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. That is, if it was a new way of approaching something, then it was also a new way for my brain to process the world. And so I would review those changes to see how I might expect my brain to adapt as a result. And 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 you were in fact doing was constantly switching your focus which I knew 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. This is all now proven science.
So why was there no ADHD when I was a kid? Because our brains were programmed by fewer, more concentrated experiences rather than being dazzled by media. 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 less a day. If you account for all of the screen time kids put in today (including TV, computers, video games and phones), kids 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 build a tree-house in, kids today have their lives surreptitiously guided by salespeople and psychologists. We lead ourselves through life. We were free to explore, learn and focus. And focusing is something your brain does separately from knowing what it is focusing on.
The freedom we 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 your kitchen.
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 deeply rewarding. That’s why you don’t pick running races with two year olds. 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.
These weren’t just our usual friends who generally agree with us. These were sometimes people who challenged what you viewed. And there was no way to just switch them off. You couldn’t “block” them. You had to deal with them and their ideas in the real world, because that happens even if you 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 strollers at walls and then they both got on their phones and they barely interacted with each other, the babies or the waitress.
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. And so 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 you’re honest you know you’ve done this. You’ve called someone when you knew you couldn’t reach them just because you were uncomfortable with the socialisation aspect. You’ve screened calls you should have taken. Calls that would have improved your life.
Another major negative is the search function in your brain is separate from the knowledge itself. So when you have an experience it automatically loads into your brain. But if you 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 you are. So in the case of your knowledge, instead you use Google on your phone and you have someone else drop the information into your lap. Meanwhile all of the value from your experiences is squandered.
Every time you search rather than trying to figure something out or remember it, you are actively degrading the search function in your 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. They kids knows 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.
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, the grandparents would survive far longer than the kids. They’d figure it out.
Technology is first and foremost a product. It is something someone wants to make money off of by selling it to you. That’s why you’re constantly getting new phones, new TV’s, new jeans. Marketers have convinced you to do what they want you to do rather than what’s good for you. And now they follow you everywhere. Everyone has the world’s marketers with them 24/7. They sold you the idea that you should carry them in your pocket and look at their feeds constantly. You volunteered to be brainwashed.
You can lie to yourself and pretend you haven’t seen hints of what I’m talking about. You’ve worried about how much you check your phone, you know it’s insanely stupid to look at it while driving but you are fully addicted. You are tortured if you lose you phone. You feel like you’re out of touch with the world when you’re standing right in the world.
You can’t even see here and now because you’re too addicted to being in virtual space rather than real space. If you don’t look at your phone you suffer. And you just don’t want to admit that to your brain it’s no different than being addicted to a drug. It doesn’t matter if you syringe something into your veins or whether you use your phone to trigger your own personal brain chemistry for experiences of fear and anger—you’re still dosing yourself 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 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.
If we don’t consciously choose to do something differently soon, you’re about to see a very different, very disconcerting change happen to society. You 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 is an article on testing and how the retrieval of information is harder if you 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 posting positively. At best some of you will feel guilty because you’ll recognise yourself. But how many of you will actually take steps to break that unhealthy addiction? Because if you want something good for your brain, you’re far better to sit quietly in a park than you are to sit with friends sharing other people’s ideas through your facebook posts. I’m not saying to avoid the latter. But if you’re going to avoid the former, then 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 you saw this or that band or were at this or that festival. Think about leaving your phone at home on Sundays. Get out in the world. Look around with your head up, like you used to. See things, smell things, taste things, hear things and touch things. 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.
Scott McPherson is an Edmonton-based writer, public speaker, and mindfulness facilitator who works with individuals, companies and non-profit organisations locally and around the world.