More than two billion people around the world now have the magic of a smartphone at their fingertips – and it's changing the way we do countless things, from taking photos to summoning taxis. But smartphones have also changed us – changed our natures in elemental ways, reshaping the way we think and interact. For all their many conveniences, it is here, in the way they have changed not just industries or habits but people themselves, that the joke of the cartoon has started to show its dark side.
The evidence for this is a growing body of research by psychiatrists, neuroscientists, marketers and public health experts. What these people say – and what their research shows – is that smartphones are causing real damage to our minds and relationships, measurable in seconds shaved off the average attention span, reduced brain power, declines in work-life balance and hours less of family time.
Nowhere is the dawning awareness of the problem with smartphones more acute than in the California idylls that created them. Last year, ex-employees of Google, Apple and Facebook, including former top executives, began raising the alarm about smartphones and social media apps, warning especially of their effects on children.Chris Marcellino, who helped develop the iPhone's push notifications at Apple, told The Guardian last fall that smartphones hook people using the same neural pathways as gambling and drugs.
Sean Parker, ex-president of Facebook, recently admitted that the world-bestriding social media platform was designed to hook users with spurts of dopamine, a complicated neurotransmitter released when the brain expects a reward or accrues fresh knowledge. "You're exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology," he said. "[The inventors] understood this, consciously, and we did it anyway."
Peddling this addiction made Mr. Parker and his tech-world colleagues absurdly rich. Facebook is now valued at a little more than half a trillion dollars. Global revenue from smartphone sales reached $435-billion US.
Now, some of the early executives of these tech firms look on their success as tainted."I feel tremendous guilt," said Chamath Palihapitiya, former vice-president of user growth at Facebook, in a public talk in November. "I think we all knew in the back of our minds… something bad could happen."The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops that we have created are destroying how society works," he went on gravely, before a hushed audience at Stanford business school. "It is eroding the core foundations of how people behave."
None of the Bay Area whistle-blowers have been louder than Tristan Harris, a former star product manager at Google. He has spent the past several years of his life telling people to use less of the technologies he helped create through a non-profit called Time Well Spent, which aims to raise awareness among consumers about the dangers of the attention economy, and pressure the tech world to design its products more ethically.
But while previous generations may have cried wolf about new media, "it's different this time," Mr. Harris says. Unlike TVs and desktop computers, which are typically relegated to a den or home office, smartphones go with us everywhere. And they know us. The stories that pop up in your iPhone newsfeed and your social media apps are selected by algorithms to grab your eye.
Smartphones are "literally using the power of billion-dollar computers to figure out what to feed you," Mr. Harris said. That's why you can't look away."It's Homo sapiens minds against the most powerful supercomputers and billions of dollars …. It's like bringing a knife to a space laser fight," Mr. Harris said. "We're going to look back and say, 'Why on earth did we do this?'"
If we have lost control over our relationship with smartphones, it is by design. In fact, the business model of the devices demands it. Because most popular websites and apps don't charge for access, the internet is financially sustained by eyeballs. That is, the longer and more often you spend staring at Facebook or Google, the more money they can charge advertisers.
To ensure that our eyes remain firmly glued to our screens, our smartphones – and the digital worlds they connect us to – internet giants have become little virtuosos of persuasion, cajoling us into checking them again and again – and for longer than we intend. Average users look at their phones about 150 times a day, according to some estimates, and about twice as often as they think they do, according to a 2015 study by British psychologists.
Add it all up and North American users spend somewhere between three and five hours a day looking at their smartphones. As the New York University marketing professor Adam Alter points out, that means over the course of an average lifetime, most of us will spend about seven years immersed in our portable computers.
The Troublemaker's Teaparty is an updated and expanded print version of The Citizen's Handbook. It contains all of the handbook plus additional material on preventing grassroots wilt, strategic action, direct action and media advocacy. You can get a copy of The Teaparty from Amazon or from New Society Publishers.