May 17, 2016 § 19 Comments
“The difference between technology and slavery is that slaves are fully aware that they are not free.”
“Technology is a queer thing. It brings you gifts with one hand, and stabs you in the back with the other.”
Are smartphones making us stupid? They have certainly made us their slaves. Social media addiction is on the rise—compulsive internet checking has become the norm.
It’s crept up on us. It’s been less than a decade since smartphones were introduced to the main arteries of culture, and now it is flooding our collective bloodstream like a drug. The idea of opting out—unplugging permanently—no longer seems like a viable option for most people. But even as we willingly engage our pint-sized prison, we are increasingly, uncomfortably aware of its bars.
Sure, it’s great to be able to stay in touch with friends, have mobile up-to-the-minute map access, the ability to document digitally and look a fact up on the spot! But the sword cuts both ways.
We are also far less likely to experience a grounded sense of being present in the moment when, the second there is some space or silence, we have the option & impulse to check our email, text inbox, Facebook, Instagram or Twitter. It’s become like a tic for most people. We no longer have to face ourselves or others in those in-between-moments, we can just dive into our phones.
75% of people between 18 & 25 respond “yes” to the question “when nothing else is occupying my attention, the first thing I do is reach for my phone.” (Time.com.)
According to a new study from Microsoft Corp., people now generally lose concentration after eight seconds, one second less than the attention span of the notoriously ill-focused goldfish.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard (and uttered) the phrase, “I just haven’t been able to get into any good books lately” in the last year.
A recent study, 45% of people tested said they feel “worried or uncomfortable” when email and Facebook are inaccessible.
While 60 % stated “they felt the need to switch off” their phones and computers to secure a full-fledged break from technology.
“In other words, it’s not being on social networks that makes people anxious. It’s being away from them.” (Huffington Post.)
Charlie Brooker’s British television series “Black Mirror” (which I recommend watching, though it’s not for the faint of heart) sums up the situation expertly in the second episode: the opening scene depicts its lead character waking up in a room surrounded by wall-to-wall digital screens.
Instantly bombarded with advertisements, he proceeds to shuffle glumly through his morning routines. One’s first response is invariably: “Oh! How awful! What a way to live!” Uncomfortable calibration moment. “Oh shit. That’s us.”
Star Trek’s “The Next Generation” tapped into the dystopian future we are currently experiencing way back in 1991—an episode called “The Game,” in which a mysterious game is introduced on board the starship. The device engages the player’s brain, specifically their pleasure centers.
Before long, the entire ship’s crew is playing the game, peer pressuring everyone else to try it. Eventually, just two un-addicted crew members remain, then only one. (It’s really worth a watch for the eerie allegorical chill factor.)
“The Game” was prophetic: a release of pleasurable chemicals (specifically dopamine) is exactly what’s responsible for our growing collective addiction to nuggets of electronically derived information.
In her article “Seeking,” journalist Emily Yoffe details how the seeking instinct is a primordial vestige of biological necessity. Hardwired into our brains, it drives impulses like checking texts or Googling.
Yoffe refers to an experiment carried out in 1954 by a team of scientists involving a control group of rats.
“They would stick an electrode in a rat’s brain and, whenever the rat went to a particular corner of its cage, would give it a small shock and note the reaction. One day they unknowingly inserted the probe in the wrong place, and the rat kept returning over and over to the corner where it received the shock.
“They eventually discovered that if the probe was put in the brain’s lateral hypothalamus and the rats were allowed to press a lever and stimulate their own electrodes, they would press until they collapsed.”
The scientists assumed they had discovered the rats’ pleasure centers, but to neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp, “those self-stimulating rats, and the humans [who participated in later experiments] did not exhibit the euphoric satisfaction of creatures eating Double Stuf Oreos or repeatedly having orgasms. The animals were excessively excited, even crazed….in a constant state of sniffing and foraging,” notes Yoffe.
“Some of the human subjects described feeling sexually aroused but didn’t experience climax. Mammals stimulating the lateral hypothalamus seem to be caught in a loop, where each stimulation evoked a reinvigorated search strategy.'”
(Cue the Smashing Pumpkins: “Despite all my rage / I am still just a rat in a cage.”)
“Seeking needs to be turned off,” concludes Yoffe, “if even for a little while, so that the system does not run in an endless loop. When we get the object of our desire (be it a Twinkie or a sexual partner), we engage in consummatory acts [which] reduce arousal in the brain and temporarily, at least, inhibit our urge to seek.
“But our brains are designed to more easily be stimulated than satisfied. If humans are seeking machines, we’ve now created the perfect machines to allow us to seek endlessly.” (“Seeking,” By Emily Yoffe.)
We are navigating a Brave New World. As with everything, the first step is awareness. We have to admit we have a problem before we can get better. The point of power is choice.
The next time you find yourself going for your phone, don’t. Instead, look around. Observe the details of your surroundings, feel into the moment of being alive. The solution is simple; it’s just a matter of doing it, and in many cases, retraining ourselves, re-patterning compulsive, unconscious behavior.
There’s still time to allow our humanity to catch up to our technology.