10 years of the smartphone: has it REALLY made us happier and freer?

In the first part of this special blog series, Matt Bain explains why he’s stepping back from his smartphone this New Year – and why you should too


Matt Bain

In June this year, it will be just ten years since Steve Jobs launched the iPhone and kick-started the smartphone revolution. It’s almost impossible now to imagine a world without that slick and intuitive touch-screen interface, Google maps, constant internet access (not to mention social networking), or the supposed ‘appiness’ afforded to us by mini technological miracles from Shazam to Uber.

It’s likely that none of us would wish to go back to a world without smartphones. So why is my New Year’s resolution to use my phone less?

Because I think that we’ve traded something in that we’ll never get back. Maybe we’re all digital Eves, having picked our Apple (or Samsung or Sony) from the tree but banishing ourselves to something of an intellectual wilderness.

We appear to have greater liberties now than before the smartphone came along. Our lives run more efficiently and conveniently. But the price we’ve paid is our personal freedom – simply because we’ve all been turned into addicts. Each of the 473 times a day we check our phones, we get a little hit of dopamine, the brain chemical that is activated by reward-seeking behaviour like shopping (although it’s the anticipation, rather than the reward, that provides the hit). As Ruby Wax put it in her book Sane New World, we have all become our own drug dealers. All day long we crave the gratification that a Facebook like, Whatsapp reply or retweet will provide.

Anything will do, as long as we get our fix.

I can’t help but think that this relationship with technology is fundamentally re-wiring the way we think, building into our psychology an unhealthy addiction for constant, low-level validation. It will be a number of years before we see the effect of all this on a generation that will never have known life without it.

Technology companies have cultivated a sinister relationship of dependency upon these objects, the like of which has never been seen before in history. We need to have our devices with us all the time – on dates, on the tube, by our bedsides- they have become a part of us. Like our own electronic incarnation of Philip Pullman’s Daemons, they’re almost an extension of our soul.

More than the clothes we wear or anything else we own, we’ve granted them a unique and unassailable position in our lives, precisely because we depend on them so much to run everything. Stories abound of people suffering major separation anxiety when deprived of their phones for more than a few minutes – tantamount to the withdrawal symptoms suffered by all addicts.

No wonder that more and more of us are trying the so-called ‘digital detox’ – a reaction against the unpalatable feeling that we are all slaves to our machines.

The big question is this; has constant smartphone access really made us happier? Buddhist monk and writer Mathieu Ricard, who has been called the ‘happiest man in the world’, reckons that the key to contentment is to live in a state of simplicity where you can see what is important. As he puts it, it’s about “understanding the way the mind works, and the ability to let it rest and not be pulled in different directions by trivial things”.

Yet the sheer volume of information available through social media, the voracious engine of our smartphone addiction, now makes that harder than ever for most young people.

Our capacity to hold information is immense, but most of what we receive via our phones just makes us insecure and anxious. Facebook is the absolute worst; as we scroll down our newsfeeds, we’re having to discern real from fake (or just badly written) journalism, shrug off people’s unremitting self-promotional guff, cope with the interminable rantings that abound in this narcissistic newsfeed echo-chamber or interpret the hollow “virtue signalling” that has become the hallmark of Fakebook. All that in our lunchbreak, or on the train, or while we’re waiting for our friend in the pub.

Little surprise that our brains are awash with background noise that is very difficult to turn off. Constant access to e-mail means that people expect to be able to contact you at any time of the day and night, and receive a swift and proper response immediately. Why else have we seen such a huge rise in mindfulness and meditation? It marks a desperate bid by many people to regain just a tiny bit of mental stillness – even if it’s just for ten minutes.

Most worryingly of all, more and more people are swapping books for social media, despite a ton of evidence showing that reading novels increases our understanding of other cultures, our empathy, reduces stress levels, not to mention helping to stave off loneliness, brain aging and disease.

Most of all, they also allow us to escape a world in which anxiety about the post-Brexit, Trump-defined future is constantly stoked by a fever-pitch hysteria on social media.

Maybe this is the most powerful reason of all to “switch off” – not to disengage with what’s going on in the world, but to allow us to spend more time educating ourselves about the history, politics, culture and psychology that has shaped the world we live in today. And the only way you’re going to get that is by diversifying your sources – and refusing to let Mark Zuckerburg or your online friends dictate how you see the world.

In the second part of this special blog series (published tomorrow), Matt will be discussing why smartphones are wrecking our relationships and job prospects. Don’t embark on that digital detox just yet…

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