She was beautiful. Elegant and sophisticated, she bounded up the pub’s staircase. For a moment, I felt jealous of the person(s) she was meeting.
She looked happy. Until she came across a speed breaker: a guy shooting the lounge’s stairway on his smartphone. Maybe he was an influencer. Or a self-proclaimed food connoisseur.
Politely, she requested for space. He didn’t budge. She waited a few seconds before raising her voice. This time, he let her pass without lowering the phone. Both grimaced. Then he returned to shooting the pub’s staircase and walls.
I turned to tell my friend what I saw. But she was busy with her phone. With nothing better to do, I sipped on my beer and glanced around.
Almost everyone had their noses buried in their phones.
Surely the world was not so interesting! Nothing of historic significance occurred in the world 24/7. Then what was everyone looking for?
The Rat In The Cage
In 1930, B.F. Skinner, a psychologist at Harvard University, made a box and placed a hungry rat inside it. The box had a lever. As the rat moved about, it bumped into the lever and a food pellet dropped. After being placed in the box a few times, the rat went straight for the lever: the behavior led to a positive reward.
Skinner noticed that once the rat figured the pattern out, it pushed the lever only when hungry. So he made some modifications. When the rat pushed the lever, it sometimes got one food pellet, sometimes several. And sometimes it got none. If the rat didn’t know what it would get, it pushed the lever over and over again. It became psychologically hooked. Each time, the rat wondered, “what will I get?” This became known as the principle of variable rewards.
When we unlock our smartphones, we subconsciously crave for variable rewards. We browse Facebook, Instagram or Twitter, with the thought, “What will I get?” This variable reward makes us refresh social media feeds and email inbox repeatedly.
Of course, we cannot ignore the release of oxytocin – the cuddle chemical. 10 minutes on social media can raise oxytocin levels by up to 13 percent. That’s hormonal spike equal to what people experience on their wedding day.
This combination of variable rewards and release of oxytocin has made us rats in a cage. And it has slowed us down. Drastically!
People use their smartphones everywhere. In elevators, for instance. Even without network. I’ve seen people miss their floors because of Whatsapp. Ditto with people in queues. It’s the norm to use smartphones if people wait – at banks, stations or even McDonalds.
It’s funny. People secretly enjoy waiting now. And they are slower in responding. To their names, or when someone speaks to them, or to oncoming traffic.
Each smartphone today has a thousand times more processing power than the computers that guided astronauts to the moon. For most people today, technology means smartphones. So, technology should have helped us colonize Mars and two other planets by now. We should have made alien contact and breakthrough discoveries on Singularity.
What happened? Where did we miss a step?
Our addiction to technology has impeded us in two ways.
Productivity Has Fallen
In a world where we brag about 24/7 connectivity, our phones keep buzzing. But we rarely receive calls. Social media notifications, useless emails and instant messages have made us multitaskers. This ability now finds a special mention on our resumes. Multitaskers are rockstars.
But multitasking reduces our productivity by up to 40 percent. Each time we are interrupted, it takes us twenty three minutes to refocus. Before ten of those twenty three minutes are up, we get distracted again. Is it surprising that these are the least productive times in the history of mankind?
Questions Have Changed
In the good old days, we woke up each morning and asked ourselves, “What should I do today?” People made mental to-do lists, went about their routines, and got stuff done.
Today, the question is “what did I miss while I was away?” A whopping sixty percent people touch their smartphones before doing anything when they wake up. They check social Facebook and Instagram (“what did others do?”), Twitter, email and Instant Messaging (“what did others say?”).
Before smartphones, people met at places to catch up with each other. Now, when people want to catch up, they open Zomato. This changes the question from “Where should we catch up?” to “Which place has the best menu and ambience?” Instead of conversing with friends, people focus on the best angle to click photos. Discussions revolve around the best filter to make the photos look better. Then, they post it online in a quasi version of fastest-finger-first. The elation felt when people respond to their photos is the reward for this competition.
Here are four interesting statistics and anecdotes which highlight how our dependence on technology is hurting us:
- Social media platforms and notifications made 58 percent employees waste between two to ten hours at work in 2011 every day, according to Forbes.
- Columbia University’s Professor Betsy Sparrow highlights our reliance on the internet for memory. It’s the same as relying on the memory of a friend, family member or co-worker. “We remember less through knowing information itself than by knowing where the information can be found,” she says.
- A Fairfield University study in 2003 found that taking photos reduces our memory. “This extends to personal memories, as constantly looking at the world through the lens of our smartphone camera may result in us trusting our smartphones to store our memories for us,” they speculate. “This way, we pay less attention to life itself and become worse at remembering events from our own lives.”
- Heavy social media users get emotional hits with new interactions, explains renowned product designer Noelle Moseley. Her survey respondents stated they “spent all their hours thinking about how to organize [their] lives in order to take pictures to post on social media.” This made them stressed and unhappy because they weren’t able to enjoy what they did. Moseley felt it was like a sickness.
Our ability to memorize and remember is at an all-time low. When we face a challenge, we pick our smartphones for a dose of instant gratification. In turn, it reduces our ability to focus. Extended exposure to social media reduces self esteem. This, in turn, leads to the colossal energy spent on mindless outrage today.
Smartphones allow us to share our opinions and stories within moments. They make us feel in control. But in reality, the same gadgets which make us feel empowered have enslaved us. No wonder we touch our phone up to 150 times each day.
The Solution: Minimalism
To regain focus (and intelligence), we must move towards minimalism. Joshua and Ryan (the Minimalists) describe the movement below:
“Minimalism is a lifestyle that helps people question what things add value to their lives. By clearing the clutter from life’s path, we can all make room for the most important aspects of life: health, relationships, passion, growth, and contribution.”
Humans, deep down, are craftsmen. We find great satisfaction in creating something valuable. Unless we embrace complexity, vertical progress i.e. disruption, is difficult. Technology was, and is, a supplement to enhance our lives. When we treat it like that, it will aid us.
What are your thoughts? Has technology slowed us down? Or has it accelerated our progress?