The Reflection in our Smartphones

Jan Cossiers: Narciso

In Metamorphoses, the Roman poet Ovid tells an old story about Narcissus, a young man who rejected the advances of Echo, a nymph.  The unhappy suitor then wastes away to nothing but her voice.

As it happens, Narcissus appears to have left quite a trail of broken hearts.  The goddess Nemesis heard the complaint of another rejected lover and Narcissus finds his gaze drawn to the glassy water of a spring shaded by trees.  Upon seeing his reflection in the pool he falls in love with it and is unable to leave.  He subsequently wastes away and dies.

Our phones have become the modern version of that forest pool.

The entertainment and social content we find on them is customized and served up by algorithms that sift through what we view, post, comment on, and rate.  The more the online services know about us, the more customized the content.  It becomes our digital reflection, and is deliberately engineered to be addictive.

Except that the addiction appears to have been visited more on our children than on us, as Jean M. Twenge points out in the September 2017 issue of The Atlantic.  Twenge is a professor of psychology at San Diego State University and does research on generational differences. In the article she sketches out a radical shift where current teens differ from millennials and prior generations in how they spend their time.  Previously there was a drive toward independence from parents and to interaction with peers.  Now activity appears heavily biased toward private interaction on social media via smartphones.  She quotes one teen as saying, “‘I think we like our phones more than we like actual people.’”

Connection via social media is clearly not the same as direct interaction with live people.  Twenge’s observation is that the resultant isolation has destructive effects on the mental health of teens who grow up that way.  The article includes the following:

One piece of data that indirectly but stunningly captures kids’ growing isolation, for good and for bad: Since 2007, the homicide rate among teens has declined, but the suicide rate has increased. As teens have started spending less time together, they have become less likely to kill one another, and more likely to kill themselves. In 2011, for the first time in 24 years, the teen suicide rate was higher than the teen homicide rate.”  Source: Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?

Nemesis has been very, very busy.

 

The Power of Distraction

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..

Source: The mere presence of your smartphone reduces brain power, study shows — ScienceDaily

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.

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University of Texas at Austin (UT Austin). “The mere presence of your smartphone reduces brain power, study shows.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 23 June 2017. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2017/06/170623133039.htm>.

Smartphone Apps and Your Conflicts

Reconciliation is supposed to be a defining characteristic of Christian community.  But the social media and messaging apps that smartphones weld into everyday life might actually get in the way.

The previous post highlighted a CBS News report* detailing how app developers attempt to deliberately manipulate the way our brains work.  The goal is to keep us coming back to apps and the advertising they push.  But one of the byproducts is that our phones make us anxious when we don’t use them.  So, if you are in conflict with someone and using social media or messaging apps to communicate, you are likely at least somewhat stressed before the fighting ever starts.

This seems like a recipe for misunderstanding and escalation.

Plain-old email is bad enough.  Text-based communication inherently lacks the non-verbal cues required for language to fully express emotions.  Over the years I have watched a number of conflicts spiral out of control as the recipient colored otherwise innocuous language with tones to which the sender was insensitive.  But now a smartphone addiction can add a dollop of excess cortisol and load the interchange with some very unhealthy overhead.

Wikimedia Commons

So, the next time you feel the urge to fire off an angry text or post to a friend, just don’t.

Instead, use this cool app on your phone that allows you to avoid all that.  You know, the one that makes phone calls.  Call the person and have a conversation.

Or better yet call them, arrange to meet for coffee, and then have the conversation.

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*Anderson Cooper. What is “brain hacking”? Tech insiders on why you should care 60 Minutes, CBS News, June 11, 2017. http://www.cbsnews.com/news/what-is-brain-hacking-tech-insiders-on-why-you-should-care/

High Anxiety (or, The Race to The Bottom of The Brainstem)

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.[1]

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.[1]

Wikimedia Commons

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.[2]  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.[3]

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.

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[1] Anderson Cooper.  What is “brain hacking”? Tech insiders on why you should care  60 Minutes, CBS News, June 11, 2017.  http://www.cbsnews.com/news/what-is-brain-hacking-tech-insiders-on-why-you-should-care/

[2]  see Eva Ritvo M.D.  Facebook and Your Brain: The inside dope on Facebook  Vitality blog at Psychology Today,  May 24, 2012.  https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/vitality/201205/facebook-and-your-brain

[3]  David A. Kessler, M.D., Commissioner of Food and Drugs.  Statement on Nicotine-Containing Cigarettes. Testimony before the House Subcommittee on Health and the Environment March 25, 1994 https://www.fda.gov/NewsEvents/Speeches/ucm106558.htm

Silicon Valley Dystopia

“The new road to serfdom — actually, it’s more like a hyperloop — runs right through Silicon Valley.” via Silicon Valley has our backs

This post by Nicholas Carr at Rough Type references a recent New Yorker profile of venture capitalist Sam Altman.  I share Carr’s skepticism and the profile is worth reading.  If I understand correctly, Altman’s vision appears to distill down to the following:

  • 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.”

Galaxy S6
Galaxy S6

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.

Hacking Your Phone – CBS News

Well, this is a problem.

“Sharyn Alfonsi reports on how cellphones and mobile phone networks are vulnerable to hacking

Source: Hacking Your Phone – CBS News”

 

It appears that a hacker with no more access than your cellular number can exploit a hole in network security to turn on your camera, read your email and texts, and listen in on your calls.  And who knows what else?

Makes me want to run right out and do my banking on a mobile phone.

The video is behind a paywall but it is definitely worth watching.

 

Loss of Context

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.

Replica Longship

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.

A High pH

Museum of Science and Industry (Chicago)
Museum of Science and Industry (Chicago)

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.

Pocket Protectors

Technological progress seems to have a certain inevitability. Over the last twenty years large organizations have undergone a transition from the scattered use of mobile phones to wide use of cell phone to blackberries and now to smart phones. We started with typewriters, note pads, pens, and marginally useful green screen email. Now we have dual flat screen monitors and tablets and chafe at how slow the organization’s intranet is.

Galaxy S3
Galaxy S3

At one point communications devices stuffed into a pocket consisted of a rack of ball-point pens and various pencils in a pocket protector. Which was universally mocked. But it is hard to avoid a disturbing notion that somehow we have come full circle. My wife commented the other morning on how pockets on clothing (like jackets) that were intended for cell phones no longer fit them. Smart phones seem to be growing larger as the distractions they provide no longer fit on the screen. The smart phone has supplanted the pens in the pocket protector and spread from the geeks into nearly everyone’s pockets.

Locutus was right. Resistance was futile. We have been assimilated.