Look ma, no hands!

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The world and the people in it both have a funny habit of changing. To ignore this change would be unwise. To attempt to reverse this change would be even more unwise. By contrast, attempting to slow change to make it more within our control is reasonable and wise. 

Lately, I have noticed, anecdotally and without evidence of course, that people seem to be changing. Could it be that we are finally seeing the effects of the “smartphone era”? Smartphones are very new, even in the realm of modern history. A small, massively powered rectangle that permits constant entertainment and connection with the entire globe is nothing short of a sociological experiment when its availability goes from basically non-existent to virtually pervasively-owned in a span of 20 years. I am terrified by the prospect that the results of this sociological experiment are in, and that they are not good. 

Does it seem to anyone else as though adults and children alike are losing their ability to pay attention? Their ability to think rationally? Their ability to become interested in mental exercises and their willingness to apply themselves to their career or schoolwork? It’s as though anything that isn’t as stimulating as a smartphone gets blocked out. Our brains love stimulation. Have smartphones created a mental world similar to the physical world shown in the Disney film “WALL-E”? In that movie, humans become largely incapable of simple physical tasks due to having everything done for them. Maybe the ability to let smartphones do our thinking is doing the same to modern brains. 

I don’t claim to be any different from the rest of the world. I work nearly 12 hours a day, Monday to Friday, and a few hours from home on weekends. I have more than one work email account programmed into my phone which I find necessary to stay on top of in real time to avoid piling on too many work responsibilities all at once. I also have the Facebook app, banking apps, and of course messaging apps to stay connected. I do not use YouTube or TikTok or any other video streaming apps on my phone. Even so, just with work email and some social media browsing, my attachment to my phone has become real and strong. 

If you want to do an experiment, try this: put your phone “away” somewhere in the house, and then go about doing a perfectly normal activity, and see how long it takes for you to absentmindedly reach for a phone that isn’t there. For me, it would even happen if I put my phone away while watching a movie. Why? Because as I remember things I must do tomorrow, I will want to jot them in my phone so I don’t forget. Then, I will be curious about whether I got a response to that important email, and I will reach over to check. Next, questions about things in the movie will come up, and I will want to Google them. I am talking about random questions of curiosity. “That’s a tall water tower – I wonder what the tallest one in the world is” … “Does the German autobahn really have no speed limit?” … “Is this a real type of surgery, or is Dr. House just a nutcase?” 

I have no idea if this type of impulsive reaching-for-one’s-phone is a cause for concern, but I feel like it must at least be unhealthy. The argument could be made that finding out facts in almost real time should make the world’s population smarter, but what if in reality, it is only serving to excuse our brains from the customary workouts that make them attentive, strong, resilient, and sharp?

Again, in this situation, it makes as much sense for me to point directly into a mirror as it does for me to point fingers at any other person. I am talking about society as a whole, rather than criticizing particular individuals. I am as guilty of reliance on technology as the next person. It’s as though after years of learning and growing in environments that have worked, we’re suddenly screaming “look ma, no hands!” much like a kid who is proud of the hands-free bicycle ride that is about to plunge him toward a painful pavement wipeout. The bicycle can’t drive itself forever, and the hands need experience to be able to coast through life effectively. 

To try and move society backwards would be foolish and irresponsible. To think that society is going to suddenly move from the connected smartphone era into the “let’s play chess by the glow of candlelight” era is totally laughable. Smartphones are here to stay. I love mine, and I feel it’s a wonderfully powerful tool that I am grateful to be able to carry around with me. But sometimes, I break out pen and paper and do things the old fashioned way. Sometimes, I disconnect from technology and let my brain do the work. Oftentimes, I enjoy nature and give my mind a canvas for its own mental work. 

Any young parents reading this who experienced a power outage recently – perhaps during the ice storm that took place late last winter – likely spent the entire outage dealing with kids who acted as though the world had run out of oxygen. I loved power outages as a kid. It meant we needed to figure things out. We had to find a way to heat our food, keep our basement from flooding, bring light to the house to be able to see, and communicate with family to ensure everyone was okay. It was fun, and it gave a sense of purpose that modern technology often takes away. Kids don’t seem to appreciate that magic anymore – at least not the ones I know. 

Technology is here to stay, and will only evolve more. We can’t go back in time, nor should we, but there is nothing wrong with giving technology a break sometimes, and letting our brains show us what they are really capable of. 

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