Smartphones are making us unbelievably, mind-numbingly, aggressively dumb. Not merely dumb. Also lonely, depressive, narcissistic, compulsive, and cynical. But for the purposes of this brief article, dumb. Smartphones are making us into lumpen half-wits.
I suspected it for years, as I realized that my smartphone distracted me continually, feeding the more superficial aspects of my consciousness while starving the deeper aspects.
When I woke up in the mornings, I would check my phone before I even got out of bed.
First, I checked my text messages. A few texts from friends. A few texts from people who wondered if I received the FB message or email they sent yesterday. A text from Verizon letting me know that my bill is due soon and that I’ve almost reached my monthly limit for data usage.
Second, I looked at my email notifications. The Wall Street Journal and 10 other outlets send a list of news and opinion articles they think I need to read. A generous person from Nigeria offers to deposit $10 million in my bank account if I will only send my Social Security number, birthday, full name, and photograph of my passport. So-and-so wants to know if I received the email they sent yesterday afternoon; they’re unsure because more than half a day has passed without me answering. A guy who read one of my opinion articles tells me he hopes I get run over by a dump truck.
Third, I checked my social media notifications. Twitter DMs and Facebook messages present themselves as needing a response. My Twitter feed informs me that Donald Trump tweeted something and that various news outlets either denounced it in no uncertain terms or lauded it effusively. People in my Facebook feed argued with each other using ALL CAPS and exclamation marks for emphasis!!! People on Instagram shared photographs of their dinner plates—arugula, quinoa, avocado toast, kale, sriracha, seasonal-spiced coffee drinks, and suchlike.
Finally, I repeated the same cycle whenever I had a few minutes during the day. In between meetings. During meetings. At stoplights. Even a sneak peek during dinner or in a conversation with my wife.
And, all along, I had the nagging feeling that I was becoming dumber, or perhaps more mindless, every time I fed my compulsion.
So, I’ve suspected for years that the smartphone makes us dumber.
But in recent years, a number of studies have proven what we suspected. One of the most interesting analyses is a collaboration between neuroscientist Adam Gazzaley and psychologist Larry D. Rosen (not the same Dr. Rosen as referenced in Fletch).
In Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World, Gazzaley and Rosen explore the effect of technology on the human brain, concluding that “distraction”—a situation in which we are pursing a meaningful goal and something disrupts our efforts to achieve it—is the result of tension between two basic features of the human brain: (1) our ability to conceive, plan, and carry to completion meaningful goals; and (2) our ability to control our mind and environment as we make strides toward achieving those goals.
They visualize distraction as a “mighty force” (our meaningful goals) coming into a head-on collision with a “barrier” (our limited mind-control abilities). In our high-tech age, the mighty force tends to overwhelm the barrier, and we are all the dumber for it. We experience a reduced attention span, a blunted memory, and a diminished ability to switch back and forth between tasks.
At the center of all of this is the smartphone. More than any other device, it collects distractions, amplifies them, and feeds them to us continually. It notifies us of incoming emails, texts, phone calls, and voicemails. It displays notifications from Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and other social media. It lets us know immediately when the Weather Channel or Fox News or CNN or whoever has something to tell us.
The smartphone is a medium of increased demands, increased publics, and increased anxiety. Its apps are overflowing with useless information, vitriol, slander, and inanity. And it distracts us, relentlessly, all day long.
As studies have shown, compulsive smartphone use isolates us and diminishes the likelihood we’ll talk with a friend, go on a date, or show up to work. Its social media apps induce in us a heightened awareness of our social exclusion. In many people, the combination of isolation and social exclusion causes us to be depressive and, in some instances, even suicidal.
For politically-engaged people, I suspect it is insanity (and inanity) inducing.
Worst of all, the tech industry feeds on the phenomenon of smart phone addiction. Tech companies know that their addiction-inducing digital media strategies cause dopamine surges in the brain. In response, they muster all of the resources at hand to lull us into a state of compulsion and addiction. They want you to be a nomophobic, narcissistic Lilliputian with an aggravated attention deficit.
So, how do we resist the smartphone-induced dumbification of our minds?
I don’t think we need to take drastic measures. Smartphones, of course, are not bad in-and-of themselves. In many ways, they’re quite helpful. After all, without my smartphone, how would I order books on Amazon while I’m stuck in a traffic jam? How would I knock out emails while waiting to board a plane? Nobody wants to return to the days of the rotary phone or the Mobira Talkman.
But most of us do need to take intentional steps to resist lumpen idiocy that results from smartphone addiction. Maybe refuse to look at your phone until you’ve eaten breakfast and spent some time in Scripture and prayer. Maybe turn the notifications off on your email and social media apps. Maybe leave the smartphone in another room during meals, meetings, and conversations with friends. Maybe give yourself permission not to respond to every person who reaches out to you through one of those apps.
Regardless, the point is this: smartphone technologies often facilitate and enhance the tasks and pleasures that involve more superficial forms of consciousness, but they often diminish our minds and derail the more meaningful goals that require a deeper level of consciousness. So, let’s determine to spend less time developing the more superficial forms of consciousness and more time developing the deeper levels.
In doing so, we will be less dumb and more happy. And I’m not the only person who thinks like this. I know because I read about it on my smartphone this afternoon.