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 Times and 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.