The Smartphone Nation and its President-Elect

The media have spent the last two months wringing their hands over how badly they mis-predicted the outcome of the 2016 presidential election. They had sought out thorough data and reviewed it carefully; analyzed policy positions against demographic and social trends; accounted for socio-economic, racial, educational, and other factors; and missed by more than 34 electoral votes.

Why? Why did all this research, study, and analysis miss so badly? Because the electorate didn’t do any of that. We elected the president we did because we’re a nation of smartphone products. You read it right: we are the products of our smartphones, not the other way around. The election results reflect it—and the President-Elect reflects it. 

We are selfish. We want what we want, and thanks to our smartphones, we don’t have to share.  When we were kids we had to watch what the family was watching on the 19-inch black-and-white (actually light-green-and-dark-green) TV, or we could go eat worms. Now my kids sit and watch what they want to watch on their private screens. There is no compromising, negotiating, or acquiescing to a majority.  There is (and I’m directly quoting one of my own kids) “Just give me what I want!” And this spills over to not caring about the underserved and infirm. That’s their problem; just don’t raise my taxes. And so it doesn’t seem strange to elect a selfish man.

We are impatient. We want what we want NOW! Waiting more than a couple of seconds for a webpage or an app to load is unacceptable and frustrating to the smartphone nation.  It’s a deadly epidemic of tl;dr. Because of this we are losing the ability to delay gratification.  We’re all becoming the kids who ate the marshmallow—a whole nation of them. What happened to those kids anyway? And so it doesn’t seem strange to elect an impatient man.

We cannot focus. Smartphone apps and mobile friendly webpages are designed for short attention spans and for sucking us into a trail of hyperlinks to keep us from realizing how much time we’re wasting on so little value. It’s hard for me to read a real book. Growing up when I would read I would find myself drifting away from the text. I would have to backtrack, reengage and continue. Now I drift away, and immediately reach for my smartphone, because surely it has something to keep my attention, and then something else, and then something else, ad infinitum. Vines and Twitter are the quintessence of this malady.

Worse still, we can’t maintain a conversation without at best referring to our smartphones, and at worst simply tuning out people who are talking to browse our smartphones. With this we lose the capacity to develop deep relationships that give meaning to life. And so it doesn’t seem strange to elect man who cannot focus.

We are ego-centric. Our smartphones are always there to serve us, and they do a great job (of giving us dopamine shots to the brain—they do very little for us that actually makes us better or brings us real joy). Our worlds close down to: what we want and how our smartphones will get it for us. Social media feeds this. Ironically, “connecting” with others becomes more about us, our perceived and projected status, and our success relative to people we should be happy for.

And the “likes”! Oy! My kids count their likes, not only in total, but in velocity. “I got 65 likes in the first 25 minutes!” I’m ashamed to admit that a large part of the reason I pulled back so drastically on Facebook is because I felt I was being ignored, that I wasn’t getting enough likes on stuff I felt was important. And I hated thinking of myself like that, so I decided to dial it way back. This isn’t a normal “social” interaction. It’s as though our world only exists as our smartphone presents it to us. And so it doesn’t seem strange to elect an ego-centric man.

We are entitled. Millennials entering the workforce are earning a reputation for rejecting the need to build up competence before being promoted. They feel as though the world owes them what they want. And why not? Our smartphones give us the best of everything as soon as we want it.  The OS is “user-friendly” (even when the world is not), and Google will give you everything (even when the world makes you earn it). Our smartphones are doing us a disservice, because the working world and most other spheres will not change their requirements that we be competent enough to earn want we want. But that doesn’t stop us from being brainwashed by our smartphones into thinking we should get everything everyone else has–now. And so it doesn’t seem strange to elect an entitled man.

We love drama, even when—perhaps especially when—it has no impact on our real lives. Our smartphones are an acceleration of reality TV. In making reality TV programs, producers will select the most controversial people, encourage them to be jerks, put them in situations where emotions will spill over, and film it. Now, in real life, the ubiquitous cameraphone catches all such instances (often of good people at their worst) and share them with the world, and too frequently without showing how the problem was resolved, without showing the helpers Mr. Rogers encouraged us to look for. The drama is spoon-fed to us, video after automatically starting video; salacious story after tragic story. And so it doesn’t seem strange to elect a man who fabricates drama. (Look at his cabinet picks; it looks like Big Brother meets Jackass. What, no Omarosa? Yet! I’m hoping to see her in a deputy undersecretary of something role.)

We love our confirmation bias. We limit our “news” sources to what doesn’t offend us, to the people who know what they’re talking about, to the ones who agree with us. This is called confirmation bias. We are biased toward providers of information that confirm what we already think. Smartphones customize this to a degree where we never again have to be offended by a well-reasoned opposing opinion, or (even worse) facts and statistics. Smartphones can customize our information intake to the point where we might actually believe we have all the information we need, and it coincidentally all agrees with what we already know.

This is what propagates fake news. We all see it, and sometimes we like what it says and want to believe it. And so we swallow the bait, the hook, the line, and the sinker, because it doesn’t hurt to do it. In fact, it makes us feel better, because it tells us we were right all along. The pain comes afterward, slowly and diffused, as the culture becomes more jaded and gullible at the same time, at its core more stupid.

But it not only propagates fake news; it propagates racism, jingoism, and a hundred other -isms that rot the world from the inside. And so it doesn’t seem strange to elect a man who feeds the confirmation bias of so many.

We love fantasy. We consume media chock full of aliens, superheroes, vampires, zombies, wizards, etc. while movies like Fences get an artistic nod and a paltry box. We also want to believe that the steel industry can be brought back, that we can win a trade war, and that Mexico will pay for a wall. And so it doesn’t seem strange to elect a man who trades in fantasy.

We elected the President we deserve, a President who represents the worst products of a smartphone nation—our own addled minds and souls.


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