Everyone is glued to their phone, absorbed in their little screens they become oblivious to what goes on around them. I must admit that this bothers me as much as it amazes me. What is so interesting there, that they rather stare at it then engage with the rest of the world? Why do they want to escape into a digital whirlpool all on their own? A common way of explaining this phenomenon is to focus on the functionality of the apps in the phone, how they tap into our subconscious and turn us into addicts, working along the same parameters as slot machines, making it almost impossible to put the phone down because it might just have something for me. A message perhaps. In this way the phone is tricky. It wants something from me, namely my attention, but it also brings me gifts. A hammer, for instance, does not want anything from me. I pick it up when I need it and the rest of the time it just lies where it lies, peacefully, not bothering anyone. It is indeed constructed for a certain purpose so in that sense it is not fully objective, not fully innocent, but it only comes alive when I decide to use it. And I use it, it does not use me. My phone on the other hand wants me to engage with it even when I am not thinking about it, simply because engagement with the apps is what brings revenue to its owners and shareholders. It craves my attention and influences my behaviour.
This explanation makes sense, but does it get to the root of the problem? A simple solution would then be to take the phone away, by force if necessary, but would that solve the issue? What if the phone is just a symptom, not the disease itself. According to Pascal we seek diversion to avoid having to deal with our own emptiness. Sitting alone in a room and considering one’s own existence is so troubling that we do whatever it takes to take our minds off it: “… if you deprive them of their diversions you will see them dried up with boredom. That is when they will feel their nothingness, though without realising that that is what is going on”, he writes. And it is the diversion itself, the chase, which we seek, not the prey. Give the hunter a rabbit and he will refuse it, he wants the hunt, which is the only thing that can take his mind away from himself. The phone, then, is just another diversion, but an expert one, the best we have ever invented. Of course we will seek the best diversion when we seek diversion, but it would be wrong to blame it for something which is part of the human condition and which Pascal identified almost 400 years ago.
Man has a problem with himself since he is not enough for himself. The need for diversion is not strange; it would be rarer to sit alone in a room and be indefinitely happy with our own company. We seek diversion in game and sports but also in other people, and today we often find them through our phones. They help us take us out of ourselves, to transcend our limited physical existence and make connections which reminds us of a metaphysical necessity: that nothing can exist in isolation; that relations, not things, is the fundamental property of the universe. Diversion and connection are not the same thing, however, and we often confuse them. Diversion can be a way to connect but we can just as well divert ourselves without making any connection at all: scrolling through Instagram or playing video games on our own, for instance, which just frames the loneliness and makes it more visible.
So diversion itself is not the problem, it is the lack of connection. Intuitively we sense that this lack is wrong, that a single atom is an impossibility, an abomination. But connection is more than just to sit in a room with other people. This can be just as bad as being alone, and we turn to diversion in order to break the lethargic spell. And why not, games and sports create a bond which we feel starts to slacken as soon as the game is over, and loneliness comes creeping up on us again, so we make plans. To meet again, to play again, to do something else. Blaming diversion, then, is no better than blaming the phone for what is a fundamental human condition. To be fair, Pascal also saw diversion as a consequence rather than the cause. For him, the underlying reason was that we cannot bear to look at our feeble selves, to ponder upon our own weaknesses and imminent dangers: inevitable sickness and death. But I would venture the idea that most people would prefer death to no connection. Death is understandable, it is natural; complete solitude is an abyss so incomprehensible and vertiginous that we would do anything to escape it. So we should not blame ourselves, as Pascal concluded, for seeking diversion or reaching for our phone. For him, the evil was that we think the hunt will make us happy. It seems to me that this mistake occurs when we confuse diversion with connection and fail to realise what it is we really seek. Comfort and convenience mixed with fear makes us grab our phone which is always reassuringly waiting for us, rather than look up and risk finding that there is nobody there.