The new portable homeland

September 2017
by Ben Shragge


Poet Heinrich Heine called the Bible the portable homeland of the Jewish people.

Today, the portable homeland of the isolated individual is the smartphone. There, in your pocket, behind a big, beautiful wall (i.e., lock screen), is a private kingdom. Within it are your customized community (contacts and social media), national gallery (photos and videos), means of self-government (calendar and reminders), and army of apps for taking on the world (weather reports, maps, and the arsenal that is the app store).

We make ever greater escapes to our portable homeland: not just while standing in line, but while crossing the street; not just while sitting on the subway, but while driving; not just while waiting for a friend, but while a friend is speaking. Reality, with its delayed gratifications and closed-off, flesh-and-blood profiles, has become a place of exile. We’re physically here, but our minds, then quickly our fingers, are reaching for mobile Zion.

There’s a park by my apartment with big, welcoming Adirondack chairs. I see people sit down with a book, begin to read, then, inevitably, put the book down and reach for their smartphone. Sometimes they’ll place their phone on the pages, as if to tell themselves that they’ll come back to the book eventually. I observe them judgmentally, then, inevitably, do the same thing. The book is closed and forgotten.

Neuroscientist Daniel Levitin writes that “the prefrontal cortex has a novelty bias.” Thus, “We answer the phone, look up something on the Internet, check our e-mail, send an SMS, and each of these things tweaks the novelty-seeking, reward-seeking centers of the brain, causing a burst of endogenous opioids . . . all to the detriment of our staying on task.” Reading a book requires sustained focus, but our brain’s addiction to shiny new things (beeps and unread alerts; the presentiment of beeps and unread alerts) draws us back into our new portable homeland.

It would be one thing if smartphones brought us true comfort and community, as the word “homeland” implies. But any comfort derived from them is fleeting. We get a hit of dopamine from responding to a text or getting a like. But when we fiddle with our phones, we multitask—i.e., shift from one task to another (check feed, refresh, respond, click like, glance up, answer question, switch app, repeat) in rapid succession. This constant attention-shifting and little decision-making (“should I/when do I/how do I reply?”) drains our mental energy and leaves us feeling exhausted, disoriented, and anxious: in Babel (“confusion”), not Zion. 

While we get some transient pleasure from Instabook notifications, a deeper satisfaction comes from reading and absorbing an actual book—or any such effort (writing, building, creating, learning) requiring the steady engagement that smartphones lure us away from. As Levitin writes, “It seems unlikely that anyone will look back at their lives with pride and say with satisfaction that they managed to send an extra thousand text messages or check social network updates a few hundred extra times while they were working.”

As far as community goes, journalist/blogger Andrew Sullivan observes that: “Truly being with another person means being experientially with them, picking up countless tiny signals from the eyes and voice and body language and context, and reacting, often unconsciously, to every nuance. . . . By rapidly substituting virtual reality for reality, we are diminishing the scope of this interaction even as we multiply the number of people with whom we interact.” A thousand Facebook friends isn’t a community; it’s a collection, a set of baseball cards updating you on their stats. Meanwhile, a 2015 Pew survey found that almost half of eighteen-to-twenty-nine-year-olds used their phones to “avoid others around you.”

I’m no stranger to my portable homeland. As I write these words, my eyes drift over to my phone alerting me that a corporation has become my follower. I admit I feel a second of . . . if not pride, then some shadow of a feeling that’s better than nothing. But then I set a recurring reminder that my true homeland is elsewhere.

Ben Shragge is the digital editor of the Hamilton Jewish News. He currently resides in Boston.