In one famous Middle Eastern folktale, a notorious king vows to take a new bride each day, only to have her executed the following morning. But one woman, Shahrazad, manages to escape her fate by telling the king dramatic stories each night which can only be completed the following day. She ends each story with a cliffhanger, and when one story finishes she immediately starts up another. She does this for 1,001 nights until the king finally decides to spare her life.
It would be easy to interpret this fable literally, to have a few chuckles at expense of the gullible king and move on with our lives. But to do so misses the point entirely. At it’s core, the story sheds light on two weaknesses of the human condition: our obsession with novelty and our diminished willpower in the face of anticipation.
Each one of us, like the king, is easily seduced by the promise of something new, something to free us from our own thoughts. Such has been the case for hundreds of thousands of years. Today, however, our novelty comes not from a fictional woman named Shahrazad, but from our phones. And it looks as if they will have our attention for more than just 1,001 nights.
It’s difficult to imagine our phones suddenly revoking their promise of unlimited entertainment and gratification. Their allure would die. But phones do not know limits. They are machines, like Shahrazad on steroids. And we are under their control for as long as we permit ourselves to be.
In the words of media critic Nicholas Carr, “[The phone] is so much our servant that it would seem churlish to notice that it is also our master.”
“Our phones are designed to deliver positive reinforcements which encourage the repetition of the same actions,” Carr goes on to say. Each news alert, Google search, Instagram like, and text message “turns us into lab rats constantly pressing levers to get tiny pellets of social or intellectual nourishment.”
We turn to our phones to dilute our insecurities, confusion, stress, discomfort, and loneliness. We convince ourselves that phones offer relaxation and escape, but in reality they leave us in a worse mood. They stifle our ability to think deeply or creatively and leave us with nothing but a despondent feeling and a craving for the next flurry of notifications. The promises of comfort and security are seductive, but nevertheless empty.
The saddest part is that we know this to be true, but still refuse to put them down. When researchers ask participants to best fit the description “I should have been doing something else,” wasting time on the Internet or watching TV are often the most popular answers. We could instead have deep, personal conversations, reach out to sick relatives, or even sit down in silence for five minutes. The problem, of course, is that these activities can be difficult. Our toys never reject us.
“Our tendency to become more intimate with our phones and computers, to experience our lives through the filter of a screen or series of flickering pixels, poses a significant threat to our humanity,” said the late MIT professor Joseph Weizenbaum. “To sacrifice self-awareness, deep thought, and literacy is to sacrifice the very qualities that separate us from machines.”
Still yet, we cling to the pathetic counter-argument that instant and limitless access to information has produced the most informed society in history. But this blind, utopian ideology is as Marshall McLuhan said, “the numb stance of the technological idiot.”
In truth, we’ve regressed to a sort of bizarre functional illiteracy. We spend, on average, ten hours per day in front of a screen that demands nothing of us. We’ve become so entranced by shows, apps, games, and social media to the point that it’s painful to process a paragraph of text, much less a book. Our tools are so individualized that they are anti-individual. An iPhone speaks to an 80-year-old and an 8-year-old in the same language. It does not “know” us. We worship its simplicity, but its simplicity makes complexity impossible to fathom.
Our phones command our attention with far greater intensity than any other activity. Observe yourself and others, oblivious to what’s right in front of us. But the biggest threat is not becoming numb to our immediate surroundings, it is becoming numb to slow, less tangible cultural transformations. The great tragedy of a technologically-sedated society is the belief that if we are happy, if we are entertained and satisfied, the rest of the world will take care of itself. We scroll and click, blind to the suffering and decay around us. We sit, with our $900 dollar pacifiers, as the planet rots, families bankrupt themselves trying to pay their children’s medical expenses, and 13 million children go to bed hungry every day in our own cities.
Such tragedies happen on time scales that defy our phone’s now-ness. They don’t change minute to minute, or even day to day. Something that happens constantly and everywhere cannot be comprehended in a 280-character tweet, a push notification, or on Fox and Friends. You need to sit down and contemplate it. The tug at our hearts from horrific images of human suffering on Facebook or the flare of resent that arises after seeing one of Donald Trump’s tweets cannot replace the capacity for self reflection that we’ve sacrificed in the name of convenience.
The more distracted we become, the less able we are to experience what makes us human: empathy and compassion. We have forgotten who we are and who we were meant to be. Our moral decision-making about other people’s social and psychological well being cannot flourish when we subsist on factoids and celebrity gossip. To be fully human requires adequate time and reflection.
We live in a state of deep ignorance where information is conflated with wisdom and entertainment supplants understanding. We are urged to choose everything at the cost of understanding nothing. But, as the Stoic philosopher Seneca noted nearly 2,000 years ago, “To be everywhere is to be nowhere.”
You don’t need your phone to understand this.
Dominic’s personal articles, essays, interviews, and book recommendations are sent in his monthly newsletter. All subscribers get the PDF “11 Immutable Writing Lessons from Legendary Authors.”