In the winter of 1906, the year San Francisco was destroyed by an earthquake and SOS became the international distress signal, Britain’s Punch magazine published a dark joke about the future of technology.
Under the headline, “Forecasts for 1907,” a black and white cartoon showed a well-dressed Edwardian couple sitting in a London park. The man and woman are turned away from each other, antennae protruding from their hats. In their laps are little black boxes, spitting out ticker tape.
A caption reads: “These two figures are not communicating with one another. The lady is receiving an amatory message, and the gentleman some racing results.”
The cartoonist was going for broad humour, but today the image looks prophetic. A century after it was published, Steve Jobs unveiled the first iPhone. Today, thanks to him, we can sit in parks and not only receive amatory messages and racing results, but summon all the world’s knowledge with a few taps of our thumbs, listen to virtually every song ever recorded and communicate instantaneously with everyone we know.
More than two billion people around the world, including three-quarters of Canadians, now have this magic at their fingertips – and it’s changing the way we do countless things, from taking photos to summoning taxis. But smartphones have also changed us – changed our natures in elemental ways, reshaping the way we think and interact. For all their many conveniences, it is here, in the way they have changed not just industries or habits but people themselves, that the joke of the cartoon has started to show its dark side.
The evidence for this goes beyond the carping of Luddites. It’s there, cold and hard, in a growing body of research by psychiatrists, neuroscientists, marketers and public health experts. What these people say – and what their research shows – is that smartphones are causing real damage to our minds and relationships, measurable in seconds shaved off the average attention span, reduced brain power, declines in work-life balance and hours less of family time.
They have impaired our ability to remember. They make it more difficult to daydream and think creatively. They make us more vulnerable to anxiety. They make parents ignore their children. And they are addictive, if not in the contested clinical sense then for all intents and purposes.
Consider this: In the first five years of the smartphone era, the proportion of Americans who said internet use interfered with their family time nearly tripled, from 11 per cent to 28 per cent. And this: Smartphone use takes about the same cognitive toll as losing a full night’s sleep. In other words, they are making us worse at being alone and worse at being together.
Ten years into the smartphone experiment, we may be reaching a tipping point. Buoyed by mounting evidence and a growing chorus of tech-world jeremiahs, smartphone users are beginning to recognize the downside of the convenient little mini-computer we keep pressed against our thigh or cradled in our palm, not to mention buzzing on our bedside table while we sleep.
Nowhere is the dawning awareness of the problem with smartphones more acute than in the California idylls that created them. Last year, ex-employees of Google, Apple and Facebook, including former top executives, began raising the alarm about smartphones and social media apps, warning especially of their effects on children.
Chris Marcellino, who helped develop the iPhone’s push notifications at Apple, told The Guardian last fall that smartphones hook people using the same neural pathways as gambling and drugs.
Sean Parker, ex-president of Facebook, recently admitted that the world-bestriding social media platform was designed to hook users with spurts of dopamine, a complicated neurotransmitter released when the brain expects a reward or accrues fresh knowledge. “You’re exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology,” he said. “[The inventors] understood this, consciously, and we did it anyway.”
Peddling this addiction made Mr. Parker and his tech-world colleagues absurdly rich. Facebook is now valued at a little more than half a trillion dollars. Global revenue from smartphone sales reached $435-billion (U.S.).
Now, some of the early executives of these tech firms look on their success as tainted.
“I feel tremendous guilt,” said Chamath Palihapitiya, former vice-president of user growth at Facebook, in a public talk in November. “I think we all knew in the back of our minds… something bad could happen.
“The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops that we have created are destroying how society works,” he went on gravely, before a hushed audience at Stanford business school. “It is eroding the core foundations of how people behave.”
None of the Bay Area whistle-blowers have been louder than Tristan Harris, a former star product manager at Google. He has spent the past several years of his life telling people to use less of the technologies he helped create through a non-profit called Time Well Spent, which aims to raise awareness among consumers about the dangers of the attention economy, and pressure the tech world to design its products more ethically. Judging by the momentum his movement is suddenly building – he receives hundreds of requests for speaking engagements a month – his message is being heard.
Policy makers and government leaders are among those listening. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau met with Mr. Harris at the Global Progress Summit in Montreal last September. The PM’s office wouldn’t provide details of the session, but if the federal government is considering restrictions on cellphone use, it wouldn’t be alone. This fall, France plans to ban mobile phones from primary and secondary schools, including between classes and during lunch breaks. “We must come up with a way of protecting pupils from loss of concentration via screens and phones,” said French education minister Jean-Michel Blanquer.
Business leaders are grappling with the issue, too. In a recent blog post, Bank of England analyst Dan Nixon argues that the distraction wrought by smartphones may be hurting productivity. It takes office workers an average of 25 minutes to get back on task after an interruption, he notes, while workers who are habitually interrupted by e-mail become likelier to “self-interrupt” with little procrastination breaks.
The TD Centre in downtown Toronto was channelling that business case against smartphones when it placed a coaxing poster in its lobby recently. “Disconnect to reconnect,” the poster read. “Put your phone down and be present.”
Yes, people are always put off by the strange power of new technologies. Socrates thought writing would melt the brains of Athenian youths by undermining their ability to memorize. Erasmus cursed the “swarm of new books” plaguing post-Gutenberg Europe. In its infancy, TV was derided as a “vast wasteland.”
But while previous generations may have cried wolf about new media, “it’s different this time,” Mr. Harris says. Unlike TVs and desktop computers, which are typically relegated to a den or home office, smartphones go with us everywhere. And they know us. The stories that pop up in your iPhone newsfeed and your social media apps are selected by algorithms to grab your eye.
Smartphones are “literally using the power of billion-dollar computers to figure out what to feed you,” Mr. Harris said. That’s why you can’t look away.
Socrates was wrong about writing and Erasmus was wrong about books. But after all, the boy who cried wolf was eaten in the end. And in smartphones, our brains may have finally met their match.
“It’s Homo sapiens minds against the most powerful supercomputers and billions of dollars …. It’s like bringing a knife to a space laser fight,” Mr. Harris said. “We’re going to look back and say, ‘Why on earth did we do this?'”