We live in an expanding universe. Someday, neighboring galaxies will be so far away they’ll no longer be visible. Imagine humanity inventing the telescope in this era. After studying our neighbor stars, would it then be reasonable to assume deep black space in every direction, nothing further? No breadcrumbs of galactic light to tug our curiosity beyond the Milky Way? We wouldn’t know any better.
Consider a psychological equivalent of this, already underway. Something precious, once obvious and abundant to humanity, has been lost. Stillness. Not in the sense that it doesn’t exist, but in the sense that it’s currently accelerating from view. Gone faint since early 2000s, when humanity was swept-up in the wave of internet, tech, and immediacy.
Like a trojan horse we welcomed this wave with open arms. But as with all innovations, there are both positive and negative consequences. A handful of prominent thinkers are now urging us to notice the latter, many of whom brought these technologies to life. They see a price we’re paying individually and as a society, and they believe we should take notice.
A Mildly Amusing Stranger
Imagine a stranger following you around, interrupting your attention with zero regard for how it affects you, every few minutes. HEY GUESS WHAT! Speaking into your ear at random intervals with some trivial fact or amusement, and each time, you oblige, Yes, what is it? You’d be mad, except for the fact that, the stranger is actually a little funny or interesting sometimes, so you tolerate it.
Maybe occasionally you feel annoyed. You leave the stranger in the other room, or cover your ears. But the reprieve is short-lived – the same routine resumes the moment you’re reunited.
After a while… this feels normal. In fact, when the stranger is quiet, something feels off. YOU initiate the convo. You’re amused. But also: Distracted. Foggy. Fragmented. It seems every few minutes your mind is onto something else, courtesy of the stranger hurling your attention around like a pinball. The stranger is both the cause and solution to the problem. You feel itchy, but also, the stranger scratches your itch. It’s a cycle with no off-ramp.
Would you really want this stranger in your life?
Interesting then, we grant such absurd intimacy to our our phones. It’s a fascinating assumption – that our phones are, by-default, serving our best interests, when in fact, there are satisfying an unseen amount economic and existential forces, and doing so with devastating allure. Sure, they may be “your” apps… “your” friends on the other side of the notifications, and content “you” enjoy. But how often are you able to step back and take a larger view? The addict’s dilemma, is that the cost is unknown. Or, the cost IS dimly known, but the gravity of the attachment is far too great to overcome, and it’s accepted.
Hey Where Did I Put That Wisdom?
Contemplation. Pause. Intellectual honesty. Reflection. Nonreaction. Wisdom. Sustained focus. Clarity. Deep work. Quiet. Slow.
Just as our bodies depend upon vital nutrients, so do our minds. The minds of us, as individuals, and the collective minds of our institutions – are how we establish trust and cooperate as a species. A smartphone, armed with immediate notifications and allure of “stuff”, destroys these nutrients like a pesticide.
Without these nutrients, the human experience is simply a ride that never stops. We bounce with high emotional charge from one stimulus to the next. Never really able to sit and consider cause and effect. Never having time to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes. Never able to be fully with what is immediately in front of us, because our minds are engaged somewhere else – either pulled away via notification, or running away on their own, though conditioned behavior. It feels like we’re constantly keeping up – but with what? Our phones are our precious, like Schmiegel. We know they have power, and that intuition isn’t wrong, but what does this power accomplish? Do we control it, or does it control us?
Saving the Baby
The internet isn’t bad. Tech is not bad. Immediacy, used thoughtfully, is actually quite essential. But the cocktail of these things, wielded with apparently zero regard of consequences, is psychologically deadly. Striving to be generous, I struggle see how the analogy of death is overstated. Look around. What do you see? And more importantly, how do YOU feel, generally, about your clearness of mind, and the clarity of mind of the human population?
The internet, web, and our ability to connect and share is unquestionably one of the most important advances in human civilization. By no means, even for a second, would I suggest a world without the internet and smartphones. But as it stands now, this fundamental power has been shaped in such a way that takes us captive – even if it feels otherwise. We are complicit! We are compulsively smoking mental cigarettes before the surgeon general understands to make a warning. And it really doesn’t have to be this way.
A Way Forward
Engineers must continue shaping technology so that it HELPS humans in their endeavors, as opposed to becoming THE endeavor itself – the vortex where we spend infinite time feeling amused and foggy and spinning in circles. The void. Instead, accentuate focus, wisdom, knowledge. Facilitate meaningful civil conversation. Shun immediacy unless it’s warranted. Regard “sustained focus” as a north star, and therefore, anything threatening it should be seen as a red flag. Examples: notifications for everything, infinite scroll. Accentuate screen time awareness.
As individuals and consumers, I will paraphrase words of Cal Newport: Do not invite technology into your life because it’s cool or entertaining. Bring it into your life because it supports your values and goals. Goals don’t need to be magnificent. A goal might even be to read books. Or hiking. Or painting. If you don’t have goals your life, even the simplest goal, your smartphone and/or internet will happily fill this vacuum – and this is the dilemma. Perhaps a good first book, is one about exploring values and goals.
A Personal Anecdote
I am several weeks in to my own experiment. Below is my smartphone. I’ve been tweaking for nearly two years, and gradually arrived here. On the left is what I see when I open my phone. My fitness app, meditation app, journal, and todo list. On the right is a screen I occasionally check to see if I have texts or emails, which I won’t know until I check, because I have notifications shut off. Any other app, I’ll search for when needed.
If this were merely a personal battle, I would declare victory and have nothing to write about. Inch by inch… things feel calmer and less urgent. I hope this will endure, and making my phone more boring was a massive component of that.
I remain disheartened, though, that this technology has been dumped upon the world and we have yet to notice, in a broad sense, how this affects and manipulates us. Our minds are gardens where deep focus can be cultivated. Instead, it feels like these gardens being watered with Gatorade. Deep focus is becoming unfamiliar. (or maybe already is).
Systemic change is a work in progress. The good news is, taking matters into your own hands IS very possible, and life-changing. My hope is I inspire at least one person to explore this further, and pay-it-forward.
Digital Minimalism, Cal Newport
The Shallows, What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, Nicholas Carr
Stolen Focus, Johann Hari