Are smartphones and tablets turning us into sissies?

By Rob Walker

In an oversharing moment at the TED conference last week, Google co-founder Sergey Brin confessed to finding his smartphone “emasculating.” You know about this, because the remark had the whole Internet aflutter, possibly because Brin himself looks so macho these days: fit, tousle-haired and evidently in possession of Ben Affleck’s recently abandoned beard. Throw in the Terminator-esque Google Glass that Brin says will remasculate the masses, and he seemed poised to annihilate us all. (By comparison, here’s what Brin looked like pre-Glass.)

Lulz ensued, of course. But if you set aside Brin’s surprising word choice and dubious eyewear, he’s getting at something that’s worth taking seriously. More and more of us are drifting away from PCs and laptops, and toward mobile, touch-screen devices. The benefits for consumers are clear enough, but what about the downsides?

One answer turns very specifically on that word choice: “consumers.” Sue Gardner, executive director of the Wikimedia Foundation, observed in a recent interview on the Australian radio show "Future Tense" that Wikipedia participants who transition to tablet devices seem to contribute less as a result, because those devices “are better for watching videos and surfing the internet than for typing text.”

Her real point was that this is not just a problem for Wikipedia, it’s also a potentially profound shift in how to think about what the Internet is for. Instead of being a place where all sorts of people create all sorts of things for all sorts of audiences, Gardner continued, “I think increasingly what's happening is, partly as a result of the kinds of devices that are being manufactured and that people are buying, people are moving toward a more consumption-based Internet experience from a production-based experience.”

Setting aside the cheap jokes about Brin and the art of manliness—mostly because I can’t think of any more—maybe these consumption-friendlier objects do emasculate, or “make (a person) weaker or less effective” (to quote the top definition of the word that, um, Google kicked in my face). I now travel with an iPad instead of a laptop, and even when I bring a keyboard attachment, I definitely produce less. Beyond answering vital email and poking out a few “likes” on one or another social network, it’s just much easier to watch something on Netflix, or catch up with whatever I’ve stashed in Instapaper.

Now, to offer an important but unfashionable caveat, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with consuming the Internet, as it were. There’s lots of great stuff out there. If it weren’t for the Internet, it’s unlikely I’d be able to enjoy Australian radio shows, for instance. And you wouldn’t be reading this column right now.

But Gardner’s point is a useful one for me to cite in my first column for Yahoo News. It’s a daunting thing to show up in 2013 and announce: “I am writing about technology.” I mean, who isn’t? So first I should clarify that I’m interested in the digital world and the objects we use to access it, but also in physical technologies from crowd-funded drones to anti-surveillance hoodies, from weird new materials to tiny iPad-cleaning robots.

That said, what I won’t be doing is joining the race to post images of and quote press releases for the latest gizmo. To me, what’s really interesting about technology isn’t technology—it’s what people choose to do with technology, for better and for worse. Perhaps it’s quaint to say so, but I’m a fan of human agency. And although I think Gardner’s concern should be taken seriously, I’m optimistic that I’ll have plenty to write about.

That brings us back to Google Glass: While I can see how it might impact “what you’re meant to do with your body,” as Brin put it, it’s less clear to me how it improves what you can do with your mind. Evidently you’re supposed to use it to display information and record “lifebits.” 

OK, but personally I can’t wait until people start figuring out not what they’re supposed to do with this technology, but what they can do. Google Glass, you could say, will be a lot more interesting once clever people emasculate it.