The devices are a cause of, and remedy from, the high-anxiety precarious life under late capitalism – and are rewiring our brains to resemble computers
How long would you last doing a simple cognitive task without checking your smartphone or social media feed, before you get fidgety and bored? Ten minutes? How would you feel after one hour?
Around two thirds of British people admit they would feel lost, unhappy or anxious without their smartphone, according to a survey last year. Around half of Americans openly admit they simply could not last a day without their smartphone.
Researchers are fairly successfully uncovering the ocean of evidence that suggests living completely immersed in the “information ecosystem” of smartphone, internet and social media feed – as billions of people do every day worldwide – is seriously detrimental to one’s mental health and cognitive capacity.
We lose the ability to deeply concentrate and contemplate. We have higher general levels of anxiety and emotional anaesthesia. We struggle to retain memory in the same way, outsourcing this function to Google. Our minds are becoming more like automated data-processing machines, drained of creative dynamism and vibrancy.
While the research grows, individuals and communities have been sharply feeling the effects for a decade now. In my daily life, when I had time to relax at the end of the day, I found existing inside my own thoughts and body – simply being – deeply uncomfortable. The constant existence on feeds and apps throughout the day, feeding my brain a steady stream of data, led to a pervasive feeling of restless unease without them.
Anxiety has a huge range of sources independent of technology of course – not least in our current chapter of late capitalism, in which precarious employment and housing is the norm. But the correlation between intense “connectedness” through my smartphone and the internet, and my own anxiety, felt close.
After years of engaging in some form of social media or instant messaging in most quiet moments, it wasn’t surprising that like millions of others, I lost the ability to sit silently, do ‘nothing’, and feel sufficiently engaged with the world, and fully content.
The counter-movement for people to reject social media (“more like ANTI-social media, am I right?”) often expresses itself in mawkish, tortured expressions of trying to return to a former state of divine immersion in the world, from which the spectre of the Facebook ‘like’ hangs over the prospect of happiness like the sword of Damacles.
“So many i’s, so many selfies, not enough us’s and we’s,” raps Prince Ea in a music video “Can We Auto-Correct Humanity?” that has garnered 19 million views on YouTube. (Spoiler alert: the answer is, regrettably, no we cannot.)
Earnest sincerity may be off-brand, but my smartphone-induced anxiety was real, and so I got rid of my smartphone nine months ago. While still using the internet often, I had large portions of each day “unplugged” from feeds and message threads. (Being able to part with a smartphone is undoubtedly a privilege, not possible for huge numbers of people because of their job, their family or their security.)
The effects were radicalising. The first, most immediate change was an acute widening of my emotional register. I felt emotions in a deeper, more wholesome sense than I had in years. Both ups and downs, there were happinesses and sadnesses that felt overwhelming, and substantively human. Remarkably – and trigger warning, masculinity crisis ahead – I was brought to tears a handful of times by seemingly mundane, everyday occurrences, after not having cried for many years.
Walking down a memorable street, listening to certain music, talking to close family members – I felt a more direct, engaged relationship with the emotional stakes of these elements in my life.
It was as if after many years, I had stopped taking a powerful anaesthetic. It was a symptom most commonly associated with those who have taken LSD – of experiencing an enhanced appreciation for the beauty and humanity of the world, a throwing off of needless negativity and long-held grudges.
My experience almost exactly mirrored what the comedian Louis CK described in a viral interview clip from 2013. He explains that he wants to be able to embrace natural human emotions, that whether happy or sad are nonetheless “beautiful”, rather than have to seek flimsy validation by instant messaging and social networks. He describes the impulse, at the first inkling of sadness or anxiety inside himself, to text 30 people ‘Hi’ and use instant messaging as social anaesthetic to stave off those surface-level negative thoughts.
Despite what it sounds like, I was not constantly experiencing “O brave new world” epiphanies akin to The Tempest’s Miranda, picking flowers and chasing kites on beaches. But connected to this enhanced emotional register was the fact that long periods of each day now jarringly felt like one long stream of consciousness inside my mind. This forced me to reflect on everything in my life much more deeply, from the significant to the mundane.
It was far more difficult to coast through weeks and months ignoring important dilemmas, behavioural patterns or relationships. Every time I got anxious, bored or sad, there was no quick fix – the negativity in question demanded a more substantive resolution than burying it in the subconscious. When you feel the sharp edges of life in a big, uncompromising city, which is often isolating, lonely or stressful, being able to instantly message your closest friends for relief or lose yourself in entertaining “content” had been a handy remedy.
Keeping such “connectedness” at arm’s length is an option open to increasingly fewer people. If you’re self-employed, if you’re in any communications industry, on a zero-hours contract, or in management, or an activist – it’s more or less impossible to not be constantly connected to a smartphone.
Work shifts and job instructions are communicated on Whatsapp. Talking to colleagues, clients and customers all happen in apps and feeds. Memes, trends, conversations – so much of the fabric of our culture is conducted through the updated-every-hour connectivity, accessible through a smartphone.
“Smartphones are the new cigarettes,” headlines a story in the Huffington Post, with the same story run in The New York Timesand countless other blogs. They posit the idea that in the future we will look back on the current ubiquity of smartphones in the way we now look back, aghast, at the ubiquity of smoking of the mid-20th century. The information ecosystem is so entrenched that it is hard to see how society would ostracise the technologies at its heart in the same way it has shamed tobacco.
Facebook and Google are much more powerful than Phillip Morris ever was, and the benefits of the internet vastly outweigh that of cigarettes. These companies make the rules and infrastructure of the game itself. As the reality of technology’s health hazards surface, it may well be too late to prevent indefinite, mass consumption.
The research is undeniably emphatic, and damning. Frequent smartphone use makes people exhibit ADHD-like symptoms, of inattentiveness and hyperactivity, across a range of measures: the ability to listen to others, restlessness, fidgeting, interrupting and losing concentration on simple tasks. High smartphone use is linked heavily to depression, anxiety and low self-esteem, according to a systematic review of the major research, in the Journal of Affective Disorders.
A growing trend is smartphone separation anxiety, or “nomophobia”, the feeling of panic or stress when separated from one’s phone, according to researchers in Hong Kong and Seoul. Smartphones have become so advanced and personal to us, that they have become a de facto “extension of ourselves”, the scientists say, with much of our identity indelibly linked to the device.
How do they do this? Smartphones and web browsers deliver sensory and cognitive stimuli, explains Nicholas Carr in his book The Shallows, that have four key characteristics: they are repetitive; interactive; addictive and intensive.
Repetitive, in that a steady stream of the same actions flow through our cortexes, of refreshing the inbox or feed over and over and over, reading bitesize chunks of content, and replying or engaging with it. Interactive, in that most media is social media, and one is made to feel invisible and irrelevant if you opt out of constantly monitoring the “conversation”.
Addictive, in that responses and rewards, or “positive reinforcements” that encourage the endless repetition of low-value, high-intensity mental actions, are delivered. Opening notifications and clicking links gives us endless rewards, turning us into very slightly into lab rats that develop a dependence on nuggets of addictive content.
While connectivity does sometimes deliver something we want – news and valuable information – often that veneer is completely stripped away, as in the case of games like Angry Birds or Candy Crush, where you are literally hitting levers to deliver endless ‘treasure’ and points.
And they are intensive, in that the nature of social media is a far more immersive, engaging experience than the previous media of newspapers or television, coming through the hands and fingers, engaging our sense of sight, hearing and touch.
Developments in neuroscience over the past century reveal quite how damaging the constant engagement with the “ecosystem of interruption technologies” can be, as writer Cory Doctorow calls our environment. The human brain has been revealed to be incredibly flexible, or “plastic”, in reaction to how it’s used.
Every time we perform a task or experience a sensation, a different set of brain cells is activated. As the same experience is repeated, the synaptic links between those cells grow physiologically stronger. New cells are generated to do the same task, and those cells’ synaptic terminals that connect to one another grow.
Most of our activity on the internet – consuming news, social media, sharing information – strengthens our brain’s networks for problem-solving, decision-making and fast processing of data. On the other hand, those who take in most of their information from words printed on physical paper or books, produce stronger networks for language and memory, among other skills.
The internet brain finds contemplation, or “deep thinking” harder, because the neural pathways that perform such an action are physically depleted. The same goes for the pathways that enable sustained concentration. (The average time people will wait for a web page to load before giving up and leaving the site is now around three seconds.)
Quite which of your minds’ networks are strong and active can be reconfigured well into old age. This is cause for both alarm and hope: alarm, because throughout your adult life you can be configured to be utterly addicted to the steady stream of low-value, high-intensity stimuli (like Facebook posts), and hope because it can typically be reconfigured away from such a dependence.
The ramifications for human creativity could be seismic. If you are trying to immerse yourself in a cognitive task like brainstorming a new idea, however big or small, it seems just a quick glance at phone notifications or e-mail can leave up to twenty minutes of cognitive residue that interferes with your mind’s ability to concentrate, and therefore reach its potential, on the primary task.
And just having a smartphone nearby, even if it is switched off, can drain brain power due to the cognitive resources used to make yourself not be distracted by it, according to research from the University of Texas. Participants in the study who put the phone in a separate room were shown to have greater effectiveness at completing cognitive tasks.
It’s also important to remember that the internet is deliberately structured in the manner so described in order to be financially as profitable for the institutions that support it. The faster users surf – the more clicks and pages viewed – the more opportunities there are for the likes of Google and Facebook to collect information about us, to feed to advertisers. The last thing Google wants, financially, is leisurely reading or concentrated thought. They are in the business of distraction.
Of course, not fulfilling your brain’s ultimate “creative potential” or an inability to engage in “deep thinking” might seem academic problems to the millions of people struggling to pay rent or put food on the table in the UK. In the small moments between a constant struggle, seeking the soothing antidote of light entertainment or a feeling of connectedness to friends you cannot see everyday, through a smartphone, is a thoroughly natural choice.
However, the consequences for culture and humanity’s growth are worrying. The internet’s ecosystem have shown to make memory formation more difficult – surfing the internet overextends our “cognitive load”, hampering our mind’s ability to commit information to long-term memory.
The type of knowledge we hold in long-term memory are known as “schemas”: rather than disparate facts, they are stories and patterns of information, organised to help us make sense of the world. Schemas are the source of our intellectual and artistic prowess, the engine of cultural production. To disempower the formation of schemas is, as Mark Fisher calls it, fundamentally a form of “consciousness deflation”.
The dream of Google is to develop computers that possess the power of the human mind. “Artificial intelligence would be the ultimate form of Google,” said founder Larry Page, in the year 2000. But computers may not need to become human, if the reverse process gets sufficiently far.
By encouraging us to constantly consume data across news feeds and timelines and message threads, the synapses of the literary, creative mind wither away. Our brains start to gradually resemble super-efficient data-processing units, or in other words, sophisticated computers.
We’ve considered many negatives. For all the cognitive skills we may be losing, we are gaining strength in primitive low-level mental functions, such as the processing of visual cues, hand-eye coordination and reflex responses. The speed with which we can assess web pages for whether it will give us the valuable information we need is impressively quick. Fast-paced problem solving is enhanced, as well as evidence of a small expansion in the capacity of our “working” memory, that is the information we can hold superficially at any one time.
However, these seem small fry compared to the effects on mental health. Carr’s ominous warning was written in 2008, nearly ten years ago. This was remarkably only one year after the iPhone was released. In the decade since, the speed with which smartphones have become ubiquitous has been quite astonishing, directly linked to quite how many functions they now perform.
Phone calls, instant messaging, consuming news and television, music, navigation, photography, banking, finding work and love and sex, are all done in your pocket. Every person or service worldwide is contactable from this small slab of plastic.
Saying no to a smartphone is saying no to a world that is designed around the assumption you have said the opposite. If you are waiting for someone in a public space like a café or a pub alone, and you choose not to be on your phone but simply sit there, taking in the world or thinking, you stick out like someone who’s either quite strange, or just a loser.
And we have only considered here the general effects for people surrounded by technology an average amount, in a developed economy, as adults. There is strong evidence to suggest the effects of smartphone and internet ubiquity for Generation Z (born in 1999 and onwards) amount to a cultural earthquake on a whole other, catastrophic level. Also known as “iGen”, these teenagers hang out in person less, drinks less and sleeps less than the previous generational equivalents, because of smartphones. The smartphone keeps them in their bedrooms, lonely, on Snapchat. Their suicide rate has skyrocketed.
Indeed, anxiety was the most overwhelming symptom that was strong enough for me to instigate getting rid of a smartphone. Whether the link between smartphones and mental health disorders is predominantly one of causation or correlation, is not settled. Do people become depressed because of Instagram, or do they seek solace from depression on Instagram?
While it’s likely to be a bit of both, making a single Facebook “like” or status, or link-clicking on Facebook, was associated with a decrease of 5-8 per cent in self-reported mental health, in sociological research. That’s just one click, and what people themselves both perceive and own up to.
A “natural state” of consciousness is precisely what some people want to avoid through palliative immersion in such technologies. For those who suffer anxiety and stress independent of their devices, living in one’s own “default” thoughts will not be a contented or comfortable experience.
Indeed, engagement with high-intensity digital stimuli has even been shown as a way to potentially treat trauma. Tetris, the classic 1980s video game, was shown to successfully prevent the formation of harmful memories by people who had just undergone psychologically traumatic episodes, such as a car crash. The University of Oxford’s research showed that the highly visual game that stimulates the brain’s sensory centres disrupted the consolidation of trauma memory.
Smartphones have developed as both a cause of, and a remedy from, the high-anxiety, atomised, precarious 21st-century existence for young people, in which the prospects of career progression, security and home ownership akin to previous generations are nowhere to be seen. Mark Fisher characterised young people living in a state of “depressive hedonia”, where they have an inability to do anything except chase low-level pleasure, as typifying the human condition under late capitalism.
This Notification-Industrial Complex, where you are always plugged into the “communicative sensation-stimulus matrix” as Fisher calls it, is always, always waiting for you. There is rarely any moment where you cannot instant chat to a friend or colleague. It is both the end of boredom (as we had regularly conceived of it), and a radical reconfiguration of a new, hitherto unchartered plane of enhanced boredom. The standard for something to entertain us and keep us attentive is so much higher. Whole swathes of literature, the arts and sport are wholly unsatisfying to engage with for any significant length of time.
Isolation abounds. If you can talk to friends at any moment of the day remotely, you are perennially “chatting” to them, while rarely connecting or bonding with them. Generation Z in the United States hang out in person with their friends every day 40 per cent less than they did in the year 2000. Without a smartphone, I realised the need the hang out more regularly with people important to me, because I go through each day without being able to talk to anyone I’m not physically with.
Unfortunately, given everyone else in your life still owns one, the compromise of a catch-up phone call is still treated by many as akin to a frightening, putting-me-on-spot court summons, in comparison to instant messaging which is done at your own pace and compatible with multi-tasking.
Post-smartphone, my days have become longer, and slower. Living in a continuous present has both its assets and its drawbacks. Things you want to mentally ignore have many more opportunities to come circling round again. If more contemplation doesn’t lead to better answers or resolutions to your problems, then the heightened self-awareness can be overbearing, even haunting in its persistence.
Equally, the directness of your relation towards many aspects of the world becomes more obvious and more considered. One is able to develop a rich sense of one’s place in the world, whether that’s welcome or not.
As a result of the lifestyle change, my concentration and creative faculties have improved, although it is a constant battle – I still have a phone and am online on a computer for often many hours a day, so by the standards of all previous generations, I would be considered much more “plugged in” than “unplugged”.
My mental health has improved dramatically, but saying no to the constant desire for low-level “connecting” with friends through some kind of internet messaging, in order to fight big city loneliness, is a perennial battle.
Removing the ability to photograph, film or post online in real time about anything that happens in front of me was an undoubted liberation. The desire to document every significant event that happens “IRL” as a photo or social media post, across all generations but most conspicuously Gen Z, of course represents the absolute success of companies like Facebook and Instagram.
People’s online identities have eaten their real ones. David Foster Wallace said the experience of watching Roger Federer on television compared to watching him in the flesh was analogous to the inadequacy of watching porn compared to “the felt reality of human love”. Likewise is the inadequacy of nearly all photos and videos attempting to capture what a remarkable event in front of people looks or sounds like, let alone the impossible notion of capturing “the experience”. Having the temptation to try and do this removed from my pocket is an undiluted positive.
If what goes on in front of you can’t be captured, stored and re-consumed, it takes on a much higher personal value. You have a different kind of immersion, one that often delivers benefits at a later time, subtly, through the carefully held memory. You do have to work your memory a lot harder, otherwise moments and events are out of your grasp forever. (It also helps that if you are around other people, you can 100 per cent guarantee that someone will document anything that even remotely resembles something noteworthy for the record.)
Despite smartphone sales reaching a plateau for the first time in 2016, two billion phones are still being sold every year. And while the Nokia 3310 enjoyed a re-release to much fanfare at the Mobile World Congress this year, smartphones expect to cannibalise the two billion phone sales market by constituting 90 per cent of that figure by 2020, up from 75 per cent last year.
For the majority of people who rely on regular engagement with the internet and cannot banish a smartphone from their life, strict constraints on use that help strike the right balance between online and offline activity is crucial for mental health and productivity. Of course, companies like Facebook and Google are using their financial and technological might every day to stop this balance being struck, to have us live permanently in their worlds, to harness their power, efficiency and profit.
A counter-movement is next to impossible to imagine, and our lives are probably changed forever.