The rise of smartphone technology has transformed the world, putting instantaneous communication and all the resources of the internet into one portable object. But despite smartphones’ life-enhancing qualities, some also fear that cellular technology will facilitate shallow, surface-level relationships instead of in-depth connections with friends and family, and replace contemplation with “archiving,” the incessant documentation of the present. In his research for The Enhancing Life Project, Menahem Blondheim, Professor of Communications and Head of the Truman Institute at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel, is exploring the ways that some groups have sought to regulate the use of new media by their members.
What was the spark for the research you’re pursuing for the Enhancing Life Project? Are these new questions, or an extension of past research, or both?
When I embarked on this research, I thought the internet was receiving too much attention in the new realm of new media and that the really important change in the way people communicate is the cellular phone. Of course, cellular technology is more difficult to study because when you have the internet, you have content that can be analyzed. The cell phone doesn’t have content; it’s just a medium. But one way you can get at the effects of this medium is by studying its absence: abandoning the cell phone, what happens when you don’t have it.
I’m coming at this project with two very distinct perspectives. In the past, I did a lot of research on media history and my main theme was the telegraph, that like the phone—and unlike, say, the newspaper—was a mere carrier. But I also have experience outside academia. When digital started coming in, I left a tenure-track position and became an entrepreneur and executive in the high-tech industry. It was fascinating for me to move from the historian’s advantage of retrospective—knowing the end of the novel—to be in a place where something new was happening, where we could try to shape the future. So looking at the impact or meanings of technology is something I’ve been doing both academically and in the real world, both historically and in the present.
What does “enhancing life” mean for you? In what way will your project contribute to the enhancement of life?
This is again personal, but I don’t use a cell phone. It’s funny because I was one of the first to use a cell phone when they came into existence in the early 1990s, but now I’m a non-user—I stopped using a cell phone when I returned to academia. My notion was that being accessible all the time is problematic if I want to get back into academic research, which is a very individual endeavor.
This is connected to my notion of enhancing life and this project. In some sense I see the cell phone as the main problem for a full, real, internal life. In relationships, you can’t really be intimate with another individual because you’re exposed through your cell phone to the entire world, to anyone who might want to reach you. There’s this crazy thing about people sitting in a café and everyone talking on a cell phone and not to each other. The other side of the coin, though, is that cell phones do enhance life—dramatically. You’re always available and you’re always in contact. With your smartphone you can get all the information in the world whenever you want it. So it’s a dialectic between two notions of life enhancement: greater exposure and an expanded world balanced against better control of experiences and the potential of their being deeper and more meaningful.
What’s the most surprising or interesting challenge you’ve encountered so far in your Enhancing Life Project research?
We expect that addiction to the smartphone will be deep and very problematic. Ask a smoker, he’ll say, “I can stop anytime,” but if you try to stop, it’s much more difficult than you expect. The interesting and perhaps surprising experience with the cell phone is that it’s the opposite. We followed a group of teenagers who gave up their cell phones for a week. None of them believed they’d be able to complete the experiment. But they all did, and when they finally got their cell phones back, they all tried not to use it immediately. There were some strong and immediate compensations for not using the cell phone. They discovered other people next to them. They suddenly noticed views and sights and beauty that they were oblivious to when they were so involved with their cell phones.
What are the next steps for your research?
We’re going to look at different religious cultures to see different balances between media use and withdrawal. For example, the Mormons have the family evening in which cell phone use is forbidden. Or in Orthodox Judaism, you can’t use any electronic devices on the Sabbath. In certain sects in India, you enter a monastery and don’t have any media at all—you can’t write, you can’t read. We’re looking at different economies of use and non-use, and seeing how they work. The idea is that the more variety we have, the more deeply and clearly we can understand our options for the ways we regulate media use.
You don’t spend all of your time doing research and teaching! What’s your favorite place to travel, or the next place you’d like to go?
I’ve recently discovered Japan which has been a true revelation. But I’ve always wanted to go Africa, and this interest was rekindled for me because we are working on reviving African Studies at Hebrew University and this made me think about the places there I’d like to go—if to single out one, Namibia.