Georgia’s law represents a profoundly different strategy than what smartphone critics usually suggest. Appeals to minimize phone-checking typically amount to counter-terrorism techniques conducted against the designers of attention-grabbing devices and apps. The tech-mindfulness guru Tristan Harris has recommended turning your smartphone screen to grayscale to make it less compelling. Others suggest suppressing notifications, keeping phones off of nightstands, or using screen-time-management features like the ones Apple and Google are rolling out. Deleting social apps is another popular tactic, along with scheduling time away from the device entirely—Sherry Turkle urges people to forego devices during the holidays.
But all of these techniques put the burden of rebuffing the smartphone on the individual user. They require considerable effort to go against the grain of typical use, and produce limited results. Overall, people remain mated to their devices. The grayscaler and the time-manager are outliers in the herd of normals.
Laws— good or bad—are able to upend the tyranny of individual choice and impose collective action from the outside. And bureaucracy helps bolster the efficacy of upstart laws by building a bulwark to protect their arbitrariness. (These features can also make legislative intervention dangerous, although the democratic process is meant to protect people from that oppression.)
When people talk about the civic impact of smartphones, or Facebook, or anything else, these tools tend to get portrayed as technological narcotics, devices and services so compelling that people can’t help but use them, even if it is not in their best interest to do so.
But it’s also too easy to romanticize life before the smartphone. Sitting there in my car at Piedmont and Monroe, staring at the gas station, I thought of the photographer Stephen Shore’s famous image of a Chevron at the corner of Beverly and La Brea in Los Angeles. Stripped from the urge to look at my phone, I briefly fancied that I was seeing the world close and in detail, like Shore did—like I once did, and might yet again.
But really, that’s just a fantasy. Eschewing my smartphone didn’t make me feel more present or less wicked. It didn’t inspire more conversation with the passengers in my vehicle. It might have made me a slightly safer driver, but it didn’t really make me a better person. What did people do at traffic lights before the iPhone? They sat there, zoned out, daydreamed, worried—often no more engaged with the world around them than today’s drivers. There was even a time when people worried about highway hypnosis, the tendency for smooth, uninterrupted freeways to lull drivers to their doom.
Smartphones aren’t really narcotics. They are just habits. People use them a lot. Too much, maybe, and sometimes in ways that they’d prefer not to. If we really do want to change that behavior, those shifts need to be institutionalized at very large scales, not via app tweaks or mindfulness exercises. If smartphones are indeed a social concern, bureaucracy offers one way to break the back of their compulsion.