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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Loops of memory

I recently read the Derren Brown book Happy, which included some intriguing quotes from Douglas Hofstadter’s book I am a Strange Loop, prompting me to loan it from the local library. I’m now about a quarter of the way through. Both books have pushed me to start thinking about philosophy in ways I hadn’t previously – I always saw it as something too lofty and divorced from real life to be in any way useful – but now I am starting to apply it to ideas I was already interested in, about the mind and how it reacts, about mental illness and maintaining good mental health. The following post is about my recovery from a recent car accident, but is heavily informed by ideas from these two books – namely the ideas of confirmation bias and our self-narratives from Happy, and the discussion of feedback loops and memory and the existence of “souls” in physical objects from I am a Strange Loop.

It is only three weeks since the crash, so I am probably expecting too much of myself, but I still feel impatient to be “over it.” I believed that if I could get back in a car, and drive (which I have done) then that would be most of the problem solved. My anxiety has generally been rather worse, I have been struggling to relax properly, and lately I have been haunted by a strong feeling of sadness, making my default mood more depressed and low than I’ve been for a long time. None of this sounds hugely surprising when I type it out, but still I find myself surprised.

Until Monday of this week I had a hire car, provided by my insurance company, which was happily a dream to drive and went a long way to restoring some of my depleted confidence. Sadly my search to buy another car has thus far not been fruitful, due to a combination of factors. The first car I went to see was at some cowboy garage, and it had decidedly alarming brakes, which screeched at the lightest tough and brought you to such a sudden stop you felt you were about to be thrown through the windscreen. I drove it for about two minutes before returning it and dumping it in the middle of the forecourt. Just those two minutes made me nervous of driving at all, and made me far less eager to drive very far to view any more cars. I saw a couple of vehicles at a local garage I know and trust, but the ones they had were either too small or too expensive for the wishlist I had drawn up for myself. I am now in the state of wanting a car, but not being able to look at cars because I don’t have a car to get to them in, and even if I did hire a car to go and look at a car, if I wanted to buy said car I wouldn’t be able to drive it and the hire car home. My partner doesn’t drive and I don’t know anyone where I live well enough to want to ask them to do me the favour of driving me twenty miles to see a car, which may in all likelihood have kangaroo-jumping brakes at a garage run by an adolescent with the sales acumen of a damp sock. I am also uncomfortable at the idea of having other people in the car with me at present, and feel better driving alone. This isn’t just due to the practicalities of being able to focus better when I am on my own, but also because the majority of my thinking after the accident was about how close I came to inflicting injury on other people. Particularly my partner, but also the innocent people driving around me. Thoughts of what could have happened to me personally did not feel so important.

Aside from the practicalities that come with having my own car, I feel it is a necessary step in my recovery from the accident. Others may be surprised when I say that apart from the nerves and negative memories of the accident, I also feel very sad at the loss of my car. It was the first car I had owned since passing my test, which I’m sure makes a big difference, although perhaps some people always feel attached to their cars. I felt “sorry for it” when I was staring at its smashed-up front on the motorway, and seeing other fully whole silver Renault Clios since has given me painful twinges, which are entirely divorced from the horror of what might have been, and are only connected to feeling bad for the car itself. In the same way as I might feel sad after the end of a relationship when I visit places I went to with that person, I have felt sad revisiting places I drove to in my old car. Of course, I am aware that these feelings are not bound up in attributing reciprocating emotions to a lump of metal and plastic and glass, but are connected to my own feelings at those times, the feelings of anxiety and triumph and happiness at driving somewhere I wanted to get to, and doing it successfully. The greatest of these was the longest drive I’ve ever done, to Somerset, in May, when I drove myself and my partner there to one of my favourite places on earth. Since the accident, looking at pictures of that holiday has also made me feel sad. The memories are tainted: whereas before, that beautiful place felt so much closer to me because I knew I could drive there whenever I wanted, it now feels so much further away, knowing that it will take time and effort to get my confidence back up to a place where I can drive there – but also gaining the confidence and trust of my partner so that he would be happy for me to drive him there again.

People get emotionally attached to physical objects from cars to jewellery to books to mugs to almost anything you can think of. In most cases it is the emotions we feel when we are around those physical things that we are attached to, or the pleasure that comes from looking at something we find beautiful, and knowing that it is ours and we can take it where we like. Or they have sentimental value and remind us of people or places we cherish. In my case, with my car, I am sad to have lost the feelings of freedom and overcoming my own mental anxiety when driving, but also the grown-up-ness of having my own car, and keeping my things in it; I hadn’t yet got past the novelty of it and still enjoyed seeing my CDs and bits and pieces strewn about the car, making it mine. I cleaned it regularly, much to the amusement of my neighbours when I cleaned it in very cold temperatures, and would glance at it in its parking space every morning out of the window and every evening as I came back to my front door. The empty space outside is a constant reminder to me at the moment, not only of the absence of my sweet reliable little car, but also of my own failure. Although everyone says the accident could have happened to anyone and it wasn’t my fault, I have an idea of myself as a not particularly skilled driver, so it is easy to match this narrative with me crashing a car due to my own incompetence.

We constantly create these stories of our own lives, and because they are reinforced by our own selective memories of ourselves and of things that have happened to us, they are very difficult to change. We use confirmation bias – seeing things that reinforce that story and explaining away those that don’t – on a daily basis. And we unknowingly create endless loops of memory, thought and story which keep certain ideas alive, even if we don’t want to keep thinking about them. For example, at the moment, looking at the pictures of Somerset in my living room creates this loop: Somerset -> driving to Somerset in May -> crashing on the motorway -> I am a failure. Depending on our own internal stories, these stories tend to be positive or negative. Mine are often negative. I have endless feedback loops which remind me of stupid things I’ve said and done, or little nuggets of information my partner has given me about his exes which I’m sure he’s long since forgotten. For example, people who talk a lot are often called ‘chatty Kathys’ in North America, something I hadn’t heard until I started going out with my Canadian partner. Now, whenever he says it, this is what my brain does: “Chatty Kathy” -> Ex called Cathleen was called Cathy by her parents -> she disliked it and my partner thought it was a stupid shortening of the name (I disagree, it seems perfectly reasonable to me). Every time. It is exhausting, but an almost impossible cycle to break. I’ve also noticed this as a somewhat irritating reaction of mine when watching films, as obviously the same thing happens every time I watch the same film, and my brain has the same thought automatically when I watch it. For example, in The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, when Elrond says at the council: “One of you must do this” (take the ring to Mordor) my reflex response is to say: “Don’t all volunteer at once!!” It isn’t a particularly funny or interesting comment the first time I make it, so I feel sorry for the people I watch it with who hear me say it every time.

Of course, memories get replaced with new ones and some of these feedback loops will change over time. Once I get a new car (somehow) I will create new memories to replace the old ones, and one day I will drive myself back to Somerset, and lay that demon to rest. Perhaps I will still feel sad about the loss of my old car, but I’m sure it’s normal to continue to feel sad for the loss of a physical thing, especially if it’s something you had tied to a new and still-delicate version you had of yourself. You’ll also be glad to hear I’ve stopped saying “don’t all volunteer at once!!” when I watch Lord of the Rings. Other reflex thought reactions are more difficult to replace: it may take a long time for me to build a narrative of myself as a competent and even good driver. But one of the things that I find especially fascinating about the brain is its malleability: we can train and exercise it in certain ways the same way as we can other parts of the body. Over time, what feels now to be incessant and inescapable can slowly change.