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Do not disturb
An accidental evening minus the smart phone.
I felt incomplete. What was it…
Dress ironed? Check. Purse? Check. Matching shoes? Check. Phone? Oh dear, that was it. I ignored the evidence of my eyes and searched my handbag compartments twice.
At the train station, with five minutes to spare before a train would transport me to a London dinner party, I pondered the dilemma. I could go home for the phone, but I would be late for dinner. Or I could go without the phone, the dinner party address contained within it and the map I have come to rely upon. It would also mean doing without the lifeline to teenagers at home, no way to keep on top of scores of WhatsApp messages, no Twitter and forget staying abreast of breaking news or the latest celebrity scandal.
I felt limbless, which confirmed my ‘nomophobia’ (no mobile phone phobia). This is not actually a medically-recognised phobia, but that sense of anxiety and discombobulation when we misplace our
umbilical cord to the digital universe phone.
Many of us have seen someone we love taken down by addiction, be it to alcohol or drugs, or gambling, food or sex. But how many of us are prepared to admit we are among the fallen? Sure you could just not look at your phone. Or close your social media account. Or set a time limit. But it’s not that easy, is it?
‘one more Tweet and then it’s bedtime’
Twitter has even acknowledged its addictive power, tweeting, ‘one more Tweet and then it’s bedtime’, ‘one more scroll’ and ‘and an all-nighter later’. Some of us were there for it, eyes held open with matchsticks, helpless in the face of tweets cascading like a mesmerising waterfall. It wasn’t so funny at at 6pm on a train platform wondering how I’d cope for a mere four hours.
Social media is designed to be addictive. The social media companies use similar techniques to casinos and gambling companies to keep you hooked. The one that does it for me is Twitter’s ‘slot machine effect’. After scrolling through my timeline, my finger is inevitably lured to the satisfying pull-and-refresh function for another dopamine hit. Notifications, pings, trills, colours and emojis pull us back for more.
Numerous Big Tech leaders keep their own children away from phones, or have expressed concern about the detonation of this social psychology bomb. Chamath Palihapitiya, who was vice-president for user growth at Facebook before he left the company in 2011, said: ‘The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops that we have created are destroying how society works. No civil discourse, no cooperation, misinformation, mistruth.’ Steve Jobs famously wouldn’t let his children use iPhones or iPads. Yuval Noah Harari has confessed he doesn’t own a smartphone despite his unpleasant predictions of a chipped-brain future for the rest of us.
It’s estimated that 83% of the entire global population owns smartphones. The fastest-growing social media platform, TikTok, claims to have over one billion active users. In the UK, over 91% of the population use social media. We check our phones up to 80 times per day.
We might bristle at the idea of being ‘nudged’ by outside forces. But what if we could ‘nudge’ ourselves? This is a fairly new idea that psychologists call ‘boosting’. There are several boosts that you can selectively apply to hack your phone – and your own mind - and make you more resilient to said outside forces. Some of these you might know, such as switching off notifications and setting screen time limits, or even taking a temporary digital detox. But there are more subtle and effective boosts. For example, setting your phone to grayscale rather than full colour has been shown to reduce screen time by about 30 minutes a day; and moving addictive apps away from the home screen reduced the number of phone pick-ups in a week by 6%.
Hack your phone with boosts, from previous substack, ‘Six ways to free your mind in a new world of manipulation’
The proliferation of smartphones has ushered in an era of unprecedented connectivity. Access to the world and each other is packed into small devices that fit in our hands. We have the world at our fingertips. Regrettably it also feels like our brain has transferred to our pocket or handbag.
On this occasion, my actual brain had to take over. I used a map on the wall at the underground to locate my dinner party and followed my nose. To deal with the not insignificant matter of my incommunicado teenagers I asked a stranger on the platform if I could borrow her phone. Slight problem: I don’t know anyone’s phone number by rote anymore, not even my own children’s. I called the landline, not sure it still worked, as it’s virtually an antique. The 18 year old answered and was duly horrified, even offering to rescue me.
So how did I fare?
Luckily, I had a book with me (The War We Never Fought:The British Establishment’s Surrender to Drugs by Peter Hitchens, meticulously researched, anger-inducing and highly recommended) and I made very good progress through the chapters.
I didn’t record the evening visually, which is to say that there were no vapid selfies on Instagram later. In a philosophical conundrum, for one social media evening I did not exist.
And I felt quiet. Beautifully quiet. I was in my head. I watched people. I read. I liked it. I was a primitive adventurer living by my wits.
Apple announced this week that they are going to ditch leather for phone straps and iPhone cases in pursuit of Net Zero carbon neutrality. You would have thought that if they really wanted to save the planet they would stop flooding the world with phones with built-in contrived durability, using conflict minerals from mines which scar and pollute the earth as well taint the lives of miners with misery. All this continues thanks to carbon offsetting, the modern incarnation of religious indulgences.
As phones become smarter we become dumber and more addicted. Connectivity comes with many costs. A time is coming when people will need to decide whether they want to keep pace with the digital demands or go primitive. I feel a knot of tension when I consider the consequences of Apple Vision Pro.
I’ve taken many bites of the apple and am considering putting it back on the tree and continuing my quiet adventure, once again relying on the brain in my head rather than the one in my handbag.
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For more on the perils of social media and how to resist the manipulation that lies within, please read the chapter ‘Practice Social Media Distancing’ in Free Your Mind: The new world of manipulation and how to resist it.
For subscribers only, I will publish an extract from Free Your Mind about the time I booked myself into a nunnery to deal with my Twitter addiction