So much for multi-tasking with a smartphone. Researchers at The University of Texas at Austin have found the following:
...that it didn’t matter whether a person’s smartphone was turned on or off, or whether it was lying face up or face down on a desk. Having a smartphone within sight or within easy reach reduces a person’s ability to focus and perform tasks because part of their brain is actively working to not pick up or use the phone..
We really are addicted to these things and they pretty much destroy our concentration.
The next time you are in a meeting look around the and see who has a smartphone in reach. Doesn’t matter if it’s in their hand or on the table. They aren’t actually engaged with the meeting. Even if they think they are.
Everybody’s phone needs to go into a basket when they enter the room.
Which of you, by being anxious, can add one moment to his lifespan? –Matthew 6:27, World English Bible.
But we seem to think we can worry ourselves into more likes on our Facebook pages. There is an experiment that is worth the attempt. Disconnect from all social media and electronic devices for a full day — leave your phone at home and go somewhere fun. Does even the thought of doing so make you anxious? If so, a television segment from the show 60 minutes (CBS News) might explain why.
The piece is titled What is “brain hacking”? And in it Anderson Cooper profiles how the tech industry appears to be attempting to use neuroscience to manipulate our physiology so we use their products.
Advertisers have been attempting to get in our heads for years. Most consumer marketing is about image and how our lives will be suddenly fulfilled and have meaning if I buy this or that. Very little of it is about actual product information. But Cooper captures something qualitatively different in a quote from Tristan Harris about children, social media and smartphones:
…there’s a narrative that, “Oh, I guess they’re just doing this like we used to gossip on the phone, but what this misses is that your telephone in the 1970s didn’t have a thousand engineers on the other side of the telephone who were redesigning it to work with other telephones and then updating the way your telephone worked every day to be more and more persuasive.
Except it’s not mere persuasion. Harris described the tech companies’ competition for our attention as a “race to the bottom of the brainstem.” And as psychologist Larry Rosen pointed out during the segment:
What we find is the typical person checks their phone every 15 minutes or less and half of the time they check their phone there is no alert, no notification. It’s coming from inside their head telling them, “Gee, I haven’t check in Facebook in a while. I haven’t checked on this Twitter feed for a while. I wonder if somebody commented on my Instagram post.” That then generates cortisol and it starts to make you anxious. And eventually your goal is to get rid of that anxiety so you check in.
The tech companies appear to be engineering theirs apps and devices to make us anxious. To turn us into addicts.
The idea that social media feeds stimulate biochemical responses is not new. But what is quite disturbing is that the tech companies might be deliberately engineering the devices and apps to stimulate addictive responses. Seems to me we’ve seen this before. In past years the tobacco industry was taken to task for manipulating nicotine levels in cigarettes. They were described as creating:
…nicotine delivery systems that deliver nicotine in precisely calculated quantities — quantities that are more than sufficient to create and to sustain addiction in the vast majority of individuals who smoke regularly.
I’m not seeing a great deal of difference between the behavior of Apple, Google or Facebook, and that of the tobacco companies. They are turning smartphone and social media cravings into the 21st century version of the nicotine fit.
Close your eyes and imagine it is 1938. The German chemists Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassmann have just discovered nuclear fission.
Now give the process of Uncontrolled Nuclear Fission an innocuous acronym like UNUFI, something that sounds a bit like a stuffed animal. And imagine those chemists also discover ways to make it happen within reasonable reach of private parties at manageable costs. Who can then use the process in a barn somewhere out in the woods.
Technological advancement will bring artificial intelligence and cheap energy.
This will bring limitless wealth, and drive down the cost of producing pretty much everything and put pretty much everyone out of a job.
Therefore governments should provide stipends to everyone so they can do whatever they want.
All of which sounds wonderful. But there may be some fundamental dysfunction baked into this vision of technocratic utopia. This statement by Altman suggests rather a technocratic myopia:
“People pay a lot for a great education now, but you can become expert level on most things by looking at your phone.”
Exactly which fields of study could one reach expert level via a smart phone? Neuroscience? Biochemistry? Mathematics? Structural Engineering? Linguistics? Philosophy? Religion?
One of the bothersome aspects of some technocrats’ visions of the future is the apparent shallow appreciation for subjects beyond the range of their expertise. Perhaps this would not be a problem if learning was merely the collecting of oversimplified and trivial facts, unencumbered by connection to any real context. Or at least, whatever such info-bits content providers choose to serve up.
But as it happens, most of the really important stuff requires too much mental bandwidth and breadth of experience to fit on a three or four-inch screen.
Exploring the world in comfort. That’s the theme of a recent commercial for the European travel company, Viking River Cruises. Scenes of Europe flow by to violin strains and a poetic cadence:
“Sailing through the heart of cities and landscapes with Viking, you’ll see things differently. You’ll get closer to iconic landmarks, to local life and cultural treasures. It’s a feeling that only a river can give you, that only Viking can give you.”
The commercial told me next to nothing about the company but the imagery they presented was intriguing. There might be something to be said for touring Europe that way. These seems like a far better use of a trip than some cruise with an inane cartoon theme. But hold on a minute. Let’s wind the Earth back around the Sun to Paris in 845 AD.
Sailing through the heart of cities and landscapes as a Viking, you’ll see things differently. You’ll sack more iconic landmarks, and loot more cultural treasures. It’s a feeling that only a river can give you, that only being a marauding, pillaging, burning, murdering, and thieving barbarian can give you.
Context is everything.
My home town used to be heavily Scandinavian and Nordic motifs decorate some of the businesses. There is a strip mall named “Viking Village” where the anchor store has a replica of a longship’s dragon prow on the peak of the roof. It’s truly amazing what a millennium does to the meaning of the names and symbols.
As Christians, we are not immune to losing the context of our symbols. There are artistic crucifixes in various places in my house. It is a valid symbol of remembrance. Crucifixion only became a widespread object of art after Constantine outlawed it as a method of execution in the Roman empire and its image of brutality faded. As a symbol of commemoration an artistic cross can be a good thing.
But in the Middle Ages it was used to adorn crusader shields. Now it graces everything from napkins to photo frames. It might be fair to say we’ve lost our sense of what the symbol is about. We do not think of the context of the cross.
It used to take hundreds of years to completely lose a sense of the context of an event. The meaning of symbols related to an event is shaped by the surrounding culture. This changes over time but that process used to be much slower. It’s easy to forget that before mechanization few people traveled very far from where they were born. There always have been small subsets of a community that traveled, such as merchants and soldiers, and occasionally entire groups would migrate to escape something bad in hopes of finding something better. For good or for ill, context was created and reinforced by where you lived and whom you lived with.
This is no longer the case. We move. We routinely travel distances that used to take days and lifetimes. Very few of us live with the people we grew up knowing. We are disconnected from what used to surround our sense of what a symbol meant, and vulnerable to the reframing of symbols by the technology that pervades the modern world.
In Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman described the effect of 20th century media in the decontextualization of information and serious discourse, and their repackaging as primarily visual entertainment. It is a dated polemic, having been written three decades ago during the dominance of broadcast television. We have vastly greater access to information than when the book was written. But the notion of decontextualization appears dead-on, making the book a must-read*. Our access to information is now mediated by portable devices that bounce us from one bit of disjointed content to the next.
Is it even possible to communicate context on a 5-inch electronic screen?
*I recommend reading this in tandem with The Shallows, by Nicholas Carr. Carr’s emphasis is different — specifically how the Internet is changing the way we think. But the book provides a necessary update for the idea of decontextualization.
Once upon a time a ring from the wall telephone signified a crisis of some sort if it occurred outside of certain times. We just never thought to call anyone early in the morning, during dinner, or late at night. We stayed outside the boundaries of each other’s private spaces until such time as it was polite to knock. Not that stuff didn’t spill over from time to time – that couple fighting in the courtyard of the apartment complex was hard to ignore. But the boundaries were clear and the spillage said things about the emotional health of the couple that went beyond the obscenities they were shouting at each other.
Something has happened to the boundaries. We’re in each other’s private spaces in a way most of us would have found intolerable a couple of decades ago. Cell phones were involved somehow but it is difficult to say whether they are a cause or a marker.
My first cell phone stayed in my car. It was a foot-long “bag phone” that needed frequent charging from the cigarette lighter plug. I acquired it second-hand but it was expensive to operate and was used only for work. Even the original hand-held phones didn’t intrude much into our personal spaces. That obnoxious businessman at the next table with the original Motorola brick was an aberration.
This changed when the device shrank to it fit in my pocket. Now cell phones showed up everywhere, like the movie theater, the car in front of you in the traffic jam, and pretty much every public space you can think of, as well as a fair number of formerly private spaces. Messaging was added and then email. Then we graduated to having the Internet in the palm of our hands and the relative cost has fallen so much that keeping the old residential telephone is a waste of money. In a post at Rough Type , Nicholas Carr observes that the smartphone is cooking all of our media down into a “singularity.” It is dissolving the boundaries between our music, books, news, and pretty much everything else and condensing it all into one space that fixates our attention in the palm of our hand.
The smartphone seems to be dissolving more than just differentiations between media. Somewhere in its development this little device acquired a very high social pH. Corrosive substances can be extremely useful in the proper place, such as the sulfuric acid in your car battery. But they are a problem on your clothes and hands.
We have spilled the smartphone on our bare skin. It is an extremely useful device, but one which we seem to have no sense of how to use. It seems to be obliterating the separations between our personal, work, and social spaces. Couples are messaging other people when out at dinner together. Employers and employees are emailing during non-work hours and days. Acquaintances are messaging each other at times we used to consider phone calls rude. And a failure to respond causes anxiety in the recipient and sometimes consequences from the sender.
We are losing our sense of what is appropriate to say to whom, and when it is appropriate to say it. And we have lost some ready reference points for where you end and I begin.
I’ve been reading The Shallows, a book by Nicolas Carr in which he argues that the Internet and devices which provide access to it are essentially rewiring the way we think. What we’ve discovered in the last few decades is that the brain is very malleable and responsive to changes in how we interact with our environment. Carr backstops the discussion with a sketch of the historical development of writing and reading, and cites analysis of the effect on how people think and looks forward to current effects on culture. Carr is looking forward and I’ve found his argument compelling. But what he highlights also has implications for how we engage with ancient authors.
The interaction with text was very different in the ancient world. There were no “books” in the classical world as we think of them. The codex (a stack of pages in a binding) was an invention of the early first millennium. Documents of any length would be recorded on scrolls and early writing was treated by scribes like the oratory they heard. It did not have spaces and there were no rules for word order. Meaning was transmitted through inflection as the text was generally read aloud. Silent reading was apparently rare as reading in this environment would require enormous concentration. The use of text was inherently different as Carr notes:
“The writing and reading of tablets, scrolls, and early codices had stressed the communal development and propagation of knowledge. Individual creativity had remained subordinate to the needs of the group. Writing had remained more a means of recording than a method of composition.*”
But when scribes began to insert spaces and impose rules of word order, the amount of mental labor required to read was significantly reduced, which facilitated development of the reader’s ability to concentrate and engage more difficult material. This led in turn to the development of the ability to think in a more linear fashion. Carr’s argument for the modern world, is that the Internet is changing how we interact with text and media in ways that appear to interfere with ability to concentrate, and with the linear thought that changes in writing made possible.
Looking back at the history of literacy and books suggests an additional point. Some caution is in order in the interpretation of ancient texts. Some of the fine-grained theological distinctions that Christians argue over might simply be artifacts of linear thinking, which was fostered by the development of easily read books. Nobody in the ancient world sat up late at night reading their scrolls by the flickering light of candles and smoking oil lamps.
The way we think differs radically from how Biblical authors engaged with the texts they wrote. Centuries of argument on a wide range of topics from scholastic disputes during the Middle Ages, to modern denominational divisions over baptism and predestination might lack even the possibility of resolution. The points made in these debates probably never existed in the minds of the original authors.
*Carr, Nicholas. The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 2010, ISBN: 9780393079364. 2011 Kindle edition p. 63.
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