Smartphones: Transforming society into a sea of stupid

Smartphones: Transforming society into a sea of stupid

Summary: 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.

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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."

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.

Topics: Mobility, Smartphones

About

Jason Perlow, Sr. Technology Editor at ZDNet, is a technologist with over two decades of experience integrating large heterogeneous multi-vendor computing environments in Fortune 500 companies. Jason is currently a Partner Technology Strategist with Microsoft Corp. His expressed views do not necessarily represent those of his employer.

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55 comments
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  • I went to a beach last year, late in the season

    and the weather was beautiful, the scenery at its best as the beach was uncrowded. All three people on the beach were staring down - into their phones.

    When did we become so jaded that we're confident we've seen it all, even when we went out of our way to get off the beaten trail?
    Mac_PC_FenceSitter
    • "... the scenery at its best..."

      Ummmm. If the scenery were REALLY at it's best on the beach, it might have even won out over the phones. ;)
      Userama
    • I went to a beach last year, late in the season - Another version

      and the weather was beautiful, the scenery at its best as the beach was uncrowded. All three people on the beach were staring down - into their books (the paper variety)!

      What is different in the scenario that you presented and this one?
      crystalsoldier
      • what's different?

        why the long-term enjoyment of a book vs. the short-term media most prevalent on the phones, of course.
        BitBanger_USA
        • But we do not know

          - may be they were reading their books on their phones/tablets.

          On the other hand, most people on the beach just lay there doing nothing. How's that better than playing angry birds?
          ForeverSPb
          • agree

            Being at the beach and doing NOTHING is probably worse than checking smartphones. You shouldn't be watching the scenery, you should be in the water! Swimming! Or something but in the water! If you are just laying like a sloth in the beach, you're doing it wrong.
            danixdefcon5
          • I only get a couple days at the beach a year.

            So I tend to maximize me "beach experience" when I am there. The cell phone stays in the car or gets sandwich-bagged to protect it if I decide a photo is in order so it really never gets used to any degree at the beach. However, I do understand there are many people who live just off the beach or even on the beach and it is no more to them than me going into my backyard to read, i.e. you should be going to the beach to have experiences YOU enjoy and not get caught up in what other people are doing.
            oncall
          • Close is very nice

            You enjoy the low people days. The sound and feel is relaxing.
            Then again, the eye candy is nice too ;)
            rhonin
      • You beat me to it

        If smartphones didn't exist, if I was at a beach, I would be reading a paper book. With my smartphone, more than likely I will be reading the book using my Amazon Kindle App.

        Making me stupid? I probably read more because of smartphones. Because I travel a lot, I had weight restrictions when shipping. I also had the issue of not being able to always find what I was looking for in foreign country's bookstores. Not to mention that many online sellers either charged more than the cost the book for shipping, or wouldn't ship overseas at all. No. If anything, a smartphone if not actually making me "smarter" it at least makes me more "knowledgeable".
        sgtm8@...
  • Hard to believe because it's not true.

    "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."

    It's hard to believe - because, frankly, it's not true. I dunno why bloggers have an obsession over Twitter and such, but they're most certainly not better in any objective way.

    "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,'"

    That's still true today. If you don't want to deal with your technology, everything has an off switch. Whether you actually take the time to turn it off is somewhat debatable, but it's there.

    "Wearables will allow people to be antisocial in a nearly undetectable manner."

    . . . except that wearables are probably not gonna make it in the long run. The Bluetooth earpiece was a hit at one time, but it eventually died out in the long run - I don't really see that many people with a bluetooth thing in their ear anymore. I personally think wearables are more like fashion trends than technology advancements - sometimes they're in, sometimes they're out.

    "Of course, I'm not advocating neo-Luddism of any kind here."

    Of course not - and we need not accuse every skeptic of Luddism either. Even though I am very tech oriented, I simply am not a big believer in technology for the sake of technology. I believe that technology should be for the betterment of mankind, and technologies that don't benefit us shouldn't be held on a high pedestal.

    "Add the 'lifestreams' to this mix, and we're all at risk of becoming attention challenged and socially inept as well."

    I don't think "lifestreams" are the ultimate endpoint of our social technology. I don't see the benefit in that.

    Overall, I agree: We should be in control over our technology, and it should serve us, not get in our way or make us anti-social.

    And I think that many bloggers have it backwards - they believe in "inevitable" technologies that will coerce us to be something we're not. They may not realize it, but they believe that technology will ultimately control us. That's a world I really do not want for myself or my children.
    CobraA1
    • Agree with you in part and

      totally disagree with JP.
      We are in the next / ongoing phase of sociocultural evolution and premised on not remaining stagnant in the current here / now. Too many "claim" we are corrupting or otherwise being disingenuous to ourselves and stepping backward due in part to all the new tech. BS. This is one of the next steps for us and we are just commencing the learning of how to deal with and grow as a society. Sorry, if I had wanted to buy into JP's view, I would have bought and built an abode in central Pennsylvania.
      rhonin
      • Says Who?

        To hear you pontificate some edict as if your pronouncing it so alone makes it incumbent on the rest of us is sad. Long on rhetoric, short on details. Rather nebulous and vague.
        You sound locked in an insular, arbitrarily defined universe, apart from the mainstream, population of one, or at worst some few.
        I totally disagree with you. No agreement even in part.
        PreachJohn
        • Your view is yours

          If yu don't like or agree with mine I can live with that.
          You come off like the kid why keeps saying "why" or the adult(?) who keeps saying prove it.
          I only have one suggestion for you - get a real life.
          rhonin
    • BT earpiece

      It depends. I still see some people with 'em; they're useful if you're driving and you don't have a BT stereo for the hands-free thingy. But BT earpieces mostly have gone less prevalent because people aren't doing calls, they're using their smartphones to I'm each other these days!
      danixdefcon5
  • There's a sea of difference...

    .. between "transforming into" and "exposing as." For most of humanity, the fast track to nitwit was run about 2 million years ago.
    Vesicant
  • Regarding James Kendrick's observation that -

    Human beings just plain need to get out and be with other people more - I once read a story that suggests a different insight into these topic points.

    Back in the day when Reader's Digest (OMG) was still read and my uncle gave a holiday yearly subscription of that magazine to each of our adult clan members, I remember as a young boy reading the following tale.

    During the "Long March" that Mao Tse-Tung's forces undertook, a few of his followers (that had grown up all their lives in a very VERY heavily populated environment) were asked to become scouts. Some of these scouts that went into the Chinese wilderness spent weeks without seeing another living human being. That was so traumatic an experience (of being in complete isolation for the first time in their lives) that some scouts were reported to have succumbed to grave psychosomatic illnesses.

    Human beings do NOT like to be isolated from other humans. Having stated, I hope, the obvious, it should NOT come as a surprise to discover that humans would prefer to spend their free time texting someone or even engaging in rudimentary participation in online social networks rather than "enjoying the sights and sounds" in some idyllic setting or, in another idyllic social environment, engage in online activities rather than "reach out to strangers" for some social interaction.

    Now, it goes without saying, that since humans are social creatures, humans need to develop acceptable "people skills" somewhere along the line. But to present a hypothesis that the virtual social interactions prevent or hinder the development of "face to face people skills" might be an example of "lazy scientific thinking".
    kenosha77a
    • I disagree.

      Part of the problem is that someone coined the phrase "social network", so people think they're being social, when they're not.

      Facebook, texting - it's just email on steroids, instant messaging, and no one ever considered that "social networking".

      Are we "social networking" right now, throwing comments left and right on these blogs?

      People that would never handout naked pictures of themselves are now messaging them to others. They are doing stupid things because they have the tech that lets them do stupid things. Hardly something someone does in a "social gathering".

      When I see people in a group texting people someplace else, I would hardly call that "socializing", in fact, more un-socializing then anything else.

      Now if those people were instead writing a letter to mail to someone else, would they be called social, or ignorant of others?
      William.Farrel
      • Break that into its respective part perhaps

        Home life, my kids (most of them) and relatives are flung across several states and a couple of countries. Texting is our new "keep in touch". Then again I don't live to text

        Work life, my team is globally located around the world and the entire plethora of smartphone communication is used as out ad hoc communication. Once again, I don't live it and have rules around it.

        But, I can and have found myself one of the walk and talk folk. The more globally synced our company becomes the more frequent I find this happening. Even with a decent work / life balance, it is becoming increasingly more difficult to manage.

        It would not surprise me to find many are in this category by design or by miss.
        rhonin
    • I think you miss the point

      The problem is that texting has replaced genuine face to face conversation. People can barely sit still and talk to one person without the distraction of buzzing, whistling, vibrating phones. We are quickly losing the ability to connect with each other.
      larsonjs
      • No it has not

        Places where people go to socialize - bars, restaurants, movies, concerts, sports events, play grounds, are as crowded and they were ten years ago. I see no real evidence to what Jason is saying.

        This is just a visualization of the fact that people are generally lazy, and prefer doing nothing to getting up and doing something useful.

        This whole article is about Jason having an indigestion, and being in his usual grumpy mood.
        ForeverSPb