Giving Up The Smartphone and Gating Technology: Managing Information, Media and Technology
Over the last several years the number of conversations which I have had with people about smartphones and the effects of digital technology in our lives is numerous. In particular, many conversations have oriented around giving up a smartphone and living without technology cemented into every part of your life. After some time I decided to give it a try to see what it felt like not to have a phone with the purpose of discovering whether a phone is as important as it had come to feel to be.
I had found that I would regularly check the phone which I had on my person so many times a day that it made sense to see whether it was necessity or habit which compelled me to anchor all my actions and my subconscious mind to the device. I started researching to discover worrying findings about how technology is affecting people, not in a good way. It is easy to fixate on the positives when a tool is so useful, but this I believe is the crux of addictions.
For example, it is easy to see the positives of alcohol as it plays a role in so many cherished social connections – in some settings it is even deified; however, there is next to no discussion or acknowledgement about how alcohol is a debilitating and powerful cancer causing substance. This leads me to think that we are prone to developing incongruent and separate mental accounts for things which offer us benefits. So began my journey towards being phoneless, and even more, my journey towards digital detoxing.
This recently became a live issue after a BBC journalist found a tweet in which I had commented on life without a phone. Susie Bearne got in touch and asked if we could talk about my reasons for giving up a phone as she was doing an article on people who had given up their smartphones. What follows is a copy of the questions she asked plus the responses I gave over email after which I have a bit of fun unpacking the various issues which need to be critically discussed.
Before we dive into the detailed deconstruction which I have brought together here, here is a short video by Chris Titus who gives a good basic run through of his experience of giving up a smartphone. Alternatively you could listen to what Dr Devra Davis, advisor to the US government, has to say. As for the rest of the stuff written here, it is for you to dip into and chew over.
“The truth about mobile phone and wireless radiation” — Dr Devra Davis
Email Exchange With BBC Reporters
Thanks for sending across your details. I’m writing a piece for the BBC about people quitting their mobiles and smartphones and am keen to include you. If there is a phone I can call you on, do let me know. But otherwise, could you answer the below questions by end of Tuesday, if possible. It would be great to receive a paragraph or so for each question.
- Full name, age, location and occupation
- How long had you owned a phone for before you gave it up? What type was it? What was your relationship like with your phone?
- When and why did you decide to stop using a phone? How did you handle the transition?
- What kind of challenges have you encountered since then?
- How do you handle modes of communication and perhaps just accessing information that would have been through (or made easier via) a mobile? For example, speaking to family (if you don’t use a phone at all), perhaps directions to somewhere new, for instance.
- What have been the benefits for you?
- Have you ever felt compelled to use one again?
- You mentioned friends often try and give you a phone. Assume this is never accepted?
- What are people’s response to the fact you live without a mobile?
- Could you also send through a high-res landscape colour picture of you to accompany the piece.
Thanks – Susie
Response to Journalist
Full name, age, location and occupation:
Alex Dunedin, 40’s, Education and technology sector
How long had you owned a phone for before you gave it up? What type was it?
I’ve had phones most of my life. I’ve had a range of phones and followed trends moving all the way up to Iphone 5 – but also various android smart phones. I have been going through a digital detox for the last two years, first weening myself off the technologies and then weening other people off me not having a phone.
What was your relationship like with your phone?
Good mainly. Very useful tool but resisted socialising over them once I got into the smartphone era due to not liking the side of my face heating up. I found the phone and the smartphone useful for coordinating complex enterprises and use telecoms to do that for specified projects but keep them switched off unless preplanned.
When and why did you decide to stop using a phone? How did you handle the transition?
I stopped using a phone about two years ago when I started to realise some of the psychological phenomena which were emerging. As a technologist and a researcher who studies addiction behaviour and biology, and as someone who has made contributions to conferences on addictive behaviours and cybersecurity I was became aware emergent issues like ‘phantom ring syndrome’ and ‘phantom vibration syndrome’ (plenty of research online – the phenomena of hearing or feeling your phone when it has not actually been ringing or vibrating ).
I researched these and saw that ‘mixed schedule reinforcement’ resulted in gambling behaviour’s as B. F. Skinner put it. What I realised from surveying people in my networks was that it was not uncommon for people to report these auditory and tactile hallucinations – which is what they technically are. At an addiction conference I saw keynotes and other presentations on how gambling machines were causing the same physiology as physical drug addiction.
At a cybersecurity conference I put a question to a panel of experts whether they had encountered any cases of ‘cyber psychosis’ and the woman from GCHQ said that although this expression she had not come across, they had become aware of physical addiction symptoms to technology particularly virtual reality. I started to research ‘dopamine farms’ in silicon valley and the deliberate use of ‘mixed schedule reinforcement’ and realised that this caused unhealthy responses in neurology. I then extended my study to look at where ‘mixed schedule reinforcement’ occurred in our daily lives and realised that telephone signals were incidentally producing these patterns.
Add to that the fact that telephones have all been based on ‘Push technology’ rather than ‘Pull technology’, and as a result were wasting exponential amounts of energy producing exponential amounts of CO2 emissions, I realised it was an unsustainable system in terms of environment – not to mention the loss of moral compass in the upgrade culture which the mobile phone companies have built their business model on, the conflict minerals involved such as coltan.
Lastly, I started to analyse how people were using these technologies in their lives and did some experiments to see how addiction behaviours were blunting cognition and impede productivity. I came to the conclusion that the usefulness of the technology has now far outstripped the blunting impacts of the technology, engendered in ‘automated behaviours. I decided to start fasting from the technology and working toward using telecoms as ‘Pull technologies’ for environmental reasons. It began by keeping the phone switched off and then, when I experienced the benefits of containing the place they have in my life I opted for a sort of ‘slow technology’ philosophy not unlike what we see emerging with food etc.
The most disruptive thing seems to be that people take it personally that I am not on the networks and so I spend time explaining why and some of the details. People display odd mood fluctuations by not being able to access me via telephone whenever they might want to; I moved everything into email to ringfence the influence of technology and maximise my cognitive work – both in appreciating being in the world and with people when I am, and also in my research and project work.
Also some people took it personally that I came off the phone network like this, some believing that I was cutting them out of being a part of my phone life. Long term it has improved my life as people do not have fleeting interactions with me and my thoughts are freed up from constantly being cognitively connected (at some level) to a machine which I need to feed energy and money etc.
What kind of challenges have you encountered since then?
Nothing that significant which cannot be overcome with planning. If I need the tool (i.e. phone) it is possible to organise one should a project need it (i.e. like a walkie talkie). Mostly it is peoples reactions to me not having a phone which is a bit of a challenge; different behaviour produces some challenging behaviour in others such as a suspicion of difference.
How do you handle modes of communication and perhaps just accessing information that would have been through (or made easier via) a mobile? For example, speaking to family (if you don’t use a phone at all), perhaps directions to somewhere new, for instance.
I plan and use a computer and when it is not on, it is not on. I can do everything through planning. In regards to people close to me, I arrange to see them via email (outside times of covid), but otherwise I have come to see it as a superficial cypher of the real thing. It is the difference between standing in a forest or looking at a forest on a screen – as analogy.
I think that the danger of technologies is that they are emptying our lives. If you look at the work of Marian Cleeves Diamond you will see that our neurological health is reflected by the richness of our environment; think of all the loss of neurons which occurs when someone stops all the things involved in cooking and gets take away delivered every night. Our sociological habitats are shrinking in various aspects, technology is denuding our brains capabilities in some contexts and settings.
What have been the benefits for you?
Happier, more productive, healthier.
Have you ever felt compelled to use one again?
I answered this through the stuff above. It is a tool which is useful but I think we need to reformulate the place and role which technologies like telecommunications hold in our lives. Im not trying to tell others to live like I do. I do think, however, people should be aware of the science behind ‘phantom ring/vibration syndrome’.
Culturally ‘we’ are becoming ‘addicted’ to these tools – in some situations, not by accident (see research on dopamine farms). It depends whether an individual wants to be in control of the technology and whether it is truly enriching their lives, or whether it is giving the illusion of enrichment – it is different and nuanced for many different individuals.
You mentioned friends often try and give you a phone. Assume this is never accepted? What are people’s response to the fact you live without a mobile?
Oh, it is just one of those things. Gifts are a way of people saying they want the best for you. It is kind of like the way that people will proffer alcohol to you if you say that you are giving up, or offer a piece of meat if you are giving up meat eating. There is a great book called Humanness and Dehumanization (https://books.google.nl/books/about/Humanness_and_Dehumanization.html?id=Nb7eAQAAQBAJ&redir_esc=y) which offers some interesting psychology on how difference is perceived in various ways.
When someone feels a strong connection to something which is in their life they both want it to be in other people’s lives and sometimes feel compelled that it must be in other people’s lives. Some people feel sorry for me, some people feel that I am a bit mad for having different relationships with technology, some people just shrug and are fine with it, some people are offended. Mehh
Could you also send through a high-res landscape colour picture of you to accompany the piece.
Afraid not – another modernity which I dont indulge in 🙂 If you want any further details or clarifications or bibliography, happy to provide. Good luck with your article. Please do send me a note of where I can read it when you get it out there.
Kind regards – Alex
PS: Apologies if it is a bit brief – you wanted something off the cuff. Dinner time now, time to switch off
Thank you for the all the detail. Much appreciated. Can I take your exact age at all? And location? If you don’t feel comfortable sharing the exact village/town, you can just say the county. Also is there a more specific job title we can use? (My editor will only ask). And is there any way we can twist your arm re picture? Perhaps someone taking one for you? Understand if you don’t want to but thought I’d ask again as editor will push me for it. Thank you again for contributing.
Im afraid that the details which I am happy sharing I have done already, my exact age and location are not relevant to the ideas at work. Similar with the job title, the primary fields I work in should be suffice. On the picture front, likewise, I dont feel it is necessary information for the content of the ideas. As you might have guessed I am taking a proactive stance on managing my experience in the 21st century, and whilst where I am at may not be where I stay in coming times, it is important that I take time to experience comparisons so that I can have informed opinions which guide me.
I see these kinds of exercises akin to stopping alcohol for a comparison period in an alcohol driven society; necessary to understand what alcohol is doing to the mind, body and behaviours. I am sure you can appreciate that similarly thinking through our relationships with information, identity and media is in some ways connected.
All the best with your article – Alex
The Reduction to a Cypher by Media
You can compare what was written in Susie Bearne’s article here with the information which I gave above. The following statement encapsulates the reason why I started experimenting with disengorging my life from technology – “I am taking a proactive stance on managing my experience in the 21st century”. Managing information, media and technology in our lives I believe is only going to become a bigger issue over time. Whilst I appreciate the integrity of Susie Bearne’s journalism here, the chief reason I say this is because the information economies are reducing people to caricatures and cyphers (at best) from a full and rich experience of an infinitely detailed world.
In this article I am going to go through some of the issues which I see in the rise of information technology and media worlds providing some deeper references in an attempt to counterbalance the reduction of my reasoning so some next to insignificant soundbites that equate more to entertainment than to learning useful information. The media industry has a lot to answer for and people are building careers on instrumentally engaging with individuals to extract information with the chief purpose to sell financially profitable copy.
This I dont see it as primarily the fault of the individuals operating on the frontlines of the press but see it as related to what Prof Gerald Caiden calls pathobureaucracy. Caiden’s field is that of Administrative Reform and has spent a lifetime critically analysing and identifying issues which arise through information misrepresentation and mismanagement. The media is a sort of of information distribution network which is grossly controled from central points, so this is how I am stretching Caiden’s word which expresses pathologies found in centrally organised information systems.
I am not saying that all press and media are pathological, and not all the time, but, by and large the habit of the industries orients towards shallow, clickbaity, superficial content which offers little – if any – link or way into to deeper information sources such as parliamentary documents (for example) which are being discussed or studies which are being spoken about. It amounts to gossip and time passing mulch rather than the fourth estate which it universally heralds itself as.
Once media people have got what they want they move on with a sort of amnesia; they are chasing ‘the story’ and engrained in a world which is shaped by tenets like ‘if it bleeds, it leads’. The press are historical progenitors of the information media we see filling up the internet. Infotainment and sound bites abound and at the end of a broadcast the enquiring viewer, reader or listener is often left with little other than here-say packaged up with bells and whistles; like fast food joints, it is mostly metaphorical empty calories giving the impression of being informed when there is actually very little information…
…it is a world which has become reduced to a cypher, and all the people in that world – all their reasonings and thoughts and feelings and experiences – transformed into a few syllables which get regurgitated through the press distribution networks. I am concerned about how news has become transmuted into entertainment; a thin representation of the world which ultimately empties the human experience of deeper meaning and capability. The film ‘Don’t Look Up’ does a good satire of the media…
The media and the information economies are related in certain qualitative aspects. Our information has become a product which is expropriated from the private domains of people’s day to day living. It is taken, reproduced, marketed, duplicated, traded and sprayed back at us in a manner which resembles a Foie gras goose being fed with pesticide ridden genetically modified fodder. Sub prime data is hoovered up and punted around using vast amounts of energy to enable the physical infrastructure required to transport and store the information.
Digital technology has been coming thick and fast with its promises and dreams. It has infiltrated nearly every single aspect of our lives attracting inordinate amounts of financial investment in return for further promises to take over more phenomenal and existential territory analogous to landgrabs. Digital technology and the capabilities which come with is so culturally new that embedded understandings of its effects have generally failed to keep up in the legal world which suffers like the donkey it is being treated as.
The relentless march of silicon valley and its cousins is propelled along on hopes and fantasies propagated by marketing executives and designers influenced by the whip of the stockmarket to make more money than yesterday. The world groans as another cohort of youthful graduates is released year on year into the wilds of the economies which have become intoxicated by an mammonian erotic-like asphyxiation of the means to function in human society.
Coders are easily bought to design and implement algorithms for a shilling or two without care or wonder about the effects of the automation they are wheeling out into the world. So long as they can pay off their student loans and reduce the pecuniary endenturement they have been corraled into, they cannot afford to care that they are unleashing an ‘artificial intelligence’ on the world or automating humans out of human processes.
The telephone has been with us since the 1870s; the first personal computers since the 1970s, and the first smartphones in the 1990s. Now, in 2022, these technologies have become intimately bound up in people’s lives. There is no mistake that the love affair with these technologies has been driven by their usefulness as tools, but at what point must we ask about when these tools have surpassed their usefulness ? We know this by observing and measuring how technologies introduce new problems along with their capabilities and conveniences. We do this by being mindful of shifting baselines and intimate understandings of what is important for wellbeing.
This is what I wanted to understand by experiment and research. There are lots of babies and plenty of dirty bathwater which, of course, requires the capacity to have nuanced answers. Nuanced answers don’t suit the ‘one-pagers’ which ministers or chief executives demand on pain of ignoring an issue; nuanced answers contravene the exciting categoricals which the press and gossips thrive on like children gathering crowds around two feuding disputers shouting “fight, fight, fight, fight, fight…” because they find conflict entertaining.
It is starting to dawn on us the fact that we – life on earth – are facing a series of emerging issues of a scale which we are not used to having to deal with. Not only that, but these issues are complex and interrelated. To meet them as challenges we need to be able to change our behaviour, our lives and our futures. Rather like parents driving up in a column of combustion engines and dropping off their children at school might never entertain the notion that they are producing cancerous pollution which will end their kids, our relationship with digital technology is similarly unproblematised.
Take for instance global warming and climate breakdown in the media. As agreed upon by the International Panel on Climate Change in their IPCC Reports, this is majorly understood to be caused by human production of carbon dioxide majorly through the production of energy from fossil fuels. The infotainment dealing of this issue and other issues relating to the effects of human beings on the environment has resulted in a significant population disagreeing that global warming and climate breakdown is an issue. Despite there being international consensus amongst the scientific communities surrounding the need to act on climate breakdown, there have emerged media wars surrounding the truth or falsehoods of the claim.
This said however, whilst the notion that climate breakdown is being driven by human carbon dioxide production has eclipsed other connected issues which can help with the ultimate assessment of what problems industries are resolving and what problems industries are creating. Never have I heard it discussed in tandem the fact that fossil fuels create both carbon dioxide as waste products spilled into our environment, but also a range of poisonous chemicals which cause debilitating and deadly diseases like chronic asthma and cancer.
Inconvenient truths are blotted out of discussion, and industry charges ahead with a lack of criticality or accountability with digital technologies and how they are impacting our lives and the living environment. Due to the benefits which have come from the propagation of technologies a culture of holding back on identifying the problems has evolved.
This I suspect is partially also to do with the professionalisation, and locking out, of people from public institutions of education and knowledge, creating a system of passive authoritarian demarcation of people to frippery; a sign of over specialised societal structures often leading to cognitive efforts being directed towards the likes of day time television and financially enclosed sports.
The way that media plays off issues against each other has represented all views as equal. Layered on top of this is the mere exposure effect of representation in the media that it has been influenced by industrial sponsors, lobbyists and pressure groups; it is the same illusion of choice which we see in all our supermarkets (the industrialisation of the food chain that has been swallowed by vertical integration, supply chain collaboration, and chip bullying cartels).
There are significant issues with the narrow ownership of the ‘free press’ (including the reportage of BBC), and along with this, a lack of critique of how ownership of an enterprise brings with it regulation by the owners. Add to this the effects of the death of a thousand editors and you get thin gruel. The documentary ‘Orwell Rolls in his Grave’ makes in depth scrutiny of the ownership of the media distribution networks and is well worth watching. It is not unusual for TV channels and newspapers to be threatened with loss of advertising revenue if they run certain stories or perspectives.
What Are The Problems With Phones ?
There are a range of problems with cellular phones – smart phones and otherwise. The chief issue which I see with the technology as it is, is that they are designed as PUSH technologies. A ‘Push’ technology is something where the request for a given transaction is initiated by the publisher or central server. This means that phones are perpetually active sending and receiving information even when there is no relevant information for you. Your phone is constantly caught in a call and response communication where the phone is triangulated and a small exchange is initiated which goes something like this.
Phone transmits ‘I am here, is there any information for me ?’; telephone masts and receivers around calculate where you are and respond with either ‘yes, there is this information’ or ‘no, there is no information for you now’. The phones are constantly checking in with the telephone networks to see if there is new information.
Not only that but smartphones do this a massive amount as standard because there are numerous applications on them which are transmitting information about how you are using your smartphone, and a range of other things, back to the companies which designed the given apps. Someone with excellent technical expertise who explains how mobile phone technology works well is Edward Snowden. Understanding exactly how the technology works is the foundation for understanding what problems come with the phones.
Fundamental Physics of How Mobile Phones Work
0 minutes 15 seconds to 9 minutes 1 second
“I mean the big thing that’s changed since I was in 2013 is now its mobile first, everything mobile was still a big deal, right, and the intelligence community was very much grappling to get its hands around it and to deal with it, but now people are much less likely to use laptop than use a desktop than use any kind of wired phone than they are to use a smartphone, and both Apple and Android devices unfortunately are not especially good in protecting your privacy I think right now.
You got a smartphone right, you might be listening to this on a train somewhere and in traffic right now or you, Joe, right now, you got a phone somewhere in the room right. The phone is turned off, or at least the screen is turned off; it’s sitting there – it’s powered on and if somebody sends you a message the screen blinks to life. How does that happen ?
…but how is it that if someone from any corner of the earth dials a number your phone rings and nobody else’s rings ? How is it you can dial anybody else’s number and only their phone rings right ? Every smartphone, every phone at all, is constantly connected to the nearest cellular tower…every phone, even when the screen is off and you think it’s doing nothing.
You can’t see it because radio frequency emissions are invisible. It’s screaming in the air saying ‘Here I am, Here I am, here is my IMEI – I think it’s Individual Manufacturers Equipment Identity – and IMSI – Individual Manufacturers Subscriber Identity. I could be wrong on the break out there but the acronyms are the IMEI and the IMSI and you can search for these things.
These are two globally unique identifiers that only exist, anywhere in the world, in one place, right. This makes your phone different than all other phones. The IMEI is burned into the handset of your phone no matter what SIM card you changed to; it’s always gonna be the same and it’s always gonna be telling the phone network it’s this physical handset. The IMSI is in your SIM card right and this is what holds your phone number right. It’s the basically the key – the right to use that phone number.
…and so your phone is sitting there doing nothing, you think, but it’s constantly shouting and saying ‘I’m here, who is closest to me ?’ – that’s the cell phone tower and every cell phone tower with its big ears is listening for these little cries for help, and going – ‘Alright I see Joe Rogan’s phone, and I see Jamie’s phone; I see all these phones that are here right now’ – and it compares notes with the other network towers, and your smart phone compares notes with them to go – ‘Who do I hear the loudest ?‘
And who you hear the loudest is a proxy for proximity, for closeness; distance, right. They go ‘Whoever I hear more loudly than anybody else, that’s close to me, so you’re gonna be bound to this cell phone tower, and that cell phone tower is gonna make a note – a permanent record saying ‘This phone, this phone handset, with this phone number, at this time, was connected to me’, right; and based on your phone handset and your phone number, they can get your identity because you pay for this stuff with your credit card and everything like that…
…and even if you don’t right, it’s still active at your house, overnight it is still active on your nightstand when you’re sleeping, it’s still. Whatever the movements of your phone are the movements of you as a person, and those are often quite uniquely identifying. It goes to your home, it goes to your workplace, other people don’t have it sorry…
…and anyway it’s constantly shouting this out and then it compares notes with the other parts of network and when somebody is trying to get to a phone it compares notes of the network to go – ‘Where is this phone, with this phone number, in the world right now’ – and to that cell phone tower that is closest to that phone it sends out a signal saying – ‘We have a call for you, make your phone start ringing so your owner can answer it’ – and then it connects it across this whole path…
…but what this means is that whenever you’re carrying a phone, whenever the phone is turned on, there’s a record of your presence at that place, that is being made and created by companies. It does not need to be kept forever, and in fact there’s no good argument for it to be kept forever, but these companies see that it’s valuable information, right; this is the whole big data problem that we’re running into and all this information that used to be ephemeral, right – where were you when you were 8 years old ? Where’d you go after you had a bad breakup ? Who did you spend the night with ? Who’d you call after ? – all this information used to be ephemeral meaning it disappeared like the morning dew; it would be gone no one would remember it…
…but now these things are stored, now these things are saved; it doesn’t matter whether you’re doing anything wrong, it doesn’t matter whether you’re the most ordinary person on earth because that’s how bulk collection – which is the government’s euphemism for mass surveillance – works. They simply collected all in advance in hopes that one day it will become useful and that was just talking about how you connected on the phone network, that’s not talking about all those apps on your phone that are contacting the network even more frequently, right.
How do you get a text message notification ? How do you get an email notification ? How is it that Facebook knows where you’re at ? You know, all of these things, these analytics, they are trying to keep track through location services on your phone, through GPS, through even just what wireless access points you’re connected to because there’s a global constantly updated map. There’s actually many of them of wireless access points in the world because, just like we talked about every phone has a unique identifier that’s globally unique, every wireless access point in the world – right – your cable modem at home; whether it’s in your laptop; every device that has a radio modem has a globally unique identifier in it…
…this is a standard term you can look it up, and these things can be mapped when they’re broadcasting in the air because, again like your phone says to the cell phone tower – ‘I have this identifier’ – the cell phone tower responds and says ‘I have this identifier’ – and anybody who’s listening, they can write these things down, and all those Google Street View cars that go back and forth, right, they’re keeping notes on whose Wi-Fi is active on this block right, and then they build a giant map.
So even if you have GPS turned off right, as long as you’re connected to Wi-Fi those apps can go – ‘well I’m connected to Joe’s Wi-Fi but I can also see his neighbour’s Wi-Fi here, and the other one in this apartment over here, and the other one in the apartment here‘ – and you should only be able to hear those four globally unique Wi-Fi access points from these points in physical space; the intersection in between the spreads, the domes of all those wireless access points, it’s a proxy for location, and it just goes on and on and on, we could talk about this for four more hours, we don’t have that kind of time
Can I ask you this – is there a way to mitigate any of this ? Personally I mean is me shutting your phone off doesn’t even work right ? Well, so it does in a way, it’s yes and no. The thing that shutting your phone off that is a risk is, how do you know your phone’s actually turned off ?
It used to be when I was in Geneva for example working for the CIA we would all carry like drug dealer phones – you know, the old dumb phones, they’re not smart phones, and the reason why was just because they had removable battery backs where you could take the battery out right and the one beautiful thing about technology is, if there’s no electricity in it right, if there’s there’s no go juice available to it, if there’s no battery connected to it, it’s not sending anything because you have to get power from somewhere; you have to have power in order to do work but now your phones are all sealed right you can’t take the batteries out so there are potential ways that you can hack a phone where it appears to be off but it’s not actually off, it’s just pretending to be off whereas in fact it’s still listening in and doing all this stuff.”
The Physics of Phones: Takeaway Message
- These machines are constantly transmitting information to private companies (that is duplicated by government agencies) which is creating countless numbers of computational calculations
- These transmissions are being held in long term and permanent big data records
- All the transmission and information storage equates to energy usage and equivalent amounts of carbon dioxide production and carcinogenic pollution
- The push design of these technologies has removed agency from the user to prevent this wasteful use of energy – in the same way that leaving your television on standby is a waste of electricity and generates pollution
- Mobile phones in terms of energy design are an entirely unsustainable technology
The Physical Make Up of Smartphones
The material costs of using mobile phones must be problematised when considering what part we play in mobile phone culture. When I was attached by umbilical cord to my phone(s), I was at least aware that buying a new phone and constantly upgrading the handsets as the companies urged you to was a dodgy practice. Why do I say this ?? Here is a primer video:
Well, the materials used in making the mobile phones can sometimes incorporate conflict minerals. Conflict minerals refer to natural resources which are extracted in a conflict zone and sold to perpetuate the fighting. Well known examples which are particular to mobile phones and computers include Coltan which is used to make Tantalum in linked to warfare in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (formerly Zaire). Amnesty International have reported on this
“The Democratic Republic of Congo is, by far, the single most important source of cobalt in the world. In 2014, half of the world’s cobalt, which is used in the lithium-ion rechargeable batteries that power electronic devices such as laptops and smartphones, was mined in the The Democratic Republic of Congo. Demand for cobalt is growing at over 5 percent a year, and it is expected to continue doing so as the lithium-ion battery market expands with the increasing popularity of electric vehicles.”
So the businesses involved in the supply chain include highly unethical and inhumane behaviours which do anything to generate profit. Rather like blood diamonds, we should be thinking analogously in terms of ‘blood silicon’ or ‘blood technology’. How many lives do you think having a smartphone is worth ? It can be sometimes hard to tell which companies are using slave or exploitational labour, or whether your mobile phone contains conflict minerals which destabilise countries because of the demand for resources in those companies.
Aside from that, the way that companies force the redundancy of their mobile phones to extract further profit from selling another round of mobile phones it totally dodgy. This along with the fact that there is not sufficient upcycling of old handsets makes the whole physical economy as unsustainable as their design for constant energy usage. These aspects I had been aware of so I had made sure that I would never buy a new mobile phone when I did have them placed centrally in my life.
The Psychological Effects of Digital Technologies
I came to understand more about the effects which digital technologies were having when I attended the annual Society for the Study of Addictions conference. When I attended I was interested to see a whole section of the conference dedicated to gambling. The research demonstrated that people went through similar physiological withdrawal symptoms in addiction to gambling as they do to physical addiction to drug substances. This was surprising to me as I had equated addiction to physical substances.
How could this come about through simple stimulae which were not chemical in origin ? When I started to investigate the grounding in theory of the manipulations which can go on in digital technologies, how they work and what they can result in. The result is that my work is joining a number of dots as it intersects in poverty, mental health and addiction.
Essentially big tech is tuning into what the casinos did a long time ago – what the famous psychologist B. F. Skinner called Mixed Schedule Reinforcement. Skinner carried on from Pavlov’s work on the conditioned reflex building his work examining how the conditioned reflex was involved in learning, cognition and behaviour.
He looked at ‘scheduled reinforcements’ meaning, giving rewards to activity – think pigeons tapping a pedal to get a piece of grain. The war came along and he was told to tighten his budget; so he asked ‘can I get the pigeons to tap the pedal twice to get a piece of grain’ – it turned out yes; then he asked ‘can I get the pigeons to tap the pedal three times to get a piece of grain’ – it turned out yes; then he asked ‘can I get the pigeons to tap the pedal five times, ten times, forty times…. and so on, the answer was yes. The animals would understand that pressing the pedal gave a reward, and this suited his work on reinforcement as it created what is known as a conditioned reflex.
Then he asked ‘what happens when I give a random pay out ?’ – and something interesting happened, the pigeons displayed compulsive behaviour; one pigeon tapping so fast and so hard for a piece of grain that its beak started to smoke. This was ‘Mixed Schedule Reinforcement’ which he wrote up as producing ‘gambling behaviour’.
This understanding was later adopted by casinos and the gambling industry as it was not just inherent in the traditional games – in fact it is all about these – but it could be engineered into the environments and particularly fruit machines which give out noises and flashing lights which can trigger payout stimulus without giving a financial payout. The result – grown adults sitting at gambling slots in dippers transfixed to the activity; the nervous system of people is being triggered as if there were a reward when there is none. This is known as the ‘Near Miss phenomenon’.
Gordon R. Foxall & Valdimar Sigurdsson summarize it: “An intriguing feature of near-miss outcomes in slot-machine gambling is that, while they are objectively losses, they motivate further play. The “near-miss effect” contradicts standard reinforcement theory in which failure should punish, rather than reward, responding”
When a reward mechanism, which we strongly associate with senses of happiness and wellbeing, involves the release of the neurotransmitter dopamine. Dopamine then goes on to trigger the release of opiates which the body produces which are called endorphins and enkephalins; substances which have the same chemistry as morphine. This basic biological mechanism is a part of satiation – the signal that a need has been satisfied. This neurochemistry is involved, for example, at the end of eating, at the end of exercising, and at the end of sex; not just that but it is involved to signal success in an activity and has been associated with a part of the learning mechanism.
It is suggested by some researchers that when the nervous system is primed in a certain way to produce the Near Miss effect, cognitive distortion takes place on a neurophysiological basis. This does not seem to be an outlandish framing of things if we examine the effects which drugs have on our ability to perform certain tasks. Understanding how mixed schedule reinforcement can result in chemically stimulation of the nervous system may offer an insight as to why non-chemical things like gambling can become ‘addictive’ and how being in these states can affect our cognition so that we become psychologically uncoupled from apprehending things clearly.
This work was easily transferred from that environment into the digital with whole services and experiences designed to give Mixed Schedule Reinforcement. The games industry introduced it to keep people grinding at games, coming back for more and ‘getting more play hours’ out of a production – they did this by removing the skill and introducing random elements of failure which often evoke an emotional response and dampen cognition resulting in poorer gaming skill but behaviours of attrition.
The neurochemistry is fascinating as it intersects directly with trauma. The dopaminergic response to reward gives rise to excitation as dopamine goes on to be converted to adrenaline and noradrenaline; but also dopamine causes release of endorphins and enkephalins – the body’s endogenously produced opiates. Dopamine has been profoundly implicated in psychiatric conditions as well as the target of various and multiple drugs; endorphins and enkephalins are as addictive as morphine and share the same pharmacology and have similarly been implicated to be involved in a variety of psychiatric conditions.
Trauma causes release of adrenal neurotransmitters and endogenous opiates too in association with the cortisol stress response. What we are looking at here is a positive feedback loop whereby both pleasure seeking and trauma can feed in reinforcing this neurological state. This whole area of neurochemistry and its behavioural associations is something I have been working on documenting for some time. You can read a synopsis of a segment of the work Here.
For the last five years I have been researching and documenting a mass of work on opiate and opioid involvements in behaviour; this is the result of many years study relating to the effects of drugs and physiological involvements involved in perception and wellbeing.
To recap, what we have here is that Mixed Schedule Reinforcement triggers dopaminergic and adrenal activity causing a release of endogenous opiates which go on to reinforce behaviours at the same time as triggering further dopaminergic release. This is relatable to Gregory Bateson’s work on the double bind theory of schizophrenia and a whole mass of stereotyped behaviours.
You can read a more detailed scheme of this neurochemistry and how it relates to environmentally produced trauma in the chapter ‘Physical Reflections of the Non Physical: Stresses from Loss of Habitat’ (page 46) of Education as Human Development below. You will get a more integrated account of the stereotyped behaviours, neurochemistry and interrelations with the sociological environment over the whole thesis:
The document will give you a series of references taking you into the details of trauma and cortisol responses which can further feedback through reinforcement of previous traumas. Digital technology spaces represent both a site of agency and a site of trauma related to a contraction of the natural sociological habitat of our species – homo sapiens; I believe that many people are experiencing a relationship of trauma bonding with the digital technologies because the physical and societal environs have become so constrictive and contracted.
I can dig a lot up but that is a starter for six overview. The implications are massive as it relates mental health, addiction and impoverishment to deliberate production of stereotyped behaviours and capitalisation on them. There is a whole bunch of stuff I can join into this about ‘meaningful activities’ – a term from animal psychology making the distinction between useless toil and meaningful work, nudge theory, and pseudo-environments (the equivalent of junk food offering no nutritional benefit).
A Knave New World: Dopamine Farms
What we have brewing is a situation, to paraphrase William Blake, ‘dark satanic algorithms’ inside of which people increasingly live and work. Technologies have been blindly employed and deployed on a mass scale with the mistaken belief that because we only interact, rather than physically consume – with the digitized environments, that it does not affect us significantly enough to warrant caution or worry. Of course, we do have to guard against hysteria about the new and different, of which there has been plenty about.
With our changed times we must develop changed sensibilities adapting to the emergent problems which come. This is not an article about all the advantages which have been conferred with telephone and computer technologies. It is shallow to avoid celebrating the fact that computer game environments offer enrichments to our play spaces or that the capacity to work 24 hours in a mobile way cannot offer powerful organisational capabilities.
It is equally shallow to gloss over the problems which are happening because of these powerful technologies being insinuated in practically every juncture of our lives. Digital technology is now the babysitter, it is the social network, it depicts your identity to the world, it determines your finances, and so on. Every generation of children in the industrialised nations of the worlds now grows up and has their nervous system affected and formed through the actions of synthetic digital environments…
Simon Parkin, an established critic and journalist, who has written for publications such as New Yorker, New Scientist, New Statesman and the Guardian starts his book ‘Death by Video Game’ this way:
“January 2012: A young man is dead and if a video game wasn’t the culprit, then it was, at very least, an accessory to the crime. This wasn’t the first time that a video game was a suspect in a young person’s death. Thirty years earlier, almost to the month, eighteen-year-old Peter Burkowski walked into Friar Tuck’s Game Room in Calumet City, Illinois, posted a high score on the arcade game Berzerk and, moments later, collapsed dead. Since then, fresh reports of ‘death of a video gamer’ (as Burkowski’s story was reported at the time) have been a regular fixture in the news…
…Death by Video Game is an investigation into a slew of deaths in which young men and, occasionally, women have been found dead at their keyboards after extended periods of video-game playing. But we’re not going to linger with the corpses. The more pressing question is what compelled these young people to emigrate from reality into their virtual dimensions beyond the natural limits of their well-being?”
This book offers a stark insight into how digital technology can directly affect psychology so much that life sustaining behaviours and physiology can be disrupted – even to the point of death. It is a deficient perspective to think that we control digital technologies and that it does not happen the other way around too. Looking at a screen with changing information can over ride biological sleep signals which have been hardwired for millions of years. For example:
“The results of the study suggested that healthful adolescent sleep is indeed greatly compromised, during a time when the reverse is vitally important. Of students randomly sampled, all but one student owned a cell phone. In the total study group, a majority were smart phone owner-users (84%). Many high school participants slept with a cell phone or tablet in their bed (72%), and among college participants who regularly slept with cell phone, tablet, or laptop, this rose to 86%. Over half of these students continued to access and use their devices in bed for significant amounts of time prior to sleeping. Many of these even awakened after falling asleep to access or respond to electronic messaging. The research indicated that unhealthy sleep habits may be creating a generation of sleep-deprived individuals who may not be functioning at top capacity.”
Kerry L. Moulin & Chia-Jung Chung, (2017), Technology Trumping Sleep: Impact of Electronic Media and Sleep in Late Adolescent Students, Journal of Education and Learning; Vol. 6, No. 1; ISSN 1927-5250 E-ISSN 1927-5269 Published by Canadian Center of Science and Education
If we pay attention to the space – psychological, resources, and timewise – we give over to digital technologies it will indicate how necessary an audit of how digital technologies is. Telephones are a form of digital technology which are particularly invasive due to their now being with many of us all of the time – in bed, on the toilet, on holiday, at work, at play… They have gained a place more intimate than almost any other object or person, and now with smartphones, the telephone must be regarded as a computer rather than just a simple telecommunication device.
Smartphones connect people with a multiplicity of communication, information and gaming interactions. Probably the most prominent of these are the social media platforms which have proposed to people that they are social. The largest and most famous of these is Facebook, which has diversified and as a company now called Meta, buying up a slew of social media platforms and technologies such as Whatsapp and Instagram. The way which this company has designed and engineered deliberately exploitative dopamine feedback loops to develop neurotic compulsions and attachments to their products.
Here is Chamath Palihapitiya who was vice-president for user growth at Facebook before he left the company in 2011. He speaks about this type of dopamine driven design and how he feels about it now, and what it is doing in the world. Below I have provided the transcript of the interview with him from 20 minutes 38 seconds through to 25 minutes 29 seconds:
“…go ahead go and look through crunchbase and all the shitty, useless idiotic companies that have gotten funded doing garbage like that versus climate change. Think about that. Think about that. Think about that when you guys eventually find your partner, your significant other, your husband, your wife; you get married you, have kids, you will not be able to hand off a planet that they can predictably live in – you will not. Your generation ! And nobody is fucking doing anything about it. So the capital markets are just completely, completely out of their minds….
[Interviewer]: I want to bring us back to the point that you were making about exploiting consumer behaviour in a consumer internet business you said that this is a time for soul-searching in social media businesses and you were part of building the largest one [Facebook]. What soul-searching are you doing right now on that ?
[Chamath Palihapitiya] I feel tremendous guilt. I think we all knew in the back of our minds, even though we feigned this whole line of like, there probably aren’t any really bad unintended consequences; I think in the back deep deep recesses of our minds we kind of knew something bad could happen but I think the way we defined it was not like this.
It literally is a point now where I think we have created tools that are ripping apart the social fabric of how society works. That is truly where we are and I would encourage all of you as the future leaders of the world to really internalize how important this is. If you feed the Beast, that Beast will destroy you. If you push back on it we have a chance to control it and rein it in and it is a point in time where people need to hard break from some of these tools, and the things that you rely on…
…The short-term dopamine driven feedback loops that we have created are destroying how society works. No civil discourse; no cooperation; misinformation; mistruth; and it’s not an American problem, this is not about Russian ads, this is a global problem. So we are in a really bad state of affairs right now in my opinion.
It is eroding the core foundations of how people behave by and between each other and I don’t have a good solution. You know, my solution is I just don’t use these tools anymore. I haven’t for years, it’s created huge tension with my friends, huge tensions in my social circles, if you look at my Facebook feed I probably have posted maybe two times in seven years – three times, five times, like it’s less than 10…and it’s weird I guess I kind of just innately didn’t want to get programmed and so I just tuned it out.
But I didn’t confront it and now to see what’s happening, it really bums me out. Like think about like there were these examples where there was a hoax in Whatsapp where in some like village in India people were like afraid that their kids were gonna get kidnapped etc, and then there were these lynchings that happened as a result where people were like vigilante running around thinking they found the person and they…. I mean seriously like that’s what we’re dealing with and imagine when you take that to the extreme where you know bad actors can now manipulate large swaths of people to do anything you want; it’s just a really, really bad state of affairs…
…and we compound the problem right; we curate our lives around this perceived sense of perfection because we get rewarded in these short-term signals – hearts, likes, thumbs up – and we conflate that with value and we conflate it with truth; and instead what it really is is fake brittle popularity that’s short-term, and that leaves you even more – and admit it vacant and empty – before you did it, because then it forces you into this vicious cycle where you’re like ‘What’s the next thing I need to do now ? Because I need it back’ – think about that compounded by two billion people and then think about how people react then to the perceptions of others it’s just a really bad…it’s really really bad”
So if we look at the neurochemistry of dopamine and the neurochemistry of addiction – in short the chemicals which are released in the brain and nervous system in addiction states – we find they are the same as you find regarding digital technologies. Here is an overview of one peer reviewed scientific paper:
“Addiction is commonly identified with habitual nonmedical self-administration of drugs. It is usually defined by characteristics of intoxication or by characteristics of withdrawal symptoms. Such addictions can also be defined in terms of the brain mechanisms they activate; most addictive drugs cause elevations in extracellular levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine. Animals unable to synthesize or use dopamine lack the conditioned reflexes discussed by Pavlov or the appetitive behavior discussed by Craig; they have only unconditioned consummatory reflexes.
Burst discharges (phasic firing) of dopamine-containing neurons are necessary to establish long-term memories associating predictive stimuli with rewards and punishers. Independent discharges of dopamine neurons (tonic or pacemaker firing) determine the motivation to respond to such cues. As a result of habitual intake of addictive drugs, dopamine receptors expressed in the brain are decreased, thereby reducing interest in activities not already stamped in by habitual rewards.”
Let me reiterate – many digital environments are designed to cause the release of dopamine, and situations where random signals (i.e. random payouts; mixed-schedule reinforcement named by B. F. Skinner) create the excitatory conditions for the release of dopamine.
Besides the nature of telephones and digital information environments naturally giving mixed schedule reinforcements, is this chemistry and psychology exploited by tech companies ? Jaron Lanier is regarded as one of the fathers of virtual reality and an established figure in silicon valley. He wrote a book ‘Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now’ in which he argues that companies like Facebook and Twitter are ‘dopamine farms’ that are reprogramming how you think and feel. He also argues that this is causing political instability, and are changing the global economy for the worse.
Below I have produced a transcript from 4 minutes 48 seconds through to 9 minutes 46 seconds:
“[Presenter]: okay so we’re addicted that’s fine we get these dopamine hits from people liking our pouty selfies oh you know our posts of our kids or whatever even if it’s if it’s well-intentioned we’re addicted to our own echo chamber and people validating our thoughts and all of that but on the other side of this…
…and this is a crucial point whether it’s Facebook or Twitter or Google and so on are they deliberately nefariously trying to modify our behaviour and make us into bad addicted people or is it just a by-product of good intentions gone bad ? [Jaron Lanier] This is a fascinating question. Okay, so the first president of Facebook, somebody named Sean Parker, now says that they understood they were intentionally doing something bad, but the thing is I knew him at the time when Facebook was starting and he was the president of it and I really believe they didn’t understand it and it was good intentions gone bad, and so this leaves me with a mystery is he remembering himself as being more of an evil James Bond villain kind of a person because it’s glamorous ? Really it’s very hard to figure that out.
I’m very confident that Jack Dorsey and the other people at Twitter did not realize they were doing something bad and they were caught by surprise and now are having trouble figure out what to do, and I think they’re sincere; I also feel that’s true about the Google people who I knew and I actually sold a company to them and they were just starting. I believe that they did not understand the depth of the mistake they were making. I’m not sure if anybody fully did but in the case of Facebook maybe they did – at least some of them say they did…
…the thing is that people aren’t aware of most of what happens your immediate experience of using these tools might be quite positive, and indeed from my perspective this ability to connect with friends and all that sort of thing is just intrinsic to the Internet; that’s what’s all good and that’s all authentic. The main thing that goes on that I’m concerned about is something that you are by design not aware of, which is the modification of your own behaviour because it happens very sneakily and very subtly using the techniques of what’s called Behaviorism [I.e. the psychologist B. F. Skinner’s work]; a branch of science that studies how to change the behaviour of organisms, like people…
…and so you know what this is analogous to for me is in the past Society has faced problems where there was mass addiction and even though everybody was addicted, even though it was hard, we somehow were able to face up to it and a very obvious example to me a cigarette smoking, which is greatly reduced even though everybody used to smoke all the time, everywhere…
…another example is alcohol; we’ve had a campaign in most of the world to prevent people at least from driving drunk because it used to kill so many people and actually that’s worked, you know that turned out to be intelligent, and was accepted; so I think in the same way when we start to have a wider realization of how troublesome these things are, not only will some people leave but when those people leave they’ll create the space in the Society for conversation…
… and I’m fully confident that these services will improve eventually and they’ll improve enough that I won’t feel you need to delete them anymore but right now it really is important for the health of society for people to become aware of the degradation that’s going on.
[Presenter]: For those who would say well if there are a billion people using a social media network and say a hundred million of us stop posting that much and another hundred million delete you still have 800 million people who are completely addicted and feeding the beast and what impact is staying off social media going to actually have are they really gonna listen and Google and Twitter and Facebook ?
[Jaron Lanier] Even if only a minority of people become skeptics of the social media technologies and delete their accounts that minority is enough to have the conversation look. Here’s the analogy I would make if absolutely every single person in a society is a drunk, it’s going to be impossible to have a conversation about the problems of alcoholism, right. There has to be somebody who’s sober in order to even start that conversation, that seems to me to be simple logic. So in this case there has to be to some subset, some minority of people who are not addicted to these technologies and then we can have a conversation, and out of that conversation will come better technologies in a more moderate and survivable form of them.”
So here is another video exhibit to look at the design of technology exploiting vulnerabilities in the psychology of humans; Sean Parker, the first CEO of Facebook talking about the design ethos in the social media companies – again, below is a transcript of what he says in the video:
“When Facebook was getting going I had these people who would come up to me and they would say, ‘You know, I’m not on social media and I would say okay, you know you will be’, and then they would say ‘no, no, no, no, I value my real-life interactions, I value the moment, I value presence, and I value intimacy’, and I would say ‘well you’re a conscientious objector, that’s okay, you don’t have to participate but you know we’ll get you eventually’…
…and like I don’t know if I really understood the consequences of what I was saying because the unintended consequences of a network when it grows to a billion or two billion people…and it began, and it literally changes your relationship with society, with each other, with…it probably interferes with productivity in weird ways, it…god only knows what it’s doing to to our children’s brains…
…If the thought process that went into building these applications, Facebook being the first of them to really understand it, and that thought process was all about how do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible ? And that means that we need to sort of give you a little dopamine hit every once in a while because someone liked or commented on a photo or a post or whatever, and that’s gonna get you to contribute more content and that’s gonna get you more likes and comments…
…so it’s a social validation feedback loop that; it’s like, I mean, it’s exactly the kind of thing that a hacker like myself would come up with because you’re exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology… And I just I think that we, the inventors, the creators – you know – it’s me, it’s Mark, it’s Kevin Systrom and Instagram; it’s all of these people, understood this, consciously, and we did it anyway.”
As phones have become smartphones, and their existence has become tied to our bank accounts, our laptops and computers, and as unregulated apps have been proliferating like a pandemic harvesting and linking up data from multiple sources in aggregates which form profiles of all of us, it starts to emerge that bad actors are now shaping our opportunities and intimate realities. One of the most famous examples of this was the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica scam which is the focus of the documentary ‘The Great Hack’:
Are Mobile Phones Physically Addictive and Psychologically Toxic ?
Are we publicly cognizant of the tip of the iceberg ? The institutional enclosure of biochemistry and medicine is problematic as it means that issues are being sidestepped because of their complexity and occasionally other reasons like avoidance of law suits – like when the Scottish government was taken to court by the alcohol industry for introducing minimum unit pricing.
The capacity for us as a species to be honest with ourselves is seriously blunted when we are saturated in dopaminergic activities. The way which we as social mammals medicate for loss of sociological habitat and trauma is to seek out dopamine releasing chemicals and activities:
“it is argued that drugs of abuse act on specific neurotransmitter pathways and by this mechanism elicit neurochemical changes that mimic some aspects of the overall pattern of the neurochemical effects of natural rewarding stimuli. Thus, drugs of abuse are biochemically homologous to specific aspects of natural rewarding stimuli. The behavioural similarity between drugs of abuse and natural stimuli, including that of being rewarding, results from their common property of activating neurochemically specific pathways. Natural stimuli accomplish this result indirectly through their sensory properties and incentive learning while drugs stimulate by a direct central action the critical reward pathways. ”
Phones and the digital world have become an instrument of neuroticisation priming people to dissociate from their surroundings, societies, and issues of the day. Mobile phone apps are being used to surveillance and monitor children in school by the schools themselves, parents and data harvesting companies. There is little or no recognition that a healthy person requires privacy, an intimacy with their own isolated psychological space, to thrive properly; encroaching on that privacy, that personal space can produce stress reactions which drive people towards dissociative activities.
Thankfully there is emerging a large array of research gleaned from generations which have been culturally bound to these devices. The talking points have started as we are discovering the increasing numbers of people, young and old, who are suffering from psychological ailments. Here are some reportage articles with regards to specific references to tech companies targeting kids which can be found with a quick search on the internet:
- A Beginners Guide To Dopamine Reinforcement Learning Framework By Kishan Maladkar
- Technology, youth, and the regular dopamine hit by Adarsh Raj
- Has dopamine got us hooked on tech? by Simon Parkin
- NHS opens clinic to help child addicts of computer games
- These Updated Stats About How Often You Use Your Phone Will Humble You; You tap, swipe, and click on your phone 2,617 times per day. Enough said. By John Brandon
- Dopamine, Smartphones & You: A battle for your time by Trevor Haynes
In examining the effects of phones and digital technologies on psychology and behaviour I was interested to research more deeply the way that mixed schedule reinforcements can produce physiological addiction in an individual. I have heard and talked with a few interesting folks at the Society for the Study of Addiction conference.
Dr Amanda Roberts presented on gambling but who’s work extends to the broad digitised environments and how that impacts on cognition. In my research she suggested I read the work of Associate Professor Jason Landon who does Psychology at the Gambling and Addictions Research Centre Auckland University of Technology and who works with Prof Matthew Rockloff in Australia.
All of this directed my attentions towards to deepened effects of mixed schedule reinforcement on the brain as it moves towards compulsion in response to a stimulus. It lead me to study up on what is called the ‘Near Miss Phenomenon’ in problem gambling as the pattern of simulation which we encounter with mobile phones in general, in particular smartphones with all their PUSHy apps:
“Gambling is a common recreational activity that becomes dysfunctional in a subset of individuals, with DSM “pathological gambling” regarded as the most severe form. During gambling, players experience a range of cognitive distortions that promote an overestimation of the chances of winning. Near-miss outcomes are thought to fuel these distortions….An association with gambling severity in the midbrain suggests that near-miss outcomes may enhance dopamine transmission in disordered gambling, which extends neurobiological similarities between pathological gambling and drug addiction. “
Here is a decent short video explaining the principle of Near Miss in relation to gambling and gaming…
There is evidence that cognitive distortions are associated with the Near Miss phenomenon associated with ‘Internet Gaming Disorder’. Wu, Sescousse, Yu, Clark, and Li (2018) report increased cognitive distortions (i.e. biased processing of chance, probability and skill) as a key psychopathological process in disordered gambling.
Internet Gaming Disorder (IGD) is characterized by the failure to control impulses to use online gaming. Affected individuals spend many hours playing online video games such as massively multiplayer online role-playing games with apparent negative consequences upon their professional and personal life.
Wu Y, Sescousse G, Yu H, Clark L, Li H (2018) Cognitive distortions and gambling nearmisses in Internet Gaming Disorder: A preliminary study. PLoS ONE 13(1): e0191110. https://doi.org/ 10.1371/journal.pone.0191110
It seems reasonable to think that a similar phenomenon might possibly manifest in relation to phones. So if we think through the random encounter of stimulus of a mobile phone and its association with successful completion of an interaction which produces a small dopaminergic reward signal, each time, the nervous system can become hyperactive and trigger rewards sequences without the follow through interactions. I believe that this psychological phenomenon might possibly offer an account for what is known as ‘Phantom Ring Syndrome’ or ‘Phantom Vibrate Syndrome’.
This is where a person experiences a phone or a pager ringing or vibrating when it has not done so – i.e. nobody has called to activate the device – thus the whole experience was created within the nervous system independent of the reality outside the body. This is technically an auditory or tactile hallucination which people encounter and so constitutes a very serious psychological manifestation of a hyperactivated nervous system; which could arguably be the foundation of notionalising something like “Digital Psychosis”. This has been reported in the British Medical Journal amongst doctors:
“To describe the prevalence of and risk factors for experiencing ‘phantom vibrations,’ the sensory hallucination sometimes experienced by people carrying pagers or cell phones when the device is not vibrating”
The experience of these auditory and tactile hallucinations has also been associated with poor emotional intelligence and anxiety in those who encounter the phenomenon, as reported in this study:
“Mobile phone use has been linked to phantom vibration and ringing; however, the role that it plays in the mental health of young adults, who are known to be heavy users of mobile phones, remains unexplored…results showed that more than half the sample and approximately 37% of the participants had experienced phantom vibration and ringing, respectively. Although a large percentage of the undergraduate sample did not find phantom vibration and ringing to be bothersome, some students reported that it caused them anxiety. Taken together, these results suggest that excessive phone use might lead to misinterpretations of sensory signals. These findings serve as an evidence-based cautionary note against excessive reliance on mobile phones. “
Zhao Qiankun, Zhou Ling, Wang Lijun, (2019), Phantom Vibration and Ringing is Linked to Poor Emotional Intelligence and Anxiety among Undergraduates, 2019 3rd International Conference on Advancement of the Theory and Practices in Education (ICATPE 2019), DOI: 10.25236/icatpe.2019.005
The National Centre for Behavioural Addictions houses the Centre for Internet and Gaming Disorder. They are starting to pick up the pieces of people and youths who are arriving on their doorstep. Can we regard the mobile phone as innocuous to our physiology and psychology ? I think no more than gambling machines can be regarded as un-addictive and capable of producing deep and profound dissociative states. I would argue that, like any drug, if we are unaware and out of control of these states, they present a series of clear problems which must be debated.
It is a bit of a dot joining exercise because the evidence is in front of our eyes but everyone is inhibited by the scale of the economics involved. I sense a reluctance from academics and researchers to implicate industries which have bigger take homes than the GDP of many countries. Like with the alcohol lobby, the tech lobby heads things off at the pass so thinkers and researchers are careful about what they say and institutions dont want people walking out on limbs in case of the backlash – especially when kickback sponsorship comes from big business funding departments and schools.
Join the dots between dopamine and opioid release, and mixed schedule reinforcement and dopamine release, and opiates and psychiatric illness; and what you are left with is a giant shit storm which implicates everything from softdrinks (caffeine and rubiscolin proteins) to computer games to medications to drug use to sociological impoverishments.
Notionalising Digital Psychosis
As you can see, there are some interesting leads to build a picture on what is going on through the technology. I use the term ‘digital psychosis’ in the same way that ‘drug induced psychosis’ is used. Psychosis brought on by use of technology makes every bit of sense to me because the same physiology as drugs is being evoked through different stimulae.
The notion that drugs cause psychosis is as controversial to some people as the idea that drugs don’t cause psychosis is to others. Psychosis and ‘madness’ are notoriously slippy in some ways, but as I see it enough drugs can dislodge an individuals ability to meaningfully and appropriately apprehend and interact with their environment. Individuals in a psychotic state are at odds with the shared reality of others, and are significantly impaired in terms of survival behaviours.
You can see that Im being conservative here because shifted states of mind are often sane reactions to insane situations; and recreational drug use is as old as the hills being ubiquitous among human beings in one form or another. I am aware that with people who have lost touch with a shared reality through a mixture of coalescing factors, gaming/computing have not infrequently figured in the discourse; I think phones should be understood as related phenomena.
The cultural issue we have is that we don’t have good means of dealing with complexity nor do we have a sane and cogent approach to drug use. For example, if we accept the premise I am offering then it reasonably infers ‘gambling related psychosis’ – which I am sure that the gambling industry would refute like the tobacco industry refuted cancer.
There is also a cultural issue in that kith and kin can generate psychosis and mental illness through traumatic behaviours. I think there are demonstrable dynamics we can illustrate but the problem is that it is crossing a deep and primary taboo – that the social architypes are in some ways implicated in the problems we are seeing on the rise. A part of this cultural issue is linked dynamically to the loss of agency, increased impoverishment, degradation of the foodchain and destruction of the social and physical environment we have co-evolved with for 50 million years.
If a kid or adult escapes into a digital world and are on a psychoactive drug (lets say caffeine or methylphenidate [Ritalin] for easy examples), looking at what the person is escaping from must also be understood as a part of the issue. Caffeine, methylphenidate and stressors raise dopamine and the adrenals in turn causing releases of endogenous opiates – now if they are in an entirely synthetic environment and that environment predates on their active involvement, is it not reasonable to think of psychosis as a possible outcome ?
Add into this people will do these activities for days without sleep or food and we start to get a layering of factors which propound something along the lines of the dopamine hypothesis of schizophrenia. Returning to an earlier issue raised there are a growing number of cases of people playing games and staying on computers and dying because they have not slept or eaten and all their biological safeguard behaviours have been overridden by continuing activity in the digital realm. Here is an article which highlights a few.
Let’s not forget a proper mention of prescription drugs like methylphenidate, amphetamines, opiates, antipsychotics (which act through the opiate system), benzodiazepines, SSRI’s, antidepressants, etc, etc. Can we expect to change all the input parameters for a human consciousness and not encounter breaks with reality ? I think that tech is a highly potent neurological force which causes all manners of affective and physiological changes.
These are some of my thoughts to flesh out ‘digital psychosis’ and I believe that Phantom Ring Syndrome is a tip of an iceberg which is nearer than we think. Trickier problem is how we might ‘evidence’ this; what would a study design look like that can capture the neurochemistry. The opponents are not so easy as we would want as gambling, alcohol, drugs, sex and digital hooks are activities which don’t necessarily cause problems in the right measure; the problems often result of an absence of something or sociological trauma.
How to evidence it is easier due to it not being so much of a hydra. The study design would depend on resources and comfort of approach. You have physiological measures and you have psychological measures. Physiological measures might include plasma homovanillic acid (pHVA) concentrations to measure catecholamine metabolism and cortisol levels; you could also look at a range of possible biological markers including prolactin release.
There are fairly clear psychological and behavioural measures which you could draw up which are associated with the physiology we are interested in. In particular we would be looking for what are identified as stereotyped behaviours. There is a possibility of measuring pupillary reflex for weak indicators in the same way that you can measure for drug usage that way. You can do a raft of cognitive tests which would illustrate a particular neurological states being active.
The chief issue which you would have to address is the disentanglement of the differing factors which are contributing to psychosis and a strong theoretical framework would be demanded for the work to be seen as having meaninfulness. For example, if you have a teenager who is drinking energy drinks, smoking weed and/or Tabaco, coffee and tea, chocolate (phenylephrine and vanillin), plus staying up all night (physiological stressor) and buzzing from mixed schedule reinforcement of computer environment, then you have the bio-social circumstances of trauma met for potential psychosis.
Tricky theoretical questions have to be asked such as if they live in an urban environment (a sink estate which lacks any social spaces or greenery) on an impoverished income (poverty preventing them from getting dopaminergic and opioidergic affirmations from social affirmation); financial exclusion from culture, and are targeted by police for their socio-cultural profile grouping (thereby creating environmental stressors in their sociological terrain) – does it not make sense that people will turn to drugs, gambling, digital environments to experience reward signals that have been a part of our existential apparatus for 50 million years ?
Psychologist Jean Twenge has argued that smartphone use is related to a rise in teenage suicide and depression in America. She cites research that shows limiting social media decreases loneliness and depression. In one of her studies, she and her colleagues found that “American adolescents’ psychological well-being dropped between 2012 and 2016, including lower average levels of self esteem, self-satisfaction, domain satisfaction, life satisfaction, and happiness….
Electronic communication was the only adolescent activity negatively correlated with psychological well-being that increased at the same time psychological well-being declined. Other activities, such as in-person social interaction, print media, sports/exercise, and attending religious services, were linked to better psychological well-being and declined over time”.
In another study Twenge did she and her colleague found: “Adolescent boys and girls differ in their digital media activities, with girls spending more time on social media and smartphones and boys spending more time gaming. There were also gender differences in the association between digital media time and psychological well-being. Associations between heavy (vs. light) digital media use and lower well-being were larger among girls, but associations between light (vs. no) digital media use and higher well-being were larger among boys. Thus, digital media time was more strongly associated with low well-being among girls than among boys, particularly for smartphone and social media use.
Correlational analyses such as these cannot determine whether digital media use causes low well-being or if low well-being causes digital media use. However, several experimental (Hunt, Marx, Lipson, & Young, 2018; Tromholt, 2016; Yuen et al., 2019) and longitudinal studies (Babic et al., 2017; Kross et al., 2013; Riehm et al., 2019; Schmiedeberg & Schroder, 2017; Shakya & Christakis, 2017) suggest that some, and possibly most, of the causation moves from digital media use to low well-being. In addition, a longitudinal study of Chinese adolescents found that Internet addiction preceded depression among girls and not among boys (Liang, Zhou, Yuan, Shao, & Bian, 2016), suggesting that the causal arrow may move more definitively from digital media to low well-being among girls compared to boys.
The ways girls use social media differently from boys (Yau & Reich, 2018) and the greater importance girls (vs. boys) place on social relationships (e.g., Bearman & Moody, 2004; Flook, 2011; LaFontana & Cillessen, 2010) may be at the root of the stronger association between digital media use and girls’ well-being. With social relationships more central to girls’ well-being, their use of digital media may be more closely tied to their psychological health.”
The Technologist’s Take
I asked a technologist working in the medical and psychological field what she thought about Jean Twenge’s work and she replied:
“Jean Twenge and I have had a lot of disagreement on this. If you review the studies that have asked people to refrain from social media use, the results are really mixed. The first thing is that these studies struggle to get the participants to actually implement this ban, so they’re not perfect studies. But what we find is that some show a decrease in cortisol levels, so not being on social media decreases your stress biomarkers. But the same study also shows that people’s life satisfaction decreases as well. So you can pick and choose, but if you look at the field as a whole, the story is really complicated.
Interesting re: evidence gathering. Our focus needs to be digital impact on young people for various reasons; unlikely to be solely ‘psychosis’ (also for practical reasons, would be extremely difficult to recruit and run this kind of psychosis study, and worried about high burden for participants) although may include this but also possible negative impacts of heavy-hitting persuasive design in social media and how this might/not link to increased depression/anxiety/self harm – all TBD. (Twenge, Orben, Haidt, Przybylski type territory). It is interesting the split in research opinion.
However, to put it mildly, most of the research in this area seems (so far from what I’ve read) extremely poor; self report data; focusing on duration rather than content; non-compliance with the protocol (e.g when asking young people not to use social media for X days); capturing screen time rather than specific activities etc. Research has to start somewhere so it’s not a criticism of the researchers but there is a lot unknown.
From discussion with psychiatrists and those working in mental health services, they express extreme concern about the links between social media use and young people’s mental health. But I’m not sure what or how (which elements of) social media is really causing harm (if it is); obviously video-calling granny on whatsapp for a couple of hours is unlikely to be all that damaging.
For depressions/anxiety/self harm – we can ask the usual validated measures but it’s very difficult to link this directly to tech usage; we can also track things like admissions to mental health services, gp visits, school counsellor etc but without knowledge of specific online activities it’s difficult to draw any conclusions. Online activities are quite difficult to accurately capture, apart from app usage stats, or permitted screen recording – nightmare to analyse, or full data export from tech companies, which they won’t provide.
Agree re: complexity and confounding variables so I’m trying to scope a manageable but convincing first steps building blocks approach. Also challenging as I can see tech becoming a scapegoat for social problems and demonising the big tech companies. Individual ‘social media addiction’ discourse very popular even among young people themselves without reference to significant social/environmental problems. And yes, completely agree turning to drugs and insta does seem like extremely sane escape route sometimes…
…Most of the psychological social media/online research for impact on young people is very weak – longitudinal (outdated!) studies using self-report about only duration of internet usage, lacking contextual information about what was being done and objective duration capture and focused on general youth populations rather than specific ‘at risk’ groups that we know may be particularly susceptible. Some better studies underway now, but academic timelines are slooooow while tech charges ahead….”
I was glad to get a conversation with this scholar above and pick up several new research directions including those of Amy Orben (Programme Leader Track Scientist at the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit, University of Cambridge and a Research Fellow at Emmanuel College, University of Cambridge ), Professor Jonathan Haidt (American social psychologist, Professor of Ethical Leadership at New York University Stern School of Business), and Andrew Przybylski, (Senior research fellow and associate professor at the University of Oxford).
Amy Orben reports in one paper that “The relations linking social media use and life satisfaction are, therefore, more nuanced than previously assumed: They are inconsistent, possibly contingent on gender, and vary substantively depending on how the data are analyzed. Most effects are tiny— arguably trivial; where best statistical practices are followed, they are not statistically significant in more than half of models. That understood, some effects are worthy of further exploration and replication: There might be small reciprocal within-person effects in females, with increases in life satisfaction predicting slightly lower social media use, and increases in social media use predicting tenuous decreases in life satisfaction.”
Amy Orben, Tobias Dienlin, Andrew K. Przybylski, (2019), Social media’s enduring effect on adolescent life satisfaction, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences May 2019, 116 (21) 10226-10228; DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1902058116
In an analysis of studies done by Orben and Przybylski, they argue “There are, however, considerable problems, including measurement issues, lack of transparency, little confirmatory work, and overinterpretation of miniscule effect sizes (Orben & Przybylski, 2019). Only a few studies regarding technology effects have used a preregistered confirmatory framework (Elson & Przybylski, 2017; Przybylski & Weinstein, 2017).
No large-scale, cross-national work has tried to move away from retrospective self-report measures to gauge time spent engaged with digital screens, yet it has been evident for years that such self-report measures are inherently problematic (Scharkow, 2016; Schwarz & Oyserman, 2001). Until these three facts are reconciled in the literature, exploratory studies wholly dependent on retrospective accounts will command an outsized share of public attention (Cavanagh, 2017)…
…the study found little substantive statistically significant and negative associations between digital screen engagement and well-being in adolescents. The most negative associations were found when both self-reported technology use and well-being measures were used, and this could be a result of common method variance or noise found in such large-scale questionnaire data….This supports previous research showing that there is a small significant negative association between technology use and well-being, which—when compared with other activities in an adolescent’s life—is miniscule (Orben & Przybylski, 2019)…
…this study was also one of the first to examine whether digital-screen engagement before bedtime is especially detrimental to adolescent psychological wellbeing. Public opinion seems to be that using digital screens immediately before bed may be more harmful for teens than screen time spread throughout the day. Our exploratory and confirmatory analyses provided very mixed effects: Some were negative, while others were positive or inconclusive. Our study therefore suggests that technology use before bedtime might not be inherently harmful to psychological well-being, even though this is a well-worn idea both in the media and in public debates.”
Orben, A., & Przybylski, A. K. (2019a). Screens, teens, and psychological well-being: Evidence from three time-use-diary studies. Psychological Science, 30, 682–696. https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797619830329
“While we find that digital technology use has a small negative association with adolescent well-being, this finding is best understood in terms of other human behaviours captured in these large-scale social datasets. When viewed in the broader context of the data, it becomes clear that the outsized weight given to digital screen-time in scientific and public discourse might not be merited on the basis of the available evidence…
…For example, in all three datasets the effects of both smoking marijuana and bullying have much larger negative associations with adolescent well-being (×2.7 and × 4.3, respectively for the YRBS) than does technology use. Positive antecedents of well-being are equally illustrative; simple actions such as getting enough sleep and regularly eating breakfast have much more positive associations with well-being than the average impact of technology use (ranging from ×1.7 to ×44.2 more positive in all datasets).
Neutral factors provide perhaps the most useful context in which to judge technology engagement effects: the association of well-being with regularly eating potatoes was nearly as negative as the association with technology use (×0.9, YRBS), and wearing glasses was more negatively associated with well-being (×1.5, MCS)…
…With this in mind, the evidence simultaneously suggests that the effects of technology might be statistically significant but so minimal that they hold little practical value. The nuanced picture provided by these results is in line with previous psychological and epidemiological research suggesting that the associations between digital screen-time and child outcomes are not as simple as many might think.”
Professor Jonathan Haidt is an American social psychologist who has done some work with Jean Twenge who takes a critical view of social media and smartphone technologies. He has written the book ‘The Coddling of The American Mind’, arguing data focused on the rise of anxiety and depression in teens. He correlates this with the timeline of social media uptake building a picture of what school children are exposed to, making the point that middle school girls are especially vulnerable to the effects of the technology.
In an article in Nature he offers a critical view of digital technology and social media saying: “And, indeed, several studies show that there is only a small correlation between time spent on screens and bad mental-health outcomes. However, I present three arguments against this defence. First, the papers that report small or null effects usually focus on ‘screen time’, but it is not films or video chats with friends that damage mental health. When research papers allow us to zoom in on social media, rather than looking at screen time as a whole, the correlations with depression are larger, and they are larger still when we look specifically at girls (go.nature.com/2u74der).
The sex difference is robust, and there are several likely causes for it. Girls use social media much more than do boys (who, in turn, spend more of their time gaming). And, for girls more than boys, social life and status tend to revolve around intimacy and inclusion versus exclusion, making them more vulnerable to both the ‘fear of missing out’ and the relational aggression that social media facilitates.
Second, although correlational studies can provide only circumstantial evidence, most of the experiments published in recent years have found evidence of causation (go.nature. com/2u74der). In these studies, people are randomly assigned to groups that are asked to continue using social media or to reduce their use substantially. After a few weeks, people who reduce their use generally report an improvement in mood or a reduction in loneliness or symptoms of depression.
Third, many researchers seem to be thinking about social media as if it were sugar: safe in small to moderate quantities, and harmful only if teenagers consume large quantities. But, unlike sugar, social media does not act just on those who consume it. It has radically transformed the nature of peer relationships, family relationships and daily activities. When most of the 11-year-olds in a class are on Instagram (as was the case in my son’s school), there can be pervasive effects on everyone.
Children who opt out can find themselves isolated. A simple dose–response model cannot capture the full effects of social media, yet nearly all of the debate among researchers so far has been over the size of the dose–response effect. To cite just one suggestive finding of what lies beyond that model: network effects for depression and anxiety are large, and bad mental health spreads more contagiously between women than between men.”
In his paper ‘There Is No Evidence That Associations Between Adolescents’ Digital Technology Engagement and Mental Health Problems Have Increased’, Andrew Przybylski and colleagues argue “There is little evidence for increases in the associations between adolescents’ technology engagement and mental health. Information about new digital media has been collected for a relatively short time; drawing firm conclusions about changes in their associations with mental health may be premature…
…Currently, the literature suggesting a negative link between digital technology engagement and mental health is decidedly mixed and grounded on suboptimal methodologies and data (Dickson et al., 2019; Odgers & Jensen, 2020). That is, the observed associations are typically based on between-persons correlations, which make determining causality and directionality difficult and are susceptible to the influence of confounding observed or unobserved variables (Ophir et al., 2020). Literature reviews by academic, medical, and policy collaborations have highlighted both the low-quality evidence in this space and the need for a longitudinal perspective…
…most of this literature is limited by its use of self-reports of technology use, which are known to be biased and noisy indicators of true amounts of engagement, and lead to inaccurate estimated relations between health and well-being… Concerns that technology is becoming both more prevalent in young people’s lives and likewise more harmful to their mental health have gained traction in recent years.
If supported by empirical study, this idea would potentially suggest policy intervention (U.K. Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport, 2020). Although we found little evidence suggesting that technology is becoming more harmful over time, we note that data accrued by internet-based and social-media platforms are needed to more rigorously examine these possibilities…
Vuorre, M., Orben, A., & Przybylski, A. K. (2021). There Is No Evidence That Associations Between Adolescents’ Digital Technology Engagement and Mental Health Problems Have Increased. Clinical Psychological Science, 9(5), 823–835. https://doi.org/10.1177/2167702621994549
Technological Harms and Measurable Damages
I have been trying to understand the mixed responses to the reports and science which is being generated as, in particular, because I run community events I have a responsibility to assess what possible risks are associated with each activity. With the growing footprint of technologies in everybody’s lives I have had to make assessments on if getting on board with zoom culture, promoting social media engagement, and channelling people towards digital devices is healthy.
I had to make a decision as to whether to pull Ragged Uni off of all or some of the social media platforms which we were on due to concerns. I ended up pulling out of Facebook (because it is an ethically noxious company) to protect everyone and altering my behaviour on Twitter to self protect. However, in researching this area of technology I became informed about the range of technologies which are all bound together; can we really talk about one thing without understanding that it is bound to several others – i.e. can we rationally talk about smartphones without talking about social media and mixed schedule reinforcement and date expropriation and pollution etc as well ?
It is pretty easy to understand the toxicity of the Facebook company (now Meta) by looking at its history of scandal and design ethos. It is not so easy to assess technologies such as phones and in particular smartphones as they are so ubiquitous and universal, but with persistent research it is possible to build an informed perspective. Something may have become ‘wallpaper’, but there are ways of experiencing comparisons by metaphorically leaving the house.
Resisting translating Ragged University into becoming a part of ‘zoom culture’ or any of the video communications applications has been important after the pandemic has caused people to grasp at these technologies in desperation caused by their sociological losses. The pandemic has caused a violent contraction of people’s sociological habitat and as a result people have felt wounded by their loss. This kind of trauma I explore in the continuing work of Education as Human Development which identifies how a loss of sociological habitat results in stress reactions measurable in terms of cortisol production – a major stress hormone which causes a wide range of damages, physical and psychological.
I have been toying with the idea that if someone’s life contacts and social interaction is rich in real world terms (i.e. face-to-face) then they have greater resilience to the effects of being in the digital environment; whereas if the individual has low numbers of life contacts and social interactions in real world terms (i.e. their major interactions are based in and mediated through the digital environments) then they are more vulnerable to corroding forces.
The way I am coming to see the question of digital technology and telecommunications in our lives is a bit like drugs. There is problem usage and there is usage which enriches the individuals life. Take for example wine or beer or cannabis; these all seem to have the same dichotomous debates associated with them – polarized perspectives which form into camps which repress nuance understanding complexity as weakening a clear stance needed for wellbeing.
To help identify some kind of physiological measurement to aid in progressing my analysis of the debate surrounding digital and telecommunication technologies in my/our lives, I am turning to literature about stress. It seems to me that it is helpful to understand phones and technology in relation to how much stress they generate as opposed to how much stress they relieve.
Do they put us at ease or do they create tension ? If they create tension, what effect can this tension have on our health and wellbeing over time ? This can be asked on a case by case basis and affords a granularity of response rather than falling into the pitfall of categorically declaring all digital technologies the same, or even particular technologies as having the same effects on different people.
If technology offers agency to someone who lacks agency in their physical habitat, then it can act to reduce stress hormone production and ailment; if this is the case then there is a bigger question to be asked about why their sociological setting is denuded of agency and what about it is producing stress for that person. Either way, questions about modernity are raised.
A Short Primer to Stress and its Measurement
To understand if something is enriching or debilitating one approach is to look for measurable biomarkers; physiologically measurable substances which are known to produce specific outcomes. A very established biomarker for stress is that of the chemical cortisol. Cortisol is a glucocorticoid released in response to trauma and threat, which is one interpretation of what is meant by stress. Here is another definition from the Handbook of Stress Medicine and Health:
“What, then, is stress? According to Selye, it is the lowest common denominator in the organism’s reactions to every conceivable kind of strain, challenge, and demand, or in other words, the stereotypy, the general features in the organism’s reaction to all kinds of stresses and strains. Stress is thus an abstraction. It is very difficult to observe stress, in this sense, since Selye does not base the definition on the entire reaction but only on its nonspecific features, those that are common to all types of loads and demands. Another way to define and describe the phenomenon stress is by referring to what Selye used to call ‘the rate of wear and tear in the organism’ (Selye, 1971).”
Cooper goes on to ask: “Is stress harmful? The answer is yes and no. It all depends on the context. To use a metaphor, a car stops at a traffic light and its driver steps on the gas. In response, the engine races, leading to increased wear and deposition of soot on the valves, without the car moving from the spot. On the other hand, stepping on the gas while driving on a motorway can be sensible and productive.”
Xiaoxiao Qian clarifies for us the relationship between cortisol and stress: “Stress and the glucocorticoids are associated or interweaving concepts with each other. Indeed, to physiologists the term “stress” has come to mean any event that elicits increased cortisol secretion. However, as it is well known, glucocorticoids are not only mediators of the stress responses; they take a part in peripheral components of stress responses.”
Ronald Doctor and Frank Shiromoto give a concise insight into the roles which stress, cortisol and stress hormones play in our health and wellbeing in their ‘Encyclopedia of Trauma and Traumatic Stress Disorders’:
“The body is sensitive to any environmental change and communicates this information to virtually every organ of the body as a survival mechanism. As soon as an individual perceives danger or a life-threatening situation, the body immediately releases hormones and chemicals into the bloodstream and brain. These hormones allow the individual to form critical thoughts for survival and shut down normal body processes, such as digestion.
During times of stress, hormones such as cortisol and norepinephrine bathe the brain to focus attention on impending danger and recall similar situations of danger enabling the body to either fight, flee, or freeze. Stress and traumatic stress can have a lasting effect on the brain as well as on other physical areas of the body, leading to physiological and psychiatric disorders, such as posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression.”
“The main hormone produced by the adrenal cortex that seems to be indicative of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is cortisol. This substance is associated with chronic stress reactions and seems to be involved in sustained autonomic arousal…Cortisol plays a significant role in the body when safety is threatened, and it is referred to as the stress hormone because its output is increased during fight or flight response. This hormone is critical to survival…
…Immune dysfunction results from chronic, long-term stress upon the body as frequent higher levels of cortisol in the bloodstream have negative effects on health. Excessive cortisol can also interfere with how neurotransmitters function for memory retrieval, resulting in confusion or the mind going “blank” during a crisis situation” (Ibid [Same book], page 84 – 85)
In George Fink’s Encyclopedia of Stress we find: “The relationship between increased adrenocortical activity and stresses of many different types has been known since the 1930s, and levels of cortisol in plasma are frequently measured as an index of stress.”
Fink, G. (2007). Encyclopedia of Stress: Vol. 1. (Encyclopedia of stress.) Amsterdam etc.: Elsevier Academic Press.
Smartphones and Stress Related Cortisol Release
Prof David Greenfield said “Your cortisol levels are elevated when your phone is in sight or nearby, or when you hear it or even think you hear it. It’s a stress response, and it feels unpleasant, and the body’s natural response is to want to check the phone to make the stress go away”. He is professor of clinical psychiatry at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine and founder of the Center for Internet and Technology Addiction.
‘Putting Down Your Phone May Help You Live Longer; By raising levels of the stress-related hormone cortisol, our phone time may also be threatening our long-term health’ By Catherine Price, New York Times, April 24, 2019
Karl Neeser suggests in his paper ‘Limit your smartphone use and stay healthy’ published in the American Journal of Biomedical Science and Research: “non-ionizing EMF radiation, such as that emitted by cell phones, can cause insomnia, decreased bone density in the pelvis, infertility in men, and can affect brain activity. And that is not all as excessive exposure can even damage our cells and DNA, potentially causing burns, sickness, even cancer or neurodegenerative diseases and other chronic diseases”.
Regardless the danger of excessive EMF radiation exposure, there may be another threat. Today, many people spend too much time staring at their phone and as a consequence raising levels of the stress-related hormone cortisol threaten our long-term health…But there is another reason for us to rethink our relationships with our devices. By chronically raising levels of cortisol, the body’s main stress hormone, our phones may be threatening our health and shortening our lives, becoming a high-risk factor for most of the chronic non-communicable diseases like heart disease, diabetes, cancer and even Alzheimer’s.
If they happened only occasionally, phone-induced cortisol spikes might not matter. But today, people, especially young people, spend up to four hours a day staring at their smartphone and keeps it within arm’s reach nearly all the time, according to a tracking app called Moment. The result, as has been noted in a report by Google, is that mobile devices loaded with social media, email and news apps create a constant sense of obligation, generating unintended personal stress. In fact, our cortisol levels are elevated when our phone is in sight or nearby, or when we hear it or even think we hear it. It’s a stress response, and it feels unpleasant, and the body’s”.
In a different study, Marjut Wallenius and colleagues report on ‘Salivary Cortisol in Relation to the Use of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) in School-Aged Children’: “This study provides support for a link between time used ICT and next-day salivary cortisol pattern among schoolchildren. As expected, the participants who had used ICT on the average for three hours the preceding day showed a significantly reduced cortisol awakening response compared to those most of whom had used ICT not at all. This is in line with earlier results which show attenuated cortisol awakening response in relation to stress.
Generally, an altered cortisol awakening response is seen as an indicator of stress and stress-related changes in HPA-regulation…Results have shown that subjective appraisals of stress and physiological reactions do not always match…Our results suggest that a psycho physiological load due to ICT use can persist over night and have an impact on the regulation of HPA-activity even the next morning…
…In conclusion, our results suggest that long hours on ICT may imply stress responses during which the physiological regulation system is in imbalanced allostatic state . Excessive use of ICT can be seen as a modern form of Type 2 allostatic load which refers to an individual’s capacity to cope in the surrounding social context.”
Wallenius, M., Hirvonen, A., Lindholm, H., Rimpelä, A., Nygård, C-H., Saarni, L., & Punamäki, R-L. (2010). Salivary cortisol in relation to the use of information and communication technology (ICT) in school-aged children. PSYCHOLOGY, 1, 88-95. https://doi.org/10.4236/psych.2010.12012
Professors Dr. René Riedl, Dr. Harald Kindermann, Dr. Andreas Auinger plus Dr. Andrija Javor M.D combined their efforts to study stress and cortisol in response to system breakdowns in computer-user interactions. Their interest in studying failing technologies system came from the fact that breakdowns are among the most significant and prevalent ICT hassles.
“The task for the subjects was to search for twelve specific products (e.g., clothing and footwear) and to put them into the shopping cart. The twelve products were illustrated and characterized on the basis of short product descriptions on a sheet of paper, which was placed next to the computer. There was no time pressure to complete the task. Subjects were told that the objective of the experiment is to study the usability of the online shop.
Participants used computers to accomplish a goal (searching for products and putting them into the shopping cart), which was threatened by system breakdown. Second, once system breakdown occurred, participants were not able to solve the technical problem without external help. Thus, the situation was uncontrollable. Third, participants were aware of the fact that their task performance (putting twelve products in the shopping cart) could be evaluated easily by the experimenter.
The present study shows that system breakdown in the form of an error message is an acute stressor which may elicit cortisol elevations as high as in non-human-computer-interaction stress situations such as public speaking (e.g., Trier Social Stress Test).”
As the technologist I consulted pointed out, the results on cortisol release are not consistent and across the board. There are some findings which suggest there are variations going on with different individuals and situations. For example Eskander, Estefan and Abd-Rabou report:
“As mentioned in our results, persons who were exposed to Radio Frequency Radiation suffered significant decreases in their ACTH and cortisol levels as compared to controls. This result agreed with the previous study indicating that cortisol levels were decreased after exposure to Radio Frequency . The current result is in contradiction with a previous study indicating that electromagnetic fields have a slight elevation in human cortisol production  and with other previous study suggesting that cortisol concentration as a marker of adrenal gland function was not affected with Radio Frequency Radiation .”
11. Sarookhani MR, Asiabanha Rezaei M, Safari A, Zaroushani V, Ziaeiha M. The influence of 950 MHz magnetic field (mobile phone radiation) on sex organ and adrenal functions of male rabbits. Afr J Biochem Res 2011 ;5(2):65—8.
12. Djeridane Y, Touitou Y, de Seze R. Influence of electromagnetic fields emitted by GSM-900 cellular telephones on the circadian patterns of gonadal, adrenal and pituitary hormones in men. Radiat Res 2008;169(3):337-43.
Reading through these various papers there is no doubt as to a mixture of findings. In the paper by Sarookhani et al (reference 11 above) whilst there were not found appreciable effects on cortisol they did report that “Results consequently suggest that testosterone and FSH levels are disturbed as a result of mobile phone exposure and it possibly affects reproductive functions”.
Collectively the psychological environment and cultural place which mobile phones hold in modern culture raises various questions which relate to stress and reward systems. It is conceivable that for some having a mobile phone is a stressful experience promoting the release of cortisol and other stress hormones.
Equally, if we take onboard that through mixed schedule reinforcement conditioning some individuals may experience a physiology of reward which they can become accustomed to, and if the reward mechanism triggered by operating the phone is not there a stress release of cortisol may feasibly take place. Another possibility which requires exploration is the notion that the physics of electromagnetic radiation affects our physiology independently and in an accumulated way along with the mixed schedule reinforcement.
To finish this section I will draw your attention to a study which looks at the relationship which was found between opiate use, withdrawal symptoms and cortisol levels. It is through exploration of the bio-psycho-social relationships that we are to gain deeper, more nuanced understandings of the role which technology is playing in our lives. Examining and integrating the understandings from different perspectives and fields is necessary to get a cohesive picture; at the same time we must develop the capacities to be culturally honest with ourselves if technology is functioning in a drug-like way or face the consequences of becoming uncoupled from important realities:
“Twelve-month treatment of heroin addicts with methadone or buprenorphine normalized plasma cortisol levels, and controlled withdrawal symptoms as well as craving…The results suggest a correlation between hypercortisolism, withdrawal symptoms and heroin use and suppose a more complex role for craving and its components in drug-taking behaviour. ”
Nava, F., Caldiroli, E., Premi, S., & Lucchini, A. (2006). Relationship Between Plasma Cortisol Levels, Withdrawal Symptoms and Craving in Abstinent and Treated Heroin Addicts. Journal of Addictive Diseases, 25(2), 9–16. doi:10.1300/j069v25n02_02
Beyond the psycho-social stressors of smartphones and technology use, there have been questions raised about the effects of non-ionising radiation associated with mobile phones and other technologies. The effect of physics on the biology of living tissues has largely been ignored as unfounded for a long time however after decades of blanket use there are now firming up considerable bodies of research illustrating that electromagnetic pollution is indeed a concern.
Historically any energy frequency outside of ionizing radiation has been dismissed as harmless. To get a basic picture of the physics here some simple understanding of energy and what the electromagnetic spectrum means in practical terms. The electromagnetic spectrum refers to all the different types of energy which exist; some examples are light energy (visible light), infrared (what we know as heat), radio waves (used to encode and transmit sound) and x-rays (the energy used in medicine to see inside the body).
Each type of energy has a different frequency and is associated with different levels of energy which do not require matter to travel; this is analogous to sound waves but they require a material medium (like air molecules) to move through. Each electromagnetic frequency produces different physical effects having different interactions with different materials. Ionizing radiation refers to high energy electromagnetic frequencies which are known to produce profound damaging effects on living tissues such as cancer; examples of ionizing radiation include x-rays and gamma rays (like those used in gamma ray cameras).
Whilst mobile phones and other technologies do not produce ionizing radiation, they are producing other electromagnetic frequencies which do interact and react with living tissues. Over the past decades there has been accumulating studies looking at what effects non-ionizing radiation has on humans and biological life. In December 2018 an opinion piece in The Lancet was published reviewing some of the findings which have been causing concern.
In their piece, ‘Planetary electromagnetic pollution: it is time to assess its impact‘, Priyanka Bandara and David O Carpenter offer a broad account on the peer reviewed literature investigating the effects of mobile phones and digital technologies etc (electromagnetic pollution) on people calling for more attention to be paid to this physical phenomenon. Here is the opinion piece which was published in The Lancet medical journal and which contains a bibliography of references illustrating their points. For the convenience of the reader I have integrated the bibliography with the excerpts from the article and provided live links to the information sources which they refer to. This is the paper with its link to The Lancet:
Doctor Priyanka Bandara was an academic clinical and basic researcher at leading Australian institutions such as Westmead and Royal Prince Alfred hospitals and the Faculty of Medicine at University of Sydney and UNSW. She now works independently investigating the impact of common environmental pollutants on human health with a particular focus on chronic diseases. She has a special interest in the toxicology of anthropogenic electromagnetic radiation (EMR), mainly microwave EMR used for wireless communication and surveillance technologies.
David O. Carpenter is a professor of environmental health sciences at the University at Albany, SUNY, where he is the director of the Institute for Health and the Environment. He is the co-editor-in-chief of the academic journal Reviews on Environmental Health; and co-editor-in-chief of the journal Environmental Pollution. Carpenter has authored more than 370 peer-reviewed publications and six books having received his MD degree from Harvard Medical School. It is worth quoting from them extensively as they highlight a number of
In their article they inform us that “a discussion on the rapid global proliferation of artificial electromagnetic fields would now be apt. The most notable is the blanket of radiofrequency electromagnetic radiation, largely microwave radiation generated for wireless communication and surveillance technologies, as mounting scientific evidence suggests that prolonged exposure to radiofrequency electromagnetic radiation has serious biological and health effects”
They point out that “public exposure regulations in most countries continue to be based on the guidelines of the International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection  and Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, which were established in the 1990s on the belief that only acute thermal effects are hazardous”
1. International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection ICNIRP guidelines for limiting exposure to time-varying electric, magnetic, and electromagnetic fields (up to 300 GHz). Health Phys. 1998; 74: 494-522
2. Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers IEEE C95.7-2014—IEEE recommended practice for radio frequency safety programs, 3 kHz to 300 GHz. IEEE Standards Association, 2014 https://standards.ieee.org/standard/C95_7-2014.html Date accessed: November 6, 2018
They identify that “acute non-thermal exposure has been shown to alter human brain metabolism by NIH scientists, electrical activity in the brain, and systemic immune responses. Chronic exposure has been associated with increased oxidative stress and DNA damage [6,7] and cancer risk.. Laboratory studies, including large rodent studies by the US National Toxicology Program9 and Ramazzini Institute of Italy,10 confirm these biological and health effects in vivo. ”
6. Zothansiama Zosangzuali M Lalramdinpuii M Jagetia GC Impact of radiofrequency radiation on DNA damage and antioxidants in peripheral blood lymphocytes of humans residing in the vicinity of mobile phone base stations. Electromagn Biol Med. 2017; 36: 295-305
9.Cell phone radio frequency radiation. National Toxicology Program, US Department of Health and Human Services, 2018 https://ntp.niehs.nih.gov/results/areas/cellphones/index.html Date accessed: November 8, 2018
10. Falcioni L Bua L Tibaldi E et al. Report of final results regarding brain and heart tumors in Sprague-Dawley rats exposed from prenatal life until natural death to mobile phone radiofrequency field representative of a 1.8GHz GSM base station environmental emission. Environ Res. 2018; 165: 496-503
“Due to the exponential increase in the use of wireless personal communication devices (eg, mobile or cordless phones and WiFi or Bluetooth-enabled devices) and the infrastructure facilitating them, levels of exposure to radiofrequency electromagnetic radiation around the 1 GHz frequency band, which is mostly used for modern wireless communications, have increased from extremely low natural levels by about 10¹⁸ times.
Radiofrequency electromagnetic radiation is also used for radar, security scanners, smart meters, and medical equipment (MRI, diathermy, and radiofrequency ablation). It is plausibly the most rapidly increasing anthropogenic environmental exposure since the mid- 20th century, and levels will surge considerably again, as technologies like the Internet of Things and 5G add millions more radiofrequency transmitters around us.
Unprecedented human exposure to radiofrequency electromagnetic radiation from conception until death has been occurring in the past two decades. Evidence of its effects on the CNS, including altered neurodevelopment  and increased risk of some neurodegenerative diseases, is a major concern considering the steady increase in their incidence.
Evidence exists for an association between neurodevelopmental or behavioural disorders in children and exposure to wireless devices, and experimental evidence, such as the Yale finding, shows that prenatal exposure could cause structural and functional changes in the brain associated with ADHD-like behaviour. These findings deserve urgent attention.”
“At the Oceania Radiofrequency Scientific Advisory Association, an independent scientific organisation, volunteering scientists have constructed the world’s largest categorised online database of peer-reviewed studies on radiofrequency electromagnetic radiation and other man-made electromagnetic fields of lower frequencies.
A recent evaluation of 2266 studies (including in-vitro and in-vivo studies in human, animal, and plant experimental systems and population studies) found that most studies (n=1546, 68∙2%) have demonstrated significant biological or health effects associated with exposure to anthropogenic electromagnetic fields. We have published our preliminary data on radiofrequency electromagnetic radiation, which shows that 89% (216 of 242) of experimental studies that investigated oxidative stress endpoints showed significant effects.“
“This weight of scientific evidence refutes the prominent claim that the deployment of wireless technologies poses no health risks at the currently permitted non-thermal radiofrequency exposure levels. Instead, the evidence supports the International EMF Scientist Appeal by 244 scientists from 41 countries who have published on the subject in peer-reviewed literature and collectively petitioned the WHO and the UN for immediate measures to reduce public exposure to artificial electromagnetic fields and radiation.
Evidence also exists of the effects of radiofrequency electromagnetic radiation on flora and fauna. For example, the reported global reduction in bees and other insects is plausibly linked to the increased radiofrequency electromagnetic radiation in the environment. Honeybees are among the species that use magnetoreception, which is sensitive to anthropogenic electromagnetic fields, for navigation.”
17. Taye RR Deka MK Rahman A Bathari M Effect of electromagnetic radiation of cell phone tower on foraging behaviour of Asiatic honey bee, Apis cerana F. (Hymenoptera: Apidae). J Entomol Zool Stud. 2017; 5: 1527-1529
“It has been widely claimed that radiofrequency electromagnetic radiation, being non-ionising radiation, does not possess enough photon energy to cause DNA damage. This has now been proven wrong experimentally.[18,19] Radiofrequency electromagnetic radiation causes DNA damage apparently through oxidative stress, similar to near-UV radiation, which was also long thought to be harmless.”
18. Smith-Roe SL, Wyde ME, Stout MD, et al. Evaluation of the genotoxicity of cell phone radiofrequency radiation in male and female rats and mice following subchronic exposure. Environmental Mutagenesis and Genomics Society Annual Conference; Raleigh, NC, USA; Sept 9–13, 2017.
Eskander, Estefan and Abd-Rabou published a paper touching on the effect of radio frequency radiation on hormone levels:
“Our results reveal that persons who were exposed to Radio Frequency Radiation either from mobile phones or base stations suffered highly significant decrease in their serum T3 (Triiodothyronine) and T4 (Thyroxine) levels which agree in case of low T4 (Thyroxine) levels and disagree in case of low T3 (Triiodothyronine) concentrations with previous study which suggested that serum T3 remains in normal range (7).
In the present study, females exposed to Radio Frequency Radiation from mobile phones or base stations suffered change in their serum prolactin level and the rate of change significantly rose with increased time of exposure which is in converse with previous studies indicating that serum prolactin concentration remained within normal ranges after exposure to radiocellular phones. Therefore, it is suggested that the menstrual cycle and the pregnancy will be affected by changing the level of serum prolactin which seems necessary to be optimized in these two processes.”
From this research there is the suggestion that mobile phones could be affecting hormones such as thyroid hormone levels and prolactin. If these findings are indeed to do with cell phone usage they offer an interesting potential connections with specific drug related biology. An example of the research that illustrates the well known connection between drug use and prolactin release described in the work of Mark Molitch who details the following drugs as acting that way:
Antipsychotics (neuroleptics), Phenothiazines, Thioxanthenes, Butyrophenones, Atypical antipsychotics, Antidepressants, Tricyclic and tetracyclic antidepressants, Monoamine oxidase inhibitors, Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, Other Opiates and cocaine, Antihypertensive medications, Verapamil, Methyldopa, Reserpine, Gastrointestinal medications, Metoclopramide, Domperidone, Estrogens.
In summary it seems like there is significant evidence to raise questions about the effect that mobile phones and wireless technologies have on our physiology. Does this encourage me to carry a mobile phone on my person ? No. Does it encourage me to experiment with not being permanently connected to telecommunications systems ? Yes. Does it warrant more reading and learning about what independent peer reviewed research findings reveal ? Yes. It would seem foolhardy to ignore such information and to not invest proportionate amounts of time in understanding the science of these new technologies; it would seem ignorant.
Taking Time to Meditate on Technologies
So, as you can read here, the thought which has gone into my giving up phones in my life is considerable. The experiment of giving up my smartphone which I started over two years ago produced interesting results that surprised me. It was an experiment like others I have done which was designed to give me perspective on what I was doing.
The original experiment came from when I discovered work which was being done on the effects of caffeine and they suggested that it was arguably the most addictive substance. As I am a great coffee lover, and as I knew that a day did not go by without me having a cup of coffee, I decided to try an experiment of giving up coffee for two weeks. I remember when the headaches appeared after 24 hours realising that, technically, my body was addicted to coffee. After the two weeks were up I felt much better and I had clarified my relationship with coffee.
I realised that if I could not get nice coffee I would drink any old crap no matter how shit it tasted – and there is a lot of crap coffee sold. The more I practiced stopping and starting drinking coffee, the more I found that I was in control of my actions, the more pleasure I was getting out of life. I had ceased drinking the cups of coffee which I did not even notice – the ones where I was on autopilot and unrecognising of the short periods I would be using to shovel the drug into me; these were effectively dissociative states and I would argue that many people normalise these dissociative states in their lives. It was a culturally socialised mindlessness which cost money and health and happiness, amongst other things.
Now I still drink coffee but when I do I only drink nice coffee which has good flavours that I like. I don’t live with a whole layer of anxiety and speedy rushes which cast the world in an artificial sense of urgency. I don’t get the headaches or lose time in my life effectively drug seeking. I enjoy my time sober from coffee too realising that being caffeine free is an enjoyable state of mind as much as being on caffeine is.
So it is about technology and phones. My experiment started by seeing what it was like without being chained to the phone and built up in periods where I would only switch the phone on to check for messages or to use it. Eventually I tried leaving the house without it for a day, and this was interesting to discover how bereft I felt, how part of my mind was screaming “where’s your phone, you need your phone, what if you dont have your phone…” constantly. I felt like a child looking into the darkness and fearing the nonsense of monsters and ghosts.
Gradually I realised that whilst I was out and about I was being more productive. I was planning better. I had more mental energy and was more aware of the world around me. I started to enjoy books more; I started to read better as over time I was not distracted to stop reading and check something on the internet, and whilst there, click on another link, and maybe check my emails and check my social media accounts in case something had happened and so on and so on… My head had more space, my life felt less stressed, I was more aware.
I was shocked that I was becoming more productive as well. Every task which I as doing was not invaded by a string of random information bursts from x, y or z. Even more so, every task I was doing was not invaded by the possibility of random information bursts coming in. Over time I was no longer primed to be constantly receiving and reacting to technology. I had moved into a proactive rather than a reactive space.
I also realised that the people who wanted to get in touch with me did so via email and understood they could. They were cognisant and together enough to be able to think about a real rendezvous, or a structured message – they had to think about what they were getting in touch with me for rather than neurotically or habitually feeling that they should be using their phone. I no longer had the phone on the table when I was with people, or answered it when I was in conversation; I was present and focused on the person who I was in the company of.
It led to other experiments of productivity and planning such as, if people want to talk then make time to meet them face to face. Buy them a coffee, enjoy the conversation or meeting. This meant travelling to them and preparing mentally for the meeting, writing notes and arriving in a fully attuned state. This also meant that people would not waste my time as they knew that I was making time for them so they needed to be doing it for a concise and structured reason; people had to be more honest with themselves by asking ‘why do I want to see Alex ?’.
There exists a host of ritual organisational behaviours which people are addicted to. They offer people the sense of activity and they confuse that with accomplishment but really what they are responding to is something different; they may just be wanting company, they may be feeling low, they may be simply on autopilot and dissociative activities allow them not to think. Meetings and boards and committees – oh the Monty Python of it all whilst there are more important things to be doing.
And so it is about technology and phones. These have in many cases extended way past their usefulness to things which are just filling space, creating existential fluff to fill the existential void where conscious experience used to be. There is also a case to state that digital technologies like phones are now eroding our cognitive capacities and sociological landscapes making us impatient and engaging with more in superficial ways. And the health benefits ??? Well you will have to decide for yourselves. I have not done cortisol measurements or neuroendocrine assays, I have not been longitudinally mapping my coronary health or oxidative stress levels. What I do know is I feel better, I feel happier and my life feels richer.
What about others ? What about the fact that others want to be able to phone me sometimes ? Well, that is their gig really. I remember when the ban on smoking in pubs came into effect and how inconvenienced it felt for some to step outside to smoke tobacco. If the situation were reversed and people were sitting in a room full of tobacco smoke, would I go in and have a meeting in that space ? No, I would ask them to meet somewhere else as the tobacco smoke is not a necessary part of the environment.
Now I smoke tobacco sometimes and enjoy it however I think it is madness to let people smoke everywhere because of the capacity of addictive habits to form around the stuff; people will simply not realise that they are smoking all the time and exposing others to their habit. So I gate tobacco and alcohol and caffeine and technologies in my life like any other habit forming thing. It has its place and I let it have it, rightly so; but none of these things will be allowed to pervade and extend past their usefulness or pleasure.
Parallel with this is not participating in the cultural madness of technophilia which is something as nuts as Tulipomania (go ahead, look it up). The group hysteria surrounding these things is just too inflated and the kind of waste being produced by these servile trends is not only polluting but it is participating in the destruction of our planet. The default of phone technology should be PULL technology and not PUSH technology; the amount of energy which is being pointlessly wasted triangulating phones which are not being used by the users is NUTS.
Now I hear some people parrot ‘it is my prerogative to waste energy if I like because I pay for it’; well not quite true. The energy used is generated grossly by fossil fuels which are spewing carcinogens out into the environment affecting all of our health. It is as bad as cars and planes, but there is something which we are equally cognitively dissonant about.
This is not even taking into consideration the robust warnings emerging about the effects of electromagnetic pollution on our biology. A wireless signal in practically every pub or café in the UK plus the wireless signals and transmissions which are constantly coming from everyone’s phones; like the opinion piece in The Lancet says, we gotta sit down and have a talk about this.
So there you have it folks. The deep dive on my decision to keep smartphones in their place, and for me, it is the notion that these tools have a small and user-defined place in my life rather than my life having a place in the life of the technology. I am leaving this piece here with a few subject headings for explorations and studies I have sketched out over the future as I meditate on the future; you can ponder on if these have any meaning for you, they are unexplored so dont necessarily make any sense.
The Digital Deconstructed
- Vast reduction in complex information
- Reduction in amount of information
- The digital is self referential
- The digital is a cypher of the architects decisions
- The digital is a world constructed by commerce
- The digital engenders mixed schedule reinforcement
- The digital interferes with memory formation
- The digital does not resemble the universe
- The digital excludes multimodal sensory experience
- The digital encourages the homogenisation of experience.
- The difference between the vision of tech and the practical experience
- What is the technology adding ?
In many ways my experiment with fasting from tech has led me to think more carefully about the world I am constructing to live in and make decisions about what are good relationships and what are bad ones. As big business and unchecked systems of influence seem to be shitting wherever they please [sorry – creating negative externalities] the buying up and monopolising of our environment has become something which we now are normalising in our culture.
There seem to be passive discourses about the carcinogenic environment, the loss of public space, the expectation to pay rent to participate in social activity, the frank destruction of our ecological systems, the gargantuan destruction of privacy and the dominance of economies by oligarchic forces which make me think that culturally we are trauma bonded to technology through our loses.
This is reinforced for me when people take it personally that I have chosen to give up something which they have placed centrally in their lives and the lives of their children etc. I am working through a book at the moment by Mark Jarzombek called ‘Digital Stockholm Syndrome in the Post-Ontological Age‘ and trying to make sense of it in relation to the escalation of the reach of technology in all our lives; it feels like it could be a sort of digital Stockholm syndrome and the pull of people I like using technology makes me think about the film Serpico. As a true story and a great piece of cinema it tells us a range of things about human nature.
In it Serpico is told a fable his partner about “The Wise King” – It’s a story about a king beloved by his people. In the middle of the kingdom there was a well from which everyone drank. One night, a witch poisoned the well. The next day, everybody drank from the well except the king. The people, aside from the king, went crazy, committing crimes and creating chaos. Observing this behaviour, the king approached his subjects and reprimanded them.
He demanded they change their behaviour. The citizens who once loved the king became irate and accused him of acting crazy. They came together and made a pact to kill the king. Clearly, in their minds, he had gone mad. The king feared for his life. Later that night, he drank from the well and immediately went insane. Upon seeing the crazed king the next day, all the people rejoiced because their beloved king had regained his reason.
Maybe that is the rub… a little drama for you over what could be some serious issues; I hope you’ve got something from going around the houses with me on this 😉
This article was written by Alex Dunedin