Thinking like a smartphone

I saw a Reddit quote the other week in response to the question, ‘If aliens landed what would they find strangest about our society?’ The answer said: We carry around super computers in our pockets capable of looking up nearly all the information known to mankind, and we use them to look at pictures of cats and argue with strangers. I would add to that: and ignore the people we’re physically spending time with, without considering how rude it is. Because it’s just the way things are now. We are in a new age of communication – although people have been saying that for the last hundred years at least. But we are now in a revolution of manners, and of how we actually think.

Smartphones play a totally new part in our daily lives. Before, if someone was talking to you and you picked up a book or a newspaper and started to read when they were mid-sentence, it would be considered unbelievably rude. And yet we do it with our phones without thinking. I’ve had meet-ups with friends when they’ve spent more time texting someone else than they have speaking to me. (Which has on occasion felt ironic because they’re so bad at replying in general. It makes one wonder if you’re the only one who has to wait a week for a response.) Yet even though this infuriates me, I still do it to other people. I’ll check my phone while I’m out with a friend or talking to somebody else, and it doesn’t feel like a big deal. But it is.

I am genuinely worried about what smartphones (and smartphones specifically, as well as technology in general) are doing to our societies. When was the last time you switched off your phone? Even on planes or in cinemas or theatres, people can’t bear to switch them off. They’re just put on aeroplane mode. I switch mine off, but the first thing I do as I’m leaving is turn it back on. Why are we so addicted to these tiny pieces of technology? I would estimate that about 90% of the times  I check mine, there is nothing remotely interesting for me to look at. And yet I keep doing it. I’ve noticed on nights out when I’ve forgotten it or I have no signal I still get that automatic message from my brain: check your phone. I start feeling like I’m going mad because I get this compulsive urge, and reach for my phone before realising it’s not there – like looking for a phantom limb. It’s pretty alarming.

I read a book in the summer called The Shallows by Nicholas Carr, about the ways that technology is changing the way our brains work. Not that this hasn’t happened before – it happened with the advent of deep reading. As writing materials became more widely available, and larger, people started writing more, and more people started reading – at first aloud, and then gradually, silent reading became the norm. ‘As language expanded, consciousness deepened.’ ‘The quiet of deep reading became part of the mind.’ Doesn’t it sound fabulously peaceful? But now: we are physically shortening our brain’s attention span with our use of technology. In simple terms, our working memory can only ever absorb a certain amount of information at a time, and then it gets stored in long-term memory. But we aren’t retaining as much of the information we look at because we don’t look at it for long enough. ‘Our brains become adept at forgetting, inept at remembering.’ We skim, and flick between tabs; minimise windows and move them around, read half an article then click a hyperlink to read another article, on and on, always with twenty things going on at once. Some people say this is multitasking, but multitasking has been proven to be a myth. The brain is not capable of performing two complex tasks at the same time. You can see this for yourself if you’re walking with a friend and ask them a complicated question they really need to think about to answer. Their pace will slow and may even stop. The brain cannot keep doing something even as simple as walking if it needs all its energy for another task. The same thing will happen if you are driving and chatting and then need to navigate a busy intersection. You will stop talking, often mid-sentence. You may be able to return to the sentence afterwards, but for those seconds, you cannot do two things at once. When we think we are doing two complex tasks at once, we’re actually switching between them very fast – and losing a little time every time we switch.

The leaders of Google and Apple and Microsoft don’t want us to believe this, however. No, the more apps you run at once the more efficient you’re being! Buy more processing power! Buy more gadgets to be EVEN MORE EFFICIENT! Schmidt, a former CEO of Google, came out with this truly terrifying quote: ‘The most obvious use of Twitter… can be seen in situations where everybody is watching a play and are busy talking about the play while the play is under way’. This doesn’t make sense. If people are talking about the play, they aren’t watching the play. You cannot do both at the same time. The last time I went to a concert, I ended up being forced to watch half of it on somebody’s phone, held up in front of my face. Whoever it was lost half of each song because they couldn’t wait until afterwards to upload the pictures and videos to the internet. It’s all about sharing and tweeting and making people aware of what you’re doing, even though at the moment you’re staring at your phone, you’re not at the concert. Your brain is elsewhere.

But the more time people spend doing real things in person, the less time they’ll be spending on Twitter and Facebook and shopping and buying and looking at adverts and making tax-evading billionaires lots more money. Or, in less cynical terms, the less time is spent communicating with wide networks of people and sharing information and expressing ourselves to our beautiful huge communities of online followers. That’s how it works, right? Everyone’s our friend. Except, if you’re me, hardly anybody notices what you’ve said/seen and you are left with that odd feeling of disappointment, of losing something you never really had. We are, according to Nicholas Carr, ‘lab rats constantly pressing levers to get tiny pellets of social or intellectual nourishment’. I certainly feel like a lab rat sometimes.

But what’s complicated about uploading a picture and listening to a concert at the same time, you may ask. Or having a conversation and reading a text.  You can do that easily. Can’t you? If your attention is focussed on reading, your ears won’t work so well. I do it all the time. “Sure, I’m listening, keep going, I’ll just answer this email while you talk… mm hmm… what? Sorry I didn’t quite hear that bit.” Much as we all want to believe we’re super-powered computers who can run a million jobs a minute, that isn’t how our brain works. It’s both much simpler and far more complicated than a machine.

I read a book recently called ‘To be a Machine’, about transhumanism – people who want to extend human life, often through part or total melding with machines. Some people believe if we find out enough about the human brain, we could recreate a mechanical brain. We can make ourselves into a computer, and thereby live forever. Or create androids, robots, replicants, with brains like ours. But is this really possible? We all talk as though it is: the metaphors linking our brains and computers are growing all the time. Processing, memory, bandwidth, the ‘space’ in our brains – brains or hard drives? – and so on and so on. Yet these ideas ‘take for granted that the brain operates according to the same formal mathematical rules as a computer does – that, in other words, the brain and the computer speak the same language. But that’s a fallacy born of our desire to explain phenomena we don’t understand in terms we do understand.’ It may seem odd to say that we understand computers and don’t understand our own brains, but it’s true. Even those scientists working right now on recreating a brain don’t know how to answer the question ‘will it be conscious?’, because we don’t know what we mean by the term conscious. Our own minds and the ability to have this concept of ourselves, of ‘I’, is something philosophers and scientists and theologians have been arguing over for centuries – and they’re still arguing, because we haven’t understood it yet.

So we’re convincing ourselves that computers can mimic our brains, and also persuading ourselves that our brains can mimic computers. We try to do everything at once, concentrate on ten different things and who cares if we look at our smartphones when we’re doing another task, or talking to another person? Why can’t we do two things at once? Perhaps our smartphones are already becoming extensions of our brains, relied on for looking up information, remembering phone numbers, doing even simple arithmetic, and communicating with people. We are making it easier to imagine being able to meld man and machine, as that deepening of consciousness that came with reading, the questioning and reasoning that it brought out in our brains, is made shallow and vague as we forget even the simplest things in preference to looking at the little rectangle in our hands. We forget how to have a full, complicated conversation, and how to wait for things instead of getting instant gratification. We become more rude and distant – even if nobody notices because everyone’s the same. Nobody notices what the person opposite them is doing, because nobody’s looking each other in the eye.

I know that when I spend a lot of time looking at my phone, I get this irritable, slightly queasy, flickering sensation in my head. Often I’ve been conscious of wanting to stop looking at this pointless endless scroll of information long before I’ve actually looked up, but have stayed glued to the screen: ‘we crave the new even when we know that the new is more often trivial than essential’. But I hope we retain some way of teaching young people how to process (!) information without the aid of technology. We risk losing this ability to choose what we see, choose some of what influences us, because we’re all addicted to the stream of words and pictures dictated by who knows who, with who knows what aims in mind. I’ll end with a quote from David Foster Wallace, who said that giving up this control, this means of exercising command over our own brains, is to be left with “the constant gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing”. Our brains’ abilities are infinite. Those of a smartphone are not.

All quotes are from the book The Shallows by Nicholas Carr. The last, from David Foster Wallace, is also quoted in The Shallows.

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