People often ask me why I don’t have a smart phone. They know I’m comfortable with technology and I’ve always been an early adopter. I was the first person I knew to have a digital watch, a video camera, a computer, a notebook, I even had Palm Pilots etc. But to me every single device was also something that my brain met.
By ‘met’ I mean that, if any tech meant that it was changing how I approached something, then it was also a new way for my brain to process the world itself. And so I would review those changes to see how I might expect my brain to adapt as a result. And after careful consideration, I don’t want my brain de-adapting to a smart phone.
Of course people want to argue with me all the time. I had a decade of people pitching me that multi-tasking was better when I knew in fact there was never any multi-tasking going on and what people were in fact doing was constantly switching their focus. I knew that was a) counter productive, and b) taxing, and yes c) occasionally necessary. But to make it lifestyle? No way. Anything you repeat changes your brain. Including switching focus. It’s possible to train our brains to be ADHD through distraction. This is all now proven science.
So why was there essentially no ADHD when I was a kid? Because our brains were programmed by fewer, more concentrated experiences rather than being dazzled by high pace media from a young age. If a kid is raised in a Formula One racecar, then walking around like a human will feel bizarre and uncomfortable. Same with phones and the speed of information.
In previous generations, a lot of us read and no one really watched a lot of TV, plus there were much much much fewer channels and programs and far fewer edits per minute. We only watched a screen for an hour or two a day. If you account for all of the screen time kids put in today (including TV, computers at home and school, video games and phones), kids can spend the majority of their waking hours in virtual space as opposed to physical space.
My generation had mostly free time to do whatever we wanted wherever we wanted with whomever we wanted. We barely saw our parents because we were out in the world. Today kids have no privacy and so they have to hide from their parents in the highly edited and constructed world of cyberspace.
While one generation was usually finding some chunk of nature to swim in, or catch a tadpole in, or build a tree-house in, many kids today have their lives surreptitiously guided by salespeople and corporate psychologists. Today we are lead through life. Previously we were free to explore, learn and focus. And focusing is something our brain does separately from knowing what it is focusing on.
The freedom we previously had was where we developed our interpersonal skills, our capacity to manage where we were in the world, our way to find our way around geographically, and our ability to solve problems without help.
Even we didn’t feel as capable as our parents, and yet we pretty much all knew the fundamentals of things like gardening or how a car basically worked, or which chemicals not to mix in the kitchen. Back then scientists were celebrities for their science, not Instagrammers being famous for their image.
We could use slide-rules as we were still mostly pre-calculators etc. You could have a calculator once they existed, but you couldn’t use it exclusively in class and definitely not on an exam. If you couldn’t do it long-hand then being able to do it in on a calculator didn’t help you get a passing grade. Oh yeah, and you actually had to pass grades.
There was such a thing as failing. You could come in last. There were no participation badges. The world was pretty much as it really is: harsh, sometimes cruel, challenging, and because of all of that it was also deeply rewarding. That’s why you don’t pick running races with two year old’s. Easy victories carry no joy.
Our challenge is that babies watch us closely to learn how to be human just like animals learn to hunt or forage. What they used to watch was people interacting. If 10 people were in a waiting room there would be conversation, facial expressions and the sharing of ideas. People would meet people unlike them. People who thought differently. Kids would see community in action.
Our interactions then weren’t just our usual friends who generally agree with us, like we see through social media information columns. These were sometimes people who challenged our views. And there was no way to just switch them off. We couldn’t “block” them. We had to deal with them and their ideas in the real world, because that happens even if we choose to pretend it doesn’t. But today, put ten people in a waiting room and no one will look up from their phone, yet the phrase TLTR exists. So what’s this mean for the baby?
Babies used to watch faces to understand humans. But today babies think phones are what’s important because that’s what everyone’s looking at 90% of the time. I saw two mom’s wheel their kids into a restaurant, point their kids and their strollers at walls, and then they both got on their phones and they barely interacted with each other, the babies or the waitress, for over an hour.
It was a very sad moment for me because I knew those mom’s were inadvertently crippling their children. Because faces are what show what our brain chemistry is. Not our phones. These are the signs that spark our empathy, which we can expect to continue decline as long as we behave in these ways. Because those kids were learning how to understand technology rather than people. They weren’t even learning to look at people who were talking.
You call people now and they’ll never answer despite everyone having a phone with them all the time. Why are people harder to reach when we’re more connected? Because they’re getting increasingly uncomfortable with social interaction. Easy things are becoming hard. People are actually losing their ability to relate to other people in favour of relating to technology.
People today are more comfortable contorting their hands into typing tools than speaking with someone or holding their gaze for 20 seconds. If people are honest they know they’ve done this. People called someone when they intentionally knew they couldn’t reach them –just because they were uncomfortable with the socialisation aspect. People screen calls that should be taken. Calls that would have improved their lives.
Another major negative is the ‘search function’ in our brain is separate from the knowledge itself. So when we have an experience it automatically loads into our brain. But if we never practice retrieving that information from that experience then it’s useless. It’s like having millions of dollars in banks all over the world and no way to get it to where we are.
In the case of our knowledge, we use Google on our phone and we have someone else drop the information into our lap. Their information. Their research. Their learning. Meanwhile all of the value from our experiences is absent. We just typed in a search.
Every time we search rather than trying to figure something out or remember it, we are actively degrading the search function in our brain. I have already detected that a 25 year old North American is far, far, far less capable of processing information than their grandparent is. The grandparent knows things.
Kids know how to look things up. And because the kid can use a smart phone and their grandparent has more difficultly, that leads the kid to believe they’re smarter when really they’re just more familiar with something new. But in reality they know almost nothing themselves. But the grandparent does.
New isn’t necessarily better. If a solar flare took out the Earth’s electronic systems and brought the internet down for a long period of time (which is entirely possible), the grandparents would survive far longer than the kids. They’d figure it out. The kids would struggle to even know what ‘figure it out’ even means.
Technology is first and foremost a product. It is something someone wants to make money off of by selling it to us. That’s why we’re constantly getting new phones, new TV’s, new jeans. Marketers have convinced you to do what they want us to do rather than what’s good for us. And now they follow us everywhere.
Everyone has the world’s marketers with them 24/7. They even sold us the idea that we should carry them in our pockets and look at their feeds constantly. We volunteered to be brainwashed. The modern world is slick looking, but it’s less like 1984 and more like Brave New World.
We can lie to ourselves and pretend we haven’t seen hints of what I’m talking about. But most people have worried about how much they check their phone. We know it’s more dangerous than drunk driving to look at our phones while driving, but people are fully addicted. People are tortured if they lose you phone the way they used to be if they’d lost a person. And people feel like they’re out of touch with the world even when they’re standing right in the world.
We can’t even see here and now because we’re too addicted to being in virtual space rather than real space. If we don’t look at our phone we suffer. And we just don’t want to admit that to our brain it’s no different than being addicted to a drug. It doesn’t matter if we syringe something into our veins or whether we used our phone to trigger your own personal brain chemistry for experiences of fear and anger —we’re still dosing ourselves with chemistry and getting hooked on it.
Go ahead, use technology as a tool. I clearly do too. I know how to type. I’m better with computers than lot of young people I know because I know what’s going on behind the interface and they often don’t care. Adding this knowledge to other knowledge is great. But replacing other knowledge with the ability to use technology is nothing short of crippling.
Seeing intelligence or capability as being built around computer use limits our ‘intelligence’ to anything within wifi distance. How many hikers assumed tech replaced skills and planning only to be rescued because their GPS couldn’t connect?
If we don’t consciously choose to do something differently soon, we’re about to see a very different, very disconcerting change happen to society. (Note, this is written in 2014. If you’re reading it after that, you’ll have witnessed this shift happen.) We can expect people to be increasingly detached, increasingly unsympathetic, and increasingly impatient and intolerant. They are already rapidly losing basic social skills. This is the single biggest pattern I’m seeing shifting and its impacts will be increasingly felt.
Attached below is an article on testing and how the retrieval of information is harder if we haven’t been tested on it. They’re referring to actual exams in schools etc. but you can easily see that this would apply to smart phone use as well. If you use IMDB to look up every actor’s name you can’t remember, then you are using your smart phone to dumb yourself down because you’re not testing your ability to get that information from your own mind even though you know for sure it’s there.
I very much doubt people will react to this post positively. At best some will feel guilty because they’ll recognize themselves. But how many will actually take steps to break that unhealthy addiction? Because if we want something good for our brain, we’re far better to sit quietly in a park than we are to sit with friends sharing other people’s ideas through our social media posts. I’m not saying to avoid the latter. But if we’re going to avoid the former, then we should be prepared for that to have an effect.
Be alive in this world rather than wondering what’s going on in someone else’s. Go to a concert and enjoy the music rather than documenting it to prove that we saw this or that band, or were at this or that festival. We can think about leaving our phone at home on Sundays. We can get out in the world and look around with our heads up, like we used to. See things, smell things, taste things, hear things, touch things and make contact with others. Don’t just look at things, have experiences.
Smile at people. Look them in the eye. Have conversations with strangers. And do it selfishly. Because no number of points in social media game will ever add up to as much joy as one day of quiet awareness in a beautiful park.
A serious childhood brain injury lead Scott to spend his entire life meditating on the concepts of thought, consciousness, reality and identity. It made others as strange to him as he was to them. When he realized people were confused by their own over-thinking, Scott began teaching others to understand reality. He is currently CBC Radio Active’s Wellness Columnist, as well as a writer, speaker and mindfulness instructor based in Edmonton, AB where he still finds it strange to write about himself in the third person.