The Smartphone Is the Seductive, Destructive New Ruler of Morning

Is this really how we want to wake up?


In the beginning, there was dawn and a chorus of birds. There were other people: lovers, hungry toddlers, superiors who woke you to do your job, inferiors who woke you as part of theirs. Later came more public human interventions: professional knocker uppers, factory whistles, church bells, buglers playing reveille.

But since alarm clocks began mass production around the 1870s, a large proportion of Americans have been summoned into the morning by machine. The alarm clock—first mechanical, like the classic double-bell model that reigns in cartoons, then electric, and then ones that added a radio—became the first thing that many of us touched, or slapped, as we reemerged into consciousness.

Our morning machines have always been a means through which we try to subjugate the animal portions of our nature, the parts that tell us (quite logically) to sleep when sleepy and face the world when alert. In industrialized society, nearly all of us rely on alarms. Sleep researchers have found that 85 percent of people use an alarm clock to wake for work. Among people whose internal chronology naturally tends toward late nights and mornings—“owls,” as they’re sometimes called, as opposed to early-bird “larks”—they are even more universal.

Ten years ago, however, the morning machine began a fundamental transformation. The alarm clock had long been a feature of even the simplest mobile phones—my very first Nokia, in 2001, had this capability. But in 2007 Apple launched the first massively successful true smartphone, the iPhone: a phone in name, but in actuality a handheld computer. The alarm was built in. So was the news. So were your friends, and your family, and your work email. And it generally needed to be charged each night. What this added up to was a new presence on the bedside table—your alarm clock/mini-computer, tethered to the wall, and within reach of your hand so you could quickly punch “snooze.”

It’s almost stunning how much this single invention has transformed the domestic experience of morning. (72 percent of Americans owned smartphones as of last year, and growing; the rate is much higher, 92 percent, among 18-to-34-year-olds.) In the past, we swam up into consciousness of our own mood and daily cares, and of our bed partner or whimpering baby or the cat standing impatiently on our chest, perhaps with a gradual news assist from the radio. With smartphones, we are immediately conscious of everything.

Now the same intimate little object that wakes us up—a tool that for many has become almost an extension of our minds and bodies—offers a nearly immediate blast from the outside world. Of course, it only invades our morning routine if we let it. But a 2016 survey found that nearly 70 percent of British smartphone users look at their phones in their first half-hour awake. 33 percent admit they look within the first five minutes—and I suspect that some of the other two-thirds are lying.

Those who answer the smartphone’s call are hooked smoothly back into the informational matrix. A harsh note from our boss, a dumb or delightful thing said by a celebrity, the melting of the ice caps, a delay on the subway or a factory explosion on the other side of the world: It’s all there, more vivid than the fleeting scraps of dreams unique to our own particular brains. Just like that, we’re back in the group dream, or, depending on the moment, what sometimes feels like the group nightmare.

There is real utility to being able to survey the world from our beds. Our networked mornings mean we arrive at work or school already primed on the news, perhaps having dodged a traffic slowdown, the day’s tasks already in the top of our minds. The endless web, whatever tools you use to sort through it, can be a joy and a wonder, bringing sights and sounds to your little morning machine that would have been unimaginable a few years ago. (How amazing to lie in bed and watch live on your phone as a Soyuz drifts down to a plain in Kazakhstan, sardine-packed with astronauts fresh from the International Space Station—can your mechanical alarm clock do that?) As insomniacs and new parents know, too, there is something magical about an infinite light-up media source that you can control silently with one hand, without disturbing your partner.

Still, few smartphone owners, when we first walked out of the store with the gadget in hand, anticipated that it would change the very experience of coming to our senses each day. Nobody ticked the box on that term of service. The allure of connection, of constant new information and entertainment, is such that it takes real self-discipline to plug the phone in outside the bedroom at night, and go back to using an old-fashioned clock.

Since last month, for Americans, the temptation has grown even stronger. The whole country has fallen under the sway of one morning machine in particular—an aging, unsecured Android, which offers a predawn megaphone for an older man, living apart from his wife, who wakes early and alone. Self-discipline has never been his thing. When we wake, we grab hungrily for our phones to see what slogans, brash assertions, and fighting words have flowed into the network during our brief hours of private oblivion. It’s time to get up, it’s time to get up, it’s time to get up in the morning.

Read more from Awake, a blog about mornings.