I wake from a deep sleep, sweating, I shriek in horror as I feel the vibration of a mind control device next to my bed. It beckons me with a shimmering blue light, shimmering glows, blinking, a soft friendly sound, I weaken temporarily, but shake it off and with all my will power raise this insidious creature high above my head and smash it down, cracking it into splintered shards of guerrilla glass and plastic. “BAD PHONE!” I scream “BAD PHONE!”
Too much? An overreaction to the the belief that our phones are controlling our every whim through their complex maps of our psyches, algorithms and persuasive interface designs. I turn to my incredulous wife trying to justify this unprovoked violence against a beloved family member, a trusted personal assistant, a friend. Don’t you see? the phone has made me an addict, pumping social media into my veins, tempting me into a zombie like state of constant distraction. Sure, it looks so innocent, making that familiar rectangular bulge in my pockets with its sleek thin edges and buttons, but do not be fooled…. it is an instrument of personal horror reaching deep into our brain stems overriding our ability to exercise “free will”. She knew something was wrong with me because this is a term I have not used since undergrad philosophy classes and religious discussions. Now technology enters this realm of reverent semantics. “Why didn’t you just turn it off?” She responds.
It sounds silly because when taken to their logical conclusion, the arguments made that our brains are being hacked, minds hijacked or that we are on the verge of a smartphone dystopia are just that… silly. Please do not misunderstand, I do recognize that as a society (perhaps as a species) we have a problem. I do not disregard the alarmists. I am grateful to individuals like communication theorist Neil Postman for being at the forefront of an opposing viewpoint to the prevailing wisdom “If it is high tech, it must be good for us. Case closed.” 1. I appreciate the reporting of Paul Lewis and Franklin Foer. This push back is healthy: to test the truth of our premises we always need a counterpoint, a devil’s advocate.
That said, I dismiss the somewhat frightening prospect that we are powerless to control what Sigmund Freud termed the “id”, the animalistic repository of urges, fears and desires that drive us to sex, drugs and rock and roll. My superego is offended that we have overlooked a concept once championed by the party of Lincoln: “personal responsibility”.
Bear with me, this will not be a bunch of finger wagging from an old guy. Call me crazy, but I have always felt that it was unnatural to stay connected to people from your past. When I first opened up social media accounts, privately I had mixed feelings about them. I grew up in an age where you “outgrow” your circle of friends and “moved on” in life, acquiring new interests and people as you completed your studies, worked jobs, moved to different areas, got married or made your own family. Sure, there would be a few people that would always be in touch, best friend(s), siblings, or family…. but you were lucky if you could count those important people on more than one hand. It was natural to think ‘I wonder what happened to so and so” passingly.
Now, that idiot you knew in high school pops up in your feed with some political rant, personal reflection or pictures of his kids daily. What is worse is, apparently since 2009, this nuisance is now hourly. I do not even have to have the app open, push notifications let me know instantly if my neighbor is having a burrito on vacation. As a married man, at times it was uncomfortable (sometimes flattering) to have ex-girlfriends private message me, surely a temptation to drama. Oh man, and are there plenty of ways to have drama. Look away, look away, OK, maybe just a peek….dammit, I gotta delete that picture off my phone. As devices became more intrusive, there was the counter force of maturity tempering my clicks. As I drove, kids sleeping in their child seats, my attention was where it was supposed to be: on the highway in front of me. Not on email, not on texts. I especially tuned out around election season when the toxicity of negative campaigning and my friends self-righteousness and outrage reached epic proportions. I would cringe before I knew cringing was…. like a thing. This is not nobility, I am not taking the moral high ground, I do not judge. I simply attribute this to just becoming “out of touch”, the quintessential grumpy old guy who doesn’t want to be bothered. What did you say sonny? Obama is a muslim? Kaepernick is a patriot or burn your Nikes, Serena pulled a McEnroe? And that was just this week! I simply reply “who cares?”. Ahhh, ignorance is bliss, there is a certain peace in disconnecting. Surprisingly, I never closed the accounts, I just ignored them. After all, I wasn’t a complete recluse, just semi-misanthropic.
Perhaps like concrete, people get stronger with age… or thicker…and as the fog of hormones and testosterone driven behavior gave way to maturity, my mind cleared, no longer feeling the need to be constantly connected. Prioritizing my responsibilities over my urges. I “put away childish things” I had a choice, I am a big boy now, I have always had a choice. We have to admit when we make bad choices, when we were too weak to make good ones. Sorry, I have had enough hang overs to know no one forces us to binge on anything. It is OK, we make mistakes, that is part of the deal. Should I alleviate myself of any accountability because Mark Zuckerberg is a devious puppet master who made me ignore the present? Do we really need the government to protect us from our own bad choices? Are the warnings on the side of cigarette packs really preventing people from smoking? Are we going to mandate “tweet responsibly” to be listed after every post as we do with alcohol advertisements?
Application developer and successful silicon valley consultant Gabe Zichermann argues “Here is the reality, Corporations and creators of content since the beginning of time, wanted to make their content as engaging as possible. Asking technology companies to be less good at what they do feels like a ridiculous ask.” 2
These are all questions that go beyond technology, deeper social questions about ourselves and our behavior. It is contrary to the very American notion of personal freedom to look for someone to blame for our very own clear and organic human flaws. I do not buy (forgive the pun) the idea of “technological addiction” on a micro societal level, anymore than I believe Phillip Morris has the best intentions for my well being, or that McDonalds has good food. I am not shocked, I am not outraged, I am not even surprised.
Yet, I freely concede that when the average person taps, swipes or taps their phone more than 2,500 times a day “we” as a collective have a problem. So, not “I”, but “we” have a problem, there is the acknowledgement that the “attention economy”, fueled by the forces of the advertising industry, has reached a point of potential public harm. I’d prefer to look at “our” problem in historical context. One that frames this issue more as a national sickness than a high-tech conspiracy.
America, the great experiment, has always been a country of big appetites. We encourage big appetites. We cheer on excess. Our collective id is insatiable. The belief in manifest destiny took us from coast to coast. The belief in industrial equality, a higher standard of living for the common man, brought us cars and suburbs filled with refrigerators and washing machines. The belief in happiness through consumption brought us chain stores and a television in every home. The attention economy has been with us a long time. Advertisers have been fighting for our attention and manipulating us into compulsion since the the first newspapers were circulated. Like splitting cells, those televisions multiplied within nuclear family residences and soon became televisions in every room. Pictures of families gathering together around the TV to watch the first moon landing, gave way to concerns parents were not spending enough time with their children. 5 Where were the parents? Like body snatchers were the devices isolating and influencing us already?
Now we have a television in every pocket. The internet and our devices are simply a new more efficient delivery system. Is any advertising good advertising? As James Williams describes the current tech media industry as “the largest most standardized and most centralized form of attention control in human history”. 2 Has propaganda evolved into troll farms in the Ukraine? Did we really elect Archie Bunker president? Is he really having rallies across the country like George C. Scott in the opening scene of “Patton” with gigantic american flags as backdrops? What happened I asked? Maybe I was disconnected too long. How quickly the utopian wisdom of the crowd becomes a mob.
In short, Americans tend to take things too far. Culturally we are born into addiction. Christmas now begins in October because the economy depends on it. We have countless examples of our mistakes. Missteps that are often inevitable when given the freedom to be first at anything. Consumerism has left us empty, craving, searching for relief in the form of small tiny injections of dopamine and cortisol from our devices. Unfortunately, wisdom too often comes in hindsight. We now question the food industry for “the damage it has done to our waistlines, longevity, souls and planet” 4. We agree to reduce our nuclear arms only after we realize we can blow the planet up 100 times over. We question the auto industry for its dependence on carbon fuels when we can’t tell night from day in Los Angeles. We question the objectification of women on decades of magazine covers when preteen girls become anorexic. We question our need for automatic weapons in the face of tragedy and active shooter drills. We are a nation of contradictions and paradoxes. In the words of Childish Gambino “… This is America…Don’t [let it] catch you slippin’ up”.
We want more, we always want more. until too much makes us panic and want less….. much less please. Or, we crash, we hit a recession, our 401Ks are gone, a storm floods a region, a terrible thing happens. We will only be truly lost when we stop examining those internal conflicting forces that drive these social phenomenon. At least we suspect when things are not right, but fixing our addiction problem as a nation of extremes will not be easy. We know that we must sober up, as symptoms emerge as our partisanship. Our inability to compete globally may manifest itself in protectionism, fascism and militarism. Recovering from addiction has painful phases, there is denial, anger and guilt. America, like any addict attempting to reconcile its behavior and find balance promises to be a slow, clumsy process. I hope that as the pendulum swings the other way and toward a more perfect union we emerge strong enough to just “turn it off”.
Shawn is an Information Technology manager in Washington D.C. and a graduate student at Quinnipiac University pursuing his masters in Interactive Media and Communications.
Graphic by Shawn Torres, background stock photo provided by prexels https://www.pexels.com/photo-license/
- NEWPORT, C. (2018). DEEP WORK : rules for focused success in a distracted world. S.l: GRAND CENTRAL PUB. Page 67
- Lewis, P. (2017). ‘Our minds can be hijacked’: the tech insiders who fear a smartphone dystopia. the Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2017/oct/05/smartphone-addiction-silicon-valley-dystopia
- What is “brain hacking”? Tech insiders on why you should care. (2018, September 09). Retrieved from https://www.cbsnews.com/news/brain-hacking-tech-insiders-60-minutes
- Franklin Foer, (2017) “How Silicon Valley is erasing your individuality”
Washington Post, Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/how-silicon-valley-is-erasing-your-individuality/2017/09/08/a100010a-937c-11e7-aace-04b862b2b3f3_story.html
- Dunham, W. (2008). Study ties bedroom TV to unhealthy habits in teens. U.S. Retrieved from https://www.reuters.com/article/us-teens/study-ties-bedroom-tv-to-unhealthy-habits-in-teens-idUSN0439129420080407
- D’Costa, K. (2018, September 09). How many TV sets do you have—and why does it matter? Retrieved from https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/anthropology-in-practice/how-many-tv-sets-do-you-have-mdash-and-why-does-it-matter
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