Is your smartphone doping you?

I fondly remember the first cellphones. As the phones got smaller, their impact on our lives grew.

Gary Goodwin

I fondly remember the first cellphones. And by cellphones I mean the old, brick-sized cellphones that would come with their own power supply the size of a car battery. I would constantly check my voicemail to see if anyone left me a message. I was thrilled if someone left me an electronic message and asked me to do something. I was disappointed if there were no messages, especially after loading up my briefcase to haul this monstrosity-of-communications device around.


Of course, with continued miniaturization, you could finally fit your phone in your pocket without having to carry a briefcase. But as the phones got smaller, their impact on our lives grew. When the phones were being developed with smaller screens, this was like mana from heaven. Texting was pointless for me when you had to type a button three times to get the proper letter to form a word. No wonder the “WTF” abbreviations formed part of our lexicon. Writing became another art form slowly becoming lost.


A lot of people believe that the precursor to the end of civilization as we know it,came with the advent of smartphones. Now you really can communicate with anyone in the world and at the same time lose the ability to relate to everyone else.


Of course, the end of civilization was to end with television; before that, radio and, before that, the telegraph and printed books. Even Aristotle opposed writing since he felt that his students didn’t really learn something if they didn’t have to memorize it. This little bit of wisdom may still apply today since you can search the world’s knowledge whenever you want to and you don’t really have to understand it. The context of everything then becomes a little bit more lost.


The intellectual train comes with preliminary cars such as facts, information, knowledge, wisdom and, finally, you get to the one we all want to reach: enlightenment. But with our attention span having fallen below eight seconds, which is lower than that of the common goldfish, enlightenment may only come as a result of a search engine.


We crave the dopamine fix. I used to play Black Jack, the game where you could get the closest to beating the house. Rest assured, you may think you can beat it over the long term, but you can’t. That’s why they have such great hotels in Vegas. Any money leakage is quickly squashed. I had a fairly simple system of knowing all the odds and pressing the advantage whenever the cards started going my way. It paid for a couple of trips, but I got out when the going was good since the long game always favours the house. But I remember the chemical effects. You can feel the dopamine pulsing through your system whenever a good card is laid out. You win just enough to keep you engaged. And you can now feel this same effect whenever you agree to push notifications from your favourite social media.


I used to have my computer and phone bing whenever a new email came in. I would drop whatever email I was working on in order to read the new email. My concentration was slowly being eaten away as I agreed to the hormonal influx from the new email. It would take me a minute or two to get focused on whatever I was doing before.


Now you can get notifications whenever something new is posted, when there are new comments on that post, if someone comments on your post or if someone comments on your comments. Time keeps getting chopped up more finely.


After a while, it seems as if you have an angry squirrel in your pocket since your phone constantly chitters at you, begging for more attention. If this is making people happy, more power to them. But this seems like a short jump to Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, when the population turned to soma for happiness instead of facing reality. Attaching electrodes directly to the brain seems to be a simpler and faster route than having to go through the smartphone interface, which is still awesome by the way.


Eventually, things got bad enough that I turned off all push notifications from any sort of social media. This recapturing of free will was liberating. Being able to focus on one thing at a time increases my creativity as I go through various scenarios. This reduction in dopamine happiness likely had other positive ramifications.


Scientific American provided some research on the difference between happiness and well-being. There appears to be a synergistic effect where one can increase the other but they remain different. One can be happy watching TV even though one would be better off learning something new or completing that legal brief. By changing your focus from short-term, tactical happiness, you can then focus on the long-term strategic happiness.


Even without the notifications, I can still feel the incessant draw to various social media to see who said what and why. The brain changes from the effects of addiction. So getting that dopamine monkey off our backs may take a bit longer. 


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