Real Strategists Don’t Use Smartphones

*Note: This essay was originally published on the Modern War Institute’s Commentary & Analysis site.

Smartphones: the strategist’s most insidious insider threat.

Strategists are knowledge workers; attention is their scarce, sparse, spendable resource. Smartphones, and other mobile, ever-present, internet-linked devices, hijack human attention at the speed of “click.” These performance-degrading, digital dealers of info-dopamine consume the mind and deny the focus, rendering the hapless victim’s attention span lower than that of a goldfish. And devices for staying connected often ironically result in disconnecting users from their own judgment, which is the fundamental problem: smartphones obstruct strategists from “deep work.”

When your mind is your weapon, concentration matters. Just as great athletes don’t smoke as not to inhibit their lungs, great strategists don’t use smartphones as not to inhibit their minds.

Cal Newport, in his book, Deep Work, defines this title concept as “professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.” This is precisely what strategists provide. For strategists, engaged in deep work means writing, means reading, means thinking. When your mind is your weapon, concentration matters. Just as great athletes don’t smoke as not to inhibit their lungs, great strategists don’t use smartphones as not to inhibit their minds.

Craftsmen choose their tools wisely. Here are 10 reasons why strategists ought to exercise the moral courage to ditch these self-lobotomizers:

  1. Smartphone use means constant multitasking; multitasking is not possible.
  2. Google cannot provide a Theory of Victory (if use x resource, then achieve y outcome). Bing is even less likely.
  3. Strategists do not spend thousands and thousands of precious mental moments Tweeting. Just as nobody will Tweet the revolution, nobody will Tweet a war winning strategy.
  4. Sharp tools; dull minds: over-reliance on technology lapses into complacency.
  5. Smartphones infantilize one’s sense of direction. Clausewitz considered terrain sense a part of military genius. Google Maps denies this skill’s practice.
  6. Smartphones deliver information, never knowledge or wisdom.
  7. Smartphone connectivity provides external networking at the cost of internal insights. The former can be accomplished with alternate means, the latter can never be replaced.
  8. Strategists practice the strategic arts in human affairs, and therefore must be masters of the interpersonal. Smartphones block sincere, eye-to-eye, human engagement.
  9. War is unending boredom punctuated by intense bouts of violence. As such, managing boredom impacts preparedness for combat, while smartphones prevent boredom through digital escapism. You cannot develop a “fingertip feel” for the battlefield if your finger never leaves a glass screen.
  10. No smartphones were consulted or harmed in the making of this essay; this list was entirely conceived in pen and ink.

BONUS: This goes for general officers as well; the best thing you could do for that flag officer in your life is to execute that Blackberry with extreme prejudice. Ironically, trading up to a “dumbphone” might be the smartest decision you’ll ever make.

 

 

 

Author: ML Cavanaugh

Unequal parts strategist, assistant professor, wordsmith, runner, wine-o, reader, philosopher of firepower, and hopeless lover of three ladies named Rachel, Grace, and Georgie.

6 thoughts on “Real Strategists Don’t Use Smartphones”

  1. “Nobody will Tweet the revolution,” huh? Did you forget the entire Arab spring? Daesh’s current PR and recruiting efforts? To ignore this is to misunderstand the threat entirely.

    It’s possible to cultivate Deep Work without slipping into luddism.

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  2. Seriously? While I can appreciate the need for concentration and discipline in thought when deep thinking is required, blaming only smartphones for distraction is anachronistic and misguided. After all, one simply needs to turn off the smartphone or blackberry to turn off the distraction. C’mon, Grandpa Cavanaugh, adapt to the times.

    In today’s culture of communication, where international diplomacy is conducted in less than 149 characters, where social revolutions are started and guided on Facebook, where terrorist propaganda and counter-propaganda campaigns are waged to win hearts and minds over the interwebs, where smartphones are used to call for fire, navigate, and the like, a strategist who shuns connectivity and at-your-fingertips knowledge will lack situational awareness and waste an inordinate amount of time.

    Making the “great athletes don’t smoke” comparison is a slippery slope, because so many of our “strategists” smoke and drink and subject themselves and heir minds to so many other things that are distractions. What, should strategists not watch TV? Not listen to the radio? Not read newspapers and journals? Not read email?

    Communication happens more quickly today than ever before. Discarding key communication tools because they can be distracting is silly, especially when one can control use of the device through a little self-discipline. Not using a smartphone because it can be distracting would be like not drinking alcohol simply because it can make you drunk.

    The author’s comments about the evils of smartphones suggest a disconnect with reality. Interpersonal communication is no longer about direct, eye-to-eye, face-to-face conversation. It’s about right now communication with contacts around the world. Smartphones enable this, and it’s a good thing.

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  3. “Strategists do not spend thousands and thousands of precious mental moments Tweeting. Just as nobody will Tweet the revolution, nobody will Tweet a war winning strategy.”

    “A U.S. Army strategist… He looks forward to connecting with you via Twitter at @MLCavanaugh…”

    Like

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