Why you should put down your smartphone
31st May 2018
I recently finished reading an excellent book penned by one of my favourite physicists, Max Tegmark: Life 3.0. Being Human in the Age of Artificial Intelligence. The late cosmologist, Stephen Hawking, and futurist, Ray Kurzweil, referred to it as an introduction and guide to the most important conversation of our time.
As historian Yuval Noah Harari noted, technology is never deterministic: it can be used to create very different kinds of society. In the 20th century, trains, electricity and radio were used to fashion Nazi and communist dictatorships, but also to foster liberal democracies and free markets. No doubt, AI will have its benefits. But we should probably take a step back and look at the big picture before having the most irreversible of dystopian futures pushed upon us.
The world is largely asleep to the disruption that awaits us and the choices we make today may have a profound impact on the trajectory of life for countless millennia. Alongside, there is another intimately-related and rapidly-growing elephant in the room, which has taken on a quality almost akin to demonic possession. I’m talking about digital dope, the raging addiction of our time.
The former cricketer, polymath and now England national selector, Ed Smith, once recounted an enlightening story from Silicon Valley relating to Jack Dorsey, the Twitter co-founder. How does Dorsey start his day? With a big hit of social media, a chunky dose of the gear he pushes to us, a fat bag of digital chemicals applied to his cloudy cortex?
Not a chance. Like so many high performers and business titans, Dorsey kicks off every day, unfailingly, with meditation followed by a workout. He avoids checking emails until the evening. You see, the man needs time and space in which to think. Dorsey, a disciple of stringent food diets, retains his discipline with digital influences. Like a host wandering around a party imposing sugary confection on his guests, he is privately sipping super smoothies. Using is for other people: using is the business, refraining is the lifestyle.
Like most people, when I know that my emails are in my pocket I find it hard not to check them. But recently I’ve undergone a sort of “digital detox”, mostly abandoning my smartphone on evenings, weekends and a few select daylight hours during the week. If I want to check my emails, texts or WhatsApps, it must be a conscious decision, not an involuntary spasm. Sure, I’ll check my Twitter feed every now and again, but I’ll generally seek my dopamine fix elsewhere.
Well, I’m encouraging you to join me in pushing back at the pushers and their push-notifications. This issue is likely to define the next generation: the disciplined creating addictions for the ill-disciplined, and then profiting from that dependency. Twas ever thus, one could argue. Human history is littered with vices through which we have frittered away our precious time.
I suppose the really disappointing thing about the ubiquity of digital distraction is the apparent lack of human ambition. Interacting with a small amalgam of plastic, silicon and precious metals, should we not be asking, “Is this really as good as it gets?” Can’t we choose a more exciting lifestyle model than smartphone addiction?
Fed constant information, we have sated our hunger to think deeply; like a child dosed up on candy, we’re giving up proper meals. The pushers are encouraging self-medicated paralysis, not to mention fuelling a peculiar strain of mass schizophrenia through the creation of personalised, hyperbaric echo chambers. For more on this, I highly recommend Adam Curtis’s outstanding documentary, Hypernormalisation.
Let me be clear: I am not “anti-technology” in the slightest. I love my gadgets and the incredible ways in which I’m able to leverage my time through their use. However, intermittent fasting, it is argued, is a healthy way to live. It’s the same with our digital diet. So, put down your smartphone, have a real conversation, read a great book, see your best friends, live your most fulfilling life.