Nicholas Carr has done it again. The best-selling author and leading light chronicling technology and digital media’s impact on our way of life, our way of thinking—our brain function even—published a thought piece in the Saturday WSJ that compiles a comprehensive array of research about smartphones’ effect on our brains.
Entitled, “How Smartphones Hijack our Minds,” the piece’s premise is that, as the brain grows dependent on phone technology, the intellect weakens.
It is a must-read, especially for parents wondering and worrying about how much access to smartphones and social media apps they should allow their children to access when they are still developing an understanding of their identities.
“The smartphone has become a repository of the self, recording and dispensing the words, sounds and images that define what we think, what we experience and who we are. In a 2015 Gallup survey, more than half of iPhone owners said that they couldn’t imagine life without the device.
Carr rightly points out the good in our smartphones — the amazing utility and services, including sometimes decent phone service — all rolled into a handheld device that helps us run busy lives, and make it hard to detach ourselves, too.
Imagine combining a mailbox, a newspaper, a TV, a radio, a photo album, a public library and a boisterous party attended by everyone you know, and then compressing them all into a single, small, radiant object. That is what a smartphone represents to us. No wonder we can’t take our minds off it.
But ponder if you will the anxiety they also breed.
“So what happens to our minds when we allow a single tool such dominion over our perception and cognition?”
Carr has rounded up a bevy of research from scientists exploring that question—and what they’re discovering is both fascinating and troubling:
Not only do our phones shape our thoughts in deep and complicated ways, but the effects persist even when we aren’t using the devices.
“A 2015 Journal of Experimental Psychology study, involving 166 subjects, found that when people’s phones beep or buzz while they’re in the middle of a challenging task, their focus wavers, and their work gets sloppier—whether they check the phone or not.
The research he quotes suggests we tend to believe everything we get on our smart phones — and even conflate our mental capacities with what’s stored there.
“When people call up information through their devices, they often end up suffering from delusions of intelligence. They feel as though ‘their own mental capacities’ had generated the information, not their devices.”
Here’s an adjunct idea to takeaway with this thoughtful piece: If we’re pondering the power that smartphones hold over our way of thinking and behavior, what about the purveyors of the data that feed those smartphones?
And by that, I mean Google and Facebook, the dominant platforms that influence how and what we consume for news and information on those devices.
The Economist pointed out back in May that the “world’s most valuable resource is no longer oil, but data,” and posits that the data economy demands a new approach to antitrust rules.
The pressure to rein in their dominance is building. David McCabe of Axios wrote in August that both sides of the political spectrum are “increasingly wary of the outsized role that Facebook and Google play as moderators of public discourse.”
Google is also reportedly offering concessions to European regulators after the European Union slapped the search giant with a record $2.8 billion fine over how it positions its own service at the expense of rivals.
Given Google’s political leanings (big supporter of Democrats, not so friendly to conservative thought), conservatives have every right to be wary of Google’s practices. Breitbart.com reported last month that “Gab, the free speech social network, has filed a [antitrust] lawsuit against Google after they were suspended without warning from Google’s Play Store last month.”
The site’s executive chairman and former White House strategist Steve Bannon has also reportedly floated the idea of treating these companies as utilities. His fellow conservative, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), told Axios.com that he’s worried about “large tech companies putting their thumb on the scales and skewing political and public discourse.”
Which brings us back to the commoditization of news and data that’s flowing into those influential smartphones we all carry. It’s one of the reasons I’ve been an admirer of Carr’s work ever since his 2003 column in the Harvard Business Review, IT Doesn’t Matter, shook up the IT and enterprise software worlds with similar arguments about how IT and networks become commoditized.
Fourteen years ago, he claimed that “IT Doesn’t Matter” anymore because its near ubiquitous adoption in corporate America has rendered it as a commodity, much like electricity is considered today, as I wrote at the time.
Carr wrote that “the rapid affordability of IT functionality has not only democratized the computer revolution, it has destroyed one of the most important potential barriers to competitors. Even the most cutting-edge IT capabilities quickly become available to all.” He was right about the era of utility computing we are in now, albeit in its early stages.
He picks up on the thread in his 2008 book “The Big Switch (Rewiring the World, from Edison to Google),” to help us understand this “World Wide Computer,” into which our smartphones now plug our brains.
“And what of our brains? As we come to rely ever more heavily on the Internet’s vast storehouse of information as an extension of or even a substitute for our own memory, will it change the way we think? Will it alter the way we conceive of ourselves and our relationship to the world? As we put ever more intelligence into the web, will we individually, become more intelligent or less so?”
Suffice to say, it’s worth the full-read and some thoughtful reflection, if only to engage our brains in a bit of long-form thinking that in my view, smartphones help to short-circuit. Unplug and give it a think, I say.