How Your Smartphone is Making You an Idiot
When people send me stuff in Facebook Messenger, I occasionally try to write a thoughtful comment. But I find that I am unable to put down anything meaningful in that truncated little box. I had to ask my daughter the other day to switch to email to continue our dialogue. I can’t help but think that texting and other platforms like Messenger and Twitter are changing the human mind. They are creating an Orwellian kind of Newspeak that proscribes deep thought and meaningful discourse.
Why do People choose to believe so much BS now?
There have been other ages of mass disinformation during modern times, for example: Nazi Germany, Stalinist Russia, and Maoist China. And there have always been folks who embrace outlandish conspiracy theories. But in the last decade or so, it seems that the number of people willing to believe nonsense has multiplied enormously.
For me, writing is thinking, and that’s not really possible in one or two or three sentences. And that is likely true for anyone. That’s part of the reason I believe the medium is creating idiots.
We are our tools. What separates us from our ancestors two hundred thousand years ago is our inventions. From that time until now, our kind went from hand axes to spaceships. And during that period, our forbearers developed and passed on to us the truly essential tool that makes us human, words and grammar. With them, we could remember the collective knowledge of the past and model the future. Without the invention of language, it is unlikely that technology could have advanced beyond the early stone age.
Words are the foundation of all science, literature, political organization, law, philosophy, and much of intimate human interaction and bonding. How we use words and the medium we use them in, has a profound effect on our lives.
He thinks like me
I’ve heard a number of Donald Trump’s followers say, “He thinks like I do.” Yes, Donald Trump has thoughts. All humans do. But Trump’s thoughts are not only often disconnected from reality, but also from each other. His spoken and twittered thoughts are mostly stand-alone pronouncements. They are seldom connected in what would be called reasoning. I fear that many people are losing the knack for using that facility — or even understanding it.
Think about how often Trump uses words like “tremendous” and how little he uses words like “therefore,” or even “but,” as in “but fear itself,” or “but what you can do for your country.”
The trap of confirmation bias is easy to fall into without the ability to analyze one’s own thoughts and prejudices or to objectively scrutinize someone else’s argument. Texting and social media like Twitter are not good practice for forming the habits of deep thinking; and thinking, when it is not a habit, atrophies. Without the regular exercise of disciplined critical thought, opinions are likely to be acquired through the osmosis of tribal memes.
Writing can be a tool for reflection, for analysis, for synthesis of experience and emotion. Through writing and reading of discourse, we can compare our inner lives to those of others. We, therefore, become richer. Much of the social medium however, has merely become a tool to foment the neurosis of narcissism — symbolized by the ubiquitous presence of the selfie stick. Recall in the Greek legend how Narcissus drowned in a pool after becoming obsessed with his own reflection. This may be a lesson for our times. Personal selfishness has become accepted, even celebrated, in much of North American culture, while ironically, genuine independent thinking declines.
To err is human, to edit, Divine
Yes, putting down words in a format that easily lends itself to editing, at least sometimes, gives us a chance to examine and criticize our assumptions and logic.
Smartphones have changed the way we interact with Strangers
As a lifelong traveler, I have noticed that it has become harder to meet people and to have conversations with strangers. So many travelers are now bent over their phones, having brought their cliques with them through electronic medium. I have been to monasteries in a relatively isolated part of the Himalayas seeking wisdom, only to find, on more than one occasion, the monks there too busy to talk to me while bowed in homage over their smartphones. Although this struck me as ironic and funny, I recognize that in the under-developed world, where there is mostly poor internet and often good cell coverage, smartphones are a boon to the population. But here in the first world, it often seems that the more the medium enables us to communicate with each other, the more we become isolated into our enclaves and tribes.
Maybe I’ll Keep my Flip Phone
My 97-year-old dad has had a “smartphone” for years. I have one sitting on my desk that was given to me. So far, I haven’t purchased a plan for it. Being an outdoor person, I can envision its usefulness to me for its GPS functions. Other than that, I don’t really want to carry the bulky thing around with me compared to my compact flip phone. As a writer, I spend enough time on a computer with an easy to read screen and a real keyboard. I have little need or desire to carry those functions around with me in a less optimal way every minute of every day. Even when using the relatively spacious touch functions on my iPad mini, I find that thoughts do not flow through my fingertips even close to the way they do on a real keyboard. I feel like I am thinking through a straw. Is it my lack of fine motor control? Or do others just not notice what they are missing?
The Addiction to Texting and Social Media
There is also the addiction factor and the loss of common sense and good manners that I see all around me with the use of smartphones. There are thousands of people that have been maimed or killed by drivers distracted by texting. Knowing that scares me when I am on the road — and I am someone who has hobbies like rock climbing and ski mountaineering. Although I know that many people find texting useful, I question whether it has a net benefit for society. Smartphone use, without addiction, just doesn’t seem to be possible for many people. Some research has indicated that even the presence of a smartphone nearby can interfere with performance on cognitive tests. As with any junkie, there is a part of the brain that is always anticipating the next fix, that shot of dopamine that comes with every ping.
“I feel tremendous guilt,” said Chamath Palihapitiya, former vice-president of user growth at Facebook, “I think we all knew in the back of our minds… something bad could happen.”
“The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops that we have created are destroying how society works,” he went on in a public talk, “It is eroding the core foundations of how people behave.”
There are reports of an increasing decline in sexual activity, a sort of sex recession, happening during the last decade or so. Although correlation is not proof of causation, it is well known that addictions inhibit the sex drive.
Texting, Messenger, Twitter, and a host of other platforms are not writing. If you don’t practice this already, sit down regularly with a keyboard or a pen and paper and try real thought and reflection. And maybe share it here. You could find the process more satisfying than jumping for those pings.