We live in an expanding universe. Someday, neighboring galaxies will be so far away, they’ll no longer be visible in the sky. Imagine humanity inventing the telescope in this era. After studying our local stars, would it then be parsimonious to assume that’s all there was? Just deep black space in every direction outside the Milky Way? No breadcrumbs of galactic light to tug curiosity and reveal how vast things actually are?
Now a suggestion:
A version of this has already happened. Something incredibly precious was available to humanity, but has been smothered. Not in the sense that it doesn’t exist, but in the sense that it’s irrevocably out of view – lost in plain sight. Gone missing since early 2000s… when the globe was infected with a virus of the internet, tech, and immediacy. Our collective opportunity to routinely find silence and gain clarity was annihilated.
Like a trojan horse we welcomed this virus with open arms. Now, much like the metaphorical frogs, we’re boiling alive, unwittingly.
Imagine a stranger following you around, interrupting your life with absolutely zero regard for how it affects you, every few minutes. HEY! HEY! HEY! HEY! HEY! HEY!
Just shouting into your ear at random intervals with some trivial fact or amusement, and each time, you unquestionably oblige, Yes, what is it?
Perhaps occasionally you become annoyed. You leave the stranger in the other room, or cover your ears. But this reprieve is short-lived – the same relentless mental assault resumes the moment you’re reunited.
After a while… it feels normal. After a while, you accept this is how life is. In fact, when the stranger is quiet, YOU initiate the convo. Amusing, maybe, but also: Itchy. Distracted. Foggy. Fragmented. After a while you forget that life could be any other way.
No chance you’d tolerate someone doing this to you… you’d be livid. WHY, then, do we grant such absurd privilege to our our phones? It’s a fantastic illusion – that our phones are, by-default, serving our best interests, when in fact, there are serving an unseen amount economic ones, and doing so with devastatingly surgical psychological allure. Sure, they may be “your” apps… “your” friends on the other side of the notifications, and content “you” enjoy. But are you able to step back and take a longer term view? The addict’s dilemma, is that the cost is unseen. Or, the cost IS seen, but the gravity of the attachment is far too great to overcome.
The Cost- Malnourishment
Decency. Contemplation. Pause. Intellectual honesty. Reflection. Nonreaction. Wisdom. Sustained focus. Clarity. Deep work. Quiet. Slow.
Just as our bodies depend upon key nutrients, so do our minds. The minds of us, as individuals, and the collective minds of our institutions – 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 mental nutrients, the human experience is simply a pinball game that never ends. 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 is not bad. Tech is not bad. Immediacy, used thoughtfully, is not bad. But the cocktail of these things, wielded with apparently zero regard of consequences, is psychologically deadly. Striving to be generous, I am still at a loss to 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, the 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 propose a world without the internet and smartphones. Yet – it is not only plausible, but already the case, that this fundamental power has been deployed 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 knows to make a warning and offer guidance.
As engineers, we must engineer 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. Kill 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. This does NOT imply obsession with lofty goals. 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 is very happy to fill this vacuum – and this is the problem. Perhaps a good first book, is one about exploring values and goals.
A Personal Anecdote
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 calm and less urgent. I have hope this will endure, and neutering my phone was a massive component of that.
I remain frustrated and sad, however, that this technology has been dumped upon the world and we have yet to see, collectively, 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 a quaint myth, whose value was already hard to grasp before our era, and now, is nearly impossible to see.
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.