On how smart phones are making us dumb

When I wanted to shock the kids I used to teach, I’d just tell them that I only got my first cell phone after I had left school.  My father didn’t want to struggle to reach me, so when I left for college he gave me his old Nokia.  It had an extended battery.  Thrown with enough force it could bring down a cow. (No, I never tried).  Most of the time the thing lay in my cupboard in the hostel and I only switched it on to phone home (why do I suddenly have an urge to watch E.T.?)

Having a phone ring in class was the most embarrassing thing that could happen and to send a text while having a conversation was the worst faux pas you could commit.  I had one friend who was a self-confessed cell phone addict and we teased her endlessly about it – it was that unusual.

Fast forward a few years and I was working with teenagers who had cell phones at least since they had started high school.  For the first time I experienced what it felt like to try and have a conversation with someone who was having a conversation with someone else at the same time (especially after Mxit came into the picture).  Luckily I was an authority figure, so I could make them put their phones away, but I’m pretty sure they were still typing texts in their pockets while listening to me.

Then came the smart phone.  No longer do we use it only for phone calls and text messaging.  All of a sudden you carry your office in your pocket – e-mail, video-conferencing and calendar a touch away.  It’s also an entertainment system, with video streaming, internet radio and a variety of media players.  And the internet in all it’s glory and madness – news, social media and blogs with feeds and notifications so you know about every byte of new content seconds after it appears.

And there lies the problem.  We have to instantly respond to those notifications.  I think at some level we believe if we don’t check immediately, whatever it was will go away and be lost forever (because that’s hoe the interweb works, isn’t it?  Nothing on it exists for all time on a server somewhere.)  I’ve had people stop mid-sentence to first check and reply to a text, only to resume the conversation when they’re done with that word I hate: sorry (if you feel bad about it, why did you do it in the first place?!)  And of course their ringtones are usually so loud and irritating it’s impossible to continue with the conversation in any case.

I can give myself a self-righteous pat on the back at this point and say I don’t do that.  My notification tone is an unobtrusive knock, but my phone is on silent most of the time anyway.  If it rings during a conversation I’m more likely to mute it than answer it – that’s what voicemail is for.

But that’s not to say I’m perfect, not by a long shot.  I catch myself more and more using my phone in company.  Never when you’re talking to me.  That’s rude.  But if I’m not directly involved in the conversation and what you’re talking about is boring me, I’d surreptitiously browse my Twitter feed, or read a newspaper, or look at pictures of funny cats on facebook.  One ear is always tuned to the conversation, just in case I’m mentioned, but otherwise I’m not there.  And that’s also rude, though in a less obvious manner.

Why then do I say smart phones are making us dumb?  Everything I mentioned up to now has more to do with etiquette than intelligence?  But that’s the thing.  Psychologist Howard Gardner theorised that intelligence is more complex than the language and number skills a standard IQ test measures.  He identified different areas of intelligence, and each of us are strong in a unique blend of them.  Our phone use is especially cutting into our interpersonal intelligence.  The more connected we become, the harder it is to connect with other people face-to-face (that’s called irony).

Just look at teenagers today.  They can have complex discussions via text message and write the most incredible blogs, but put them in a room with another person and they don’t have a clue what to do (I’ve actually experienced where to kids sat next to each other and texted one another rather than talk).  They have become socially dumb, or rather that particular area of intelligence was just never developed.  Adults, however, are becoming dumber, as we are regressing, choosing electronic communication over real human contact.  And as we unlearn how to relate, it’s only natural that our relationships will suffer.

But this constant availability of the net has even further-reaching consequences.  It eats up time that could have been used to create something new or finish an existing task.  It distracts us while we should focus on important stuff, like driving.  We are losing our ability to concentrate for long periods thanks to the small packages of information we get at a time and we no longer know how to search for information using indexes (Nicholas Carr wrote an excellent article about this some years ago titled Is Google making us stupid).

Can we blame our smartphones?  Sure, why not?  Won’t be the first time that a decline in the human condition is blamed on a machine – it’s not like they can refute our claims.  But it’s not their fault.  As the two quotes in the prompt also explain: we make the choice.  And it has been proven time and again that most people don’t have the discipline to do something important if there’s something fun to do instead.  (It’s called delaying gratification.  Check out this excellent discussion on the topic, and how it’s related to all that procrastinating you’ve been doing.)  I’m one of them.  I’d much rather have fun than work.  And fiddling with your phone is fun.  Reading blogs, browsing feeds, commenting on the news, watching videos of funny cats – hell, if you could get paid to do just that it’d be a great job (actually, I think there are people like that…where do you apply?)

The internet and smart phones have been created for our convenience, to make our lives easier, and they fill an important, sometimes crucial, function.  But we are letting these things take over our lives, and we have no one to blame but ourselves.

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