The Truth is Not on Our Phones

The recent wave of stories about writers who are afraid of Artificial Intelligence is reminiscent of the way writers were once afraid of eBooks. Alarmists heralded eBooks as the end of print books. Then, look at what happened! Writers today want to have their books available both in print and as eBooks. Soon A-I will not be a technology to fear, but a powerful tool for writers to harness. With rapid changes in technology, many writers fear disruptive technology until its usage becomes as commonplace as the way we now rely on our cellphones.

Ironically it is when a new technology becomes mainstream that the real danger begins. Writers, in particular, need to take heed that cellphones are responsible for our diminishing desire to read books. People don’t make the time to read books because they spend the bulk of their time scanning their cellphones. And we can bet, with very few exceptions, most people are not reading books on their phones.

Think about how much time we spend on our phones. “Is it charged?” we constantly wonder. “Where is my phone?” we always ask. Without our phones in our hands, we have no way to pass the time. And we revel in the digital feeds that are dished up by algorithms that pretend to know us better than we know ourselves.

We hold our phones close to our hearts with the reverence usually reserved for a spouse or a child. Our phones are our best friends. We take our phones to the bathroom, and keep them nearby while we eat and sleep. We pull our phones out of our pockets as if they are weapons: a gun, a sword or a freshly sharpened machete. People walk through crowds reading their phones, pretending they do not see anyone while they are playing games, reading about celebrities, checking news, and compulsively scanning spam to see if they missed anything really important.

We spend at least five hours a day on our phones—and that is a conservative estimate. Ten hours a day of screen time is not unusual. The world supports our obsession. The New York Times tags each of its articles by the average amount of time it takes to read. A five-minute read. A four-minute read. We avoid any article that takes over six minutes to read. 

The New York Times knows that we will rarely read an article that is longer than five minutes. There are exceptions, however; the algorithms know of the singular oddities that strike our curiosity. For example, I secretly like to read about Tom Brady and Tom Ford because I have a fan crush on them both. I know all the details about the two Toms from sixteen articles that each took me an average of eight minutes to read. The New York Times has shared my crush with countless other technology platforms and advertisers. The two Toms follow me everywhere I go, and it is not because they love me. 

The first time I saw a cellphone was in 1993. A Hollywood producer was in a meeting with a film director outdoors on the top of Queen Anne Hill in Seattle. The producer was short and pretentious, but his phone was as big as a brick. By 2000 cellphones were increasingly de rigueur—not only in the film business—in every form of business. And today we live in a world where not having a cellphone is freakish enough to suspect that person of being a serial killer. 

Our phones are the gateway to so much information. We are swamped with information, but the problem is we have so little time to filter what is true from what is not true. Too much information and too little time robs us of the ability to discern the truth. Knowing the truth means that we must use our minds to think. In any interaction we have with a white screen, especially with a phone, we are passive recipients of a digital experience. And we become mindless blobs. 

What we don’t fully embrace is that our phones are robbing us of our ability to think. And if we can’t think, we will never be able to know the truth about anything. This might be a bit of a shock, but the truth is not on our phones. 

So, how do we find the truth? Let’s start with reading books. I can hear the groaning. “Reading is a waste of time,” we say. “It has nothing to do with getting a job. Why read when we could be on our phone?”

Most people do not read very much. * Fewer and fewer people read books and instead prefer the digital dribble pouring from their phones. Unbelievable as it sounds, there are writers who do not read. One aspiring writer recently asked me: “Just because I want to be a writer, does that mean I have to read a lot?”

Read. Yes, read. Last Saturday as I cruised through a farmer’s market where a local author was selling his books, he did not try to tell me what his book was about. Instead he asked, “Are you a reader?” as if there are two different species among human beings, readers and non-readers. 

Everyone should read books, exploring both fiction and nonfiction. Everyone should have knowledge of history. It is only when we understand the patterns of what happened in the past that we can make wise decisions today. And sometimes the greatest truth can be found in fiction. But we will never find the truth in fiction or understand history unless we cut back our screen time and use that extra time to read books. 

How sad it is to be told to read when we have so little time. Keep the following truth in mind: without reading books, the growth of our minds is not possible. The brain is a muscle the same as the moving parts in the rest of the body. An unexercised body invites fat, flab and spikes in risk factors for disease. The brain is no different. An unexercised brain invites atrophy, stupidity, and conspiracy theories. Reading books is one of the few activities that uses both sides of our brain—the precise interaction between the two halves of our brain is what stimulates critical thinking and creativity.

Reading books might not be possible within the time constraints of our current jobs or the demands of our lifestyles. But if we are not afforded the time to exercise our minds, then maybe it’s time to reevaluate the demands made on our lives, especially if one of those demands is self-imposed by our unhealthy dependence on our cell phones. There are a few preventive measures we can take to reduce our screen time. 

We need to surround ourselves with smart people, a guide or two or several, to help us navigate the outer parameters of the way we think and what we think about. A guide can be a friend, a teacher, a librarian, a truck driver, a gas station attendant, anyone who recognizes that life is about learning and that a keen mind is in a constant state of evolution. A guide is driven to pursue excellence and has the same expectations of us. A guide can’t be intimidated by cultural shifts or what is trending on social media. Our guides have always kept their wits when the whole world has lost their mind. And we trust our guides because they have always spoken the truth. 

Weigh new learnings according to the patterns we have observed in the past. Our experience in life rules. The weight of common sense prevails. No one who is a true student of life thinks he knows everything. Last week a thirty-something marketing executive told me that we didn’t need librarians, nor did we need books. He said, “we need good ideas, a marketing strategy and a return on investment.” A world without books is unthinkable, no pun intended. If we go by experience, here is the truth: the world will always be full of books and the people who read them.

Take uninterrupted time to think, to synthesize new learnings with what we have learned in the past. It is only through quiet reflection that we can begin to recognize the truth. So often when I’m in a crowd on a train or waiting in line, I see everyone on their phone, and I wonder why we have lost the ability to use that time—just to think. I know I’m not original or clever, or even funny. I meant to write about education and how education doesn’t end when we get out of school, but I didn’t want to lose anyone at the get-go. Instead, I found myself writing about how we can better discern the truth when there is too much information and never enough time. 

Editor’s Note:

*Americans Reading Fewer Books Than in Past –Gallup January 10, 2022

  • Average number of books read down to 12.6 from 15.6 in 2016
  • Percentage reading any books is stable; fewer are reading more than 10
  • College graduates show largest decline in number of books read

Patricia Vaccarino

Patricia Vaccarino is an accomplished writer who has written award-winning film scripts, press materials, articles, essays, speeches, web content, marketing collateral, and ten books.

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