Smartphones: Transforming society into a sea of stupid

Technology can enable us reach out to people in ways that were never possible before, but at the same time, it is also extremely capable of bringing out the absolute worst of humanity as well.


In a previous column, I discussed the impact of smartphone technology on human society and why extended usage of these devices may be stealing our most valued moments of life away from us .

I've given this a bit more thought. The issue isn't so much smartphones per se, but our increasing reliance on mobile technology combined with an irresistible cocktail of social networking. A cocktail in which there are incentives for constant participation or sharing of information, as well as incessant information "snacking."

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Basically, the problem comes down to what Yale University computer science professor David Gelernter has termed the "lifestream", and what I have referred to in a previous article as " The fast track to nitwit ."

In summary, the smartphone/social networking cocktail combined with this penchant for information snacking is a perfect storm for artificially created autism spectrum disorders, and it makes antisocial behavior in the form of a non-stop feedback loop the new accepted norm.

But smartphones and technology as a whole are generally accepted to be morally neutral, right?

Technology may be morally neutral, but society as a whole establishes the norms. Once we decide collectively as a society what is socially acceptable to do, there's no turning back.

For example, in the 1920s, radio became a popular form of entertainment that started to displace various social activities. In the 1950s, television re-enforced this, and by the 1960s, the "Boob Tube" became part of our collective lexicon.

So while we can certainly point towards societal detachment with the introduction of radio and television, those were only consumptive technologies rather than interactive ones.

The move towards Personal Computing starting in the early 1980s added an element of societal detachment. By comparison, radio and TV could be enjoyed in groups, whereas the PC and online interaction was by nature a single-user activity.

Technology may be morally neutral, but society as a whole establishes the norms. Once we decide collectively as a society what is socially acceptable to do, there's no turning back.

The widespread use of the PC, the rise of online services, and the use of the internet outside of academia were probably the tipping points of this trend towards a societal disconnect through technology. The mobile phone along with texting was another one.

Once these technologies were combined into the smartphone, the perfect device for bringing out the worst of our inner antisocial qualities was born.

With smartphones and mobile devices, we've extended that introversion and ersatz social activity to anywhere that there's a wireless data connection.

One could argue that any technology when applied in moderation is beneficial. Becoming connected to other people is always a good thing, but there are qualitative aspects of making connections.

I'm having a hard time believing that Facebook, Instagram, Vine, or Twitter are high-value experiences compared to, say, email or a voice-over-IP (VoIP) or video conferencing session between colleagues or distant family members.

Of course, we cannot place the blame of societal disconnect entirely on the current generation of mobile devices.

Smartphones and tablets just so happen to be the latest and greatest tool for freebasing social networking and information snacking — eventually, there will be other avenues for doing this, such as through wearable computing devices.

Game consoles and PC gaming, interestingly enough, are more of a high-value experience, particularly if they involve multiplayer games. It's certainly a more complex form of social interaction than the standard quick-share or quick-consume model of social networking.

However, too much gaming and staying inside is not great for us as a society, either.

Those who have lived through the evolution of mobile computing can still remember an age when we didn't have these devices and still have the capability to "turn off," but even so, it's still difficult to do for those people, including myself.

What is most concerning is the generation of people who are growing up with smartphones and cannot remember life without them, or never knew a time when this form of behavior was socially unacceptable.

Wearables will allow people to be antisocial in a nearly undetectable manner. In my opinion, that makes it worse, because nobody on the other side of the eyepiece will truly know whether they are being paid attention to or not.

This is pretty much the ultimate evolution, short of a cybernetic implant or the mythical technological singularity of an artificially created autism spectrum disorder.

Of course, I'm not advocating neo-Luddism of any kind here. I think that we can put mechanisms into our technology that tells us that we need to take a "time out."

Just like the fitness sensors that we have built into our phones and Bluetooth devices that count our calories and miles walked, it would also be possible to track how much we are using our technology and create thresholds which inform us that we need to take a rest.

We also need to tell people when they are acting in a socially unacceptable manner, and try not to be part of the problem ourselves.

Additionally, as my colleague James Kendrick pointed out, human beings just plain need to get out and be with other people more .

As I have said in earlier writings, we are becoming a society of anxious, sleep-deprived, irritable stress-heads. Add the "lifestreams" to this mix, and we're all at risk of becoming attention challenged and socially inept as well.

My earlier advice still stands: Simply turn the devices off and engage in basic social activities more often. Cook with people and have discussions without your devices at the dinner table.

Technology can enable us to reach out to people in ways that were never possible before, but at the same time, it is also extremely capable of bringing out the absolute worst of humanity.

Engage in group exercise like team sports, or even engage in solitary exercise to clear your mind and to meditate. And while long-form reading of books and newspapers is not a social activity per se, it stimulates the brain differently than social networking services do.

Technology can enable us to reach out to people in ways that were never possible before, but at the same time, it is also extremely capable of bringing out the absolute worst of humanity.

Anything that enhances the human condition is a positive thing, but anything that displaces basic forms of human interaction will potentially destroy us, if we are to believe EM Forster, who predicted the rise of the internet in 1909 with his short story "The Machine Stops."

I don't believe we need conclusive scientific evidence that over-use of these devices and a tendency to replace traditional means of social interaction with social networking tools disconnects us from society and may also retard or harm our overall developmental skills, particularly if we are exposed to them at an early age.

Those of us who already have difficulties in social situations or have autism spectrum disorders (ASD) and associated co-morbid conditions, such as ADHD and ADD, should be making an extra effort to get out and be with people, and not become recluses with our tech toys.

The signs are certainly out there. You only need to walk into a restaurant to see supposedly mature adults at tables mindlessly texting or "liking" and sharing, rather than engaging in focused conversation with each other.

You only need to go to a public park and watch people stare at their tablets or phones rather than take in a beautiful summer's day watching the marvels of nature or to people watch. Or ignoring priceless works of art displayed at a museum, instead fixated on their business calendars and corporate emails when they are on vacation.

You only need to observe your own children at family gatherings who would rather be texting peers of their own age — frequently in the same room with each other — than having to communicate verbally with anyone.

Is this the society we want to create for ourselves? For our children? Or are we doomed to transform our great civilization into a sea of stupid? Talk back and let me know.


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