certainly the outcome that the tech-elite seem have in mind, if you consider how the platforms are designed. Maximal, totalizing distraction from everyone and everything, except when you’re called to do something to benefit the company.

There’s a sickness in this country, a creeping sickness seeping through our communities. Technology has joined forces with money, and together they whisper this message: Forget it. Literally, forget what citizenship means. Forget that you have neighbors. Forget that you have history, tradition, wisdom, meaning. Don’t bother with a printed book – how will we know what you’re looking at? Don’t bother turning your phone off – how will we know where you are? Forget almost everything. Just don’t forget your phone.

As for me, I’m resisting. As Wendell Berry wrote in one of his Mad Farmer poems (which I read on-air last month):

When they want you to buy something
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know.
So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute.

I’ll be thinking of those words when I get on the subway today, holding a printed book.

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Until next time,


Mark Hurst, founder, Creative Good – see official announcement and join as a member
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