Can a Smart Phone Make You More Patient?: "
On your way to meet a colleague, you get stuck in traffic. Radio traffic reports tell you it's a ten-minute backup. You can spend ten minutes inching forward, or you cut out and take a circuitous route that will add 15 minutes to your drive, but it'll be 15 minutes in which you're moving. Which do you you choose?
The logical answer, the rational economist's answer, is to spend ten minutes inching forward since it will take you less time to get where you're going. But if you're like me, you'd rather spend fifteen minutes actually driving than ten minutes staring at a bumper in front of you. It doesn't really make sense that I'd voluntarily choose to take longer to get where I'm going, but it's also proof of what I consider one of my personal failings: a severe lack of patience.
Lucky for me, then, that I have an iPhone, the impatient person's best friend. Just two years ago, I found myself tapping my foot or tugging at my hair during traffic jams or any of life's little waiting games. Bank queues. Lines for the bathroom. The wasted minutes at the start of meetings waiting for everyone to arrive.
Today, my iPhone (any smart phone will do; I happen to own the iPhone) rescues me from all these micro-delays. A traffic jam becomes time to listen to a podcast. I check Twitter during a bank line-up. I can check Facebook while waiting for the loo and I can do email at the beginning of meetings.
Delays that would formerly have driven me into a frenzy pass very happily now. And if you're looking at measurable outcomes — my willingness to wait for a delayed colleague, the courtesy with which I (finally!) greet the bank teller, the number of hairs left on my head when traffic finally starts moving — then Alex-with-iPhone looks a lot like Alex-with-patience.
But it's not, really. Patience isn't just about measurable outcomes. Patience is an internal state. It's the ability to be present with the thoughts, emotions and anxieties in a vacant moment. It connects us with the inner voice that gets drowned out by the constant background noise of phone calls, e-mail and TV. And it's important. Being truly patient helps us improve and solve problems. In patient moments, we suddenly see the solution to an engineering problem, or come up with that tag line for an ad campaign. We think about telling the boss what we really think — and find a constructive way to do just that. We may realize that we've gone off-track and think of ways to get back on track.
Some people find this patience through exercise, meditation, church or other spiritual practices. Others — especially those of us attached to our smart phones — do whatever we can to avoid these moments and prevent them from finding us.
In fact, far from fostering patience, my now-reflexive reach for the iPhone is an evasive action, a way to avoid reflection. On the rare occasion when my iPhone runs out of juice (I've got a backup battery. What, you don't?) or actually breaks (I've got a spare phone. What, you don't?) I quickly rediscover that I'm still that impatient person spending extra time driving around traffic. My intolerance for waiting, for quiet, for nothingness is still there and I'm forced to recognize that my iPhone isn't 16 gigabytes' worth of patience: it's 16 GB of distraction.
So I thought the phone was good for my personal failing, but now I think that it's exacerbating it. The serendipitous gaps that used to be part of even the most hectic modern life can now be reduced to near zero. The emotional muscles stretched by those moments of emptiness — the ability to tune into one's self, to tolerate the anxieties that swim up, to even experience a moment of absolutely nothing — are quickly atrophied. We lose the inspirations and innovations that come from quiet, but we also escape uncomfortable, necessary questions that come from there, too. Am I doing meaningful work? Am I living with integrity? Am I happy? We keep them at bay, along with the possibilities that might arise from searching for real answers.
I still use my phone in those moments. And to the outside observer, compulsive smart phone users like me may look like the very picture of calm. With screens to fill our every waking moment, our lack of patience won't be betrayed by tapping feet or chewed nails.
But let's not kid ourselves: filling your time checking your phone doesn't make you more patient on the inside. Patience is a virtue. There's not an app for that.
Alexandra Samuel is the Director of the Social + Interactive Media Centre at Emily Carr University, and the co-founder of Social Signal, a Vancouver-based social media agency. You can follow Alex on Twitter as awsamuel or her blog at alexandrasamuel.com.