“The before times” is a common trope in science fiction. It describes a period in the past when “life as we know it” was fundamentally different than it is in the present: Before the nuclear apocalypse rendered entire continents uninhabitable, or before all humankind became subservient to artificial intelligence-powered overlords.

Nowadays, it’s easy to look back on certain real-world events – the COVID-19 pandemic, or the terrorist attacks on 9/11 – as demarking a huge transition point in world history. But the “before times” I sometimes long for was triggered by a different life-altering event: the advent of the smartphone.

Shortly after the first iPhone was introduced in 2007, and the Android version a year later, these devices became practically ubiquitous in the U.S. and other first world countries. My two sons, born in 1997 and 1999, were toddlers before the world changed, forever, but they have little memory of what life was like in “the before times.” Later-born members of our society – today’s toddlers, pre-teens, teenagers, and college students – have absolutely no idea what it was like to live in a world without smartphones.

We Boomers do.

Wait, don’t stop reading. This is not a lecture bemoaning today’s self-absorbed youth for spending every waking moment either doomscrolling or playing mindless video games. I very much appreciate how incredible – miraculous, really – are these technological devices and the internet-based platforms they access. Each of us carries in our pockets the world’s repositories of art, history, science, and human knowledge. Also, the ability to broadcast our own faces and voices, or whatever appears in our field of vision, live, worldwide, at any time. Truly incredible.

But there is a price. We no longer live in the current moment, giving undivided attention to the people, places, and things in our immediate vicinity. Next time you’re in any public setting, look around and notice how many people standing side-by-side, or seated at the same counter, bench, or table, are gazing down silently at their cellphones. Each in his or her own world, detached from the physical world they’re inhabiting.

Today is the age of constant distraction. Throughout our waking hours, we’re bombarded by thousands of videos, photos, sounds, and text – each vying to capture our eyeballs and ears. Our brains have grown addicted, literally, to the dopamine rush they get when we hear that woosh, or ping, or see the pop-up icon telling us there is something new and shiny to cast our gaze upon.

Life in the before times was different, and, and in one significant respect, better. We were not all constantly distracted by multiple simultaneous stimuli – three or five conversations with friends and acquaintances across the globe, checking the current sports scores or stock market numbers, incoming emails, text messages, Instagram posts, and “breaking news,” hyper-pitched political gossip, etc.

The before times were slower paced, simpler, and much less stressful. We all lived more in tune with “the here and now.”

Don’t believe me? OK, try this: at the end of this week, notify all your regular digital contacts that you can’t be reached until Monday morning at 9 a.m. Then, Friday at 5 p.m. TURN OFF YOUR PHONE. Power it down, completely. Put it in a drawer, out of sight. Do not carry it with you.

Then, spend two full days living in the before times.

At first you’ll feel agitated and uncomfortable, as withdrawal from habituated dopamine fixes is quite real. That uneasiness may continue on Saturday morning and into the early afternoon. But, by late afternoon on Saturday, you’ll begin experiencing what life was like in the before times. (Truth be told, it will take longer than a single weekend to restore your body’s natural rhythms). After a good night’s sleep, you’ll likely enjoy more undistracted living all day and night on Sunday.

Monday morning, after breakfast, turn your smartphone back on, and you’ll see – believe it or not – that the world went on just fine despite your absence from the constant exchange of messages, etc. You had an entire weekend living in the here-and-now, and no one lost a limb.


I’m not advocating that we, as a society, abandon our smartphones. They are very much worth having.

But make no mistake: this technological wonder tool has side effects on our quality of life. Serious ones. Just ask any mental health professional.

Some rules for sensible living remain constant over time, regardless of the prevailing technology: Everything in moderation. Slow down. Breathe deeply. Take time to smell the roses.

No one is expecting you to respond to every “ping” immediately. Or, perhaps, ever.

Little by little, we can all take control away of our AI overlords, and enjoy brief visits to the before times.

Steve Zansberg is a media lawyer in Denver.

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Steve Zansberg is a media lawyer in Denver.