Brain Zappers, Phantom Texting & The Death of Empathy

"The future looks like a screen"- Nada Surf "The Future"

I've never had a new idea while looking at a screen. Have you? It's like screens are brain zappers. They seem to dampen not induce the creative spark. My experience has been more like:

Take a walk, get an idea, flesh it out then go to a screen- research, write, etc. 

How do we co-habitat with all of these screens? They drain our attention like water in a tub. We forget why we even went to them in the first place- a knee jerk reaction to open a browser, turn on the TV or pull our phone out of our pockets. Then we are gone, our reason for opening the screen lost and our minds feeding on whatever looks most 

We are simply not wired for screens. To our animal minds they are bright shiny objects in a cave. And let's be honest, we are still mostly ruled by our animal minds. 

I was having breakfast with some business friends recently including George Evans from Brandwidth. He told us about interviewing 3 recent college grads. When he asked them questions their thumbs began to make texting movement. Phantom texting! Their communication pathways had been rewired through their hands. Yikes! 

Some people think the next generation will, essentially, be a different species from the ones that came before. They will be wired early on to interact via screens and devices not people and faces. This is very concerning. I'm concerned we are losing our ability to feel empathy for each other.

Current and future generations may really struggle with empathy.  They will have spent most of their lives staring at screens more than faces. We already see this, kids that rarely look up from their screens.

Adults, that's the rest of us, aren't setting a very good example. We should know better since we grew up in the (mostly) analog world and know its joys- a beautiful Fall day, leaves crunching underfoot, being completely immersed in a conversation with a close friend, no technology to be found. 

Technology has become a third wheel in our lives. It has a valid and important role but increasingly it's just getting in the way. It's interrupting meetings, conversations, dinner and even sex. It is a threat to human intimacy. 

Empathy is, in many ways, what sets us apart from other animals. As we lose our ability to empathize the suffering of others will feel more and more remote. Even those in our lives our "loved ones". This is how really bad things happen. When people stop caring about other people. 

What's the solution? I'm not entirely sure. But I think we need to create limits on technology in our lives. This is hard to do, in part, because so much basic communication (texts, emails and calls) flows through our phones.

So here's an idea: what about an app or setting for phones that turns them into...phones. Just phones, nothing else. Like airplane mode, "phone-only" mode. Surely this is possible. But I've searched and can't find it.

And getting back to where we started- that "phone-only" idea actually came to me walking to and from the bathroom while writing this post. Damn brain zapping screens! 

Death To Screens!

Everywhere you go people are staring at screens. I’m just as bad. In line at Starbucks- escape to the tiny screen! Taking a walk- let's check Facebook! Pulling up to a stoplight- save me from boredom oh tiny screen! We are getting further and further away from full sensory experiences and being pulled deeper and deeper into increasingly thin experiences via screens. 

Why do I think screen experiences are thin? They barely engage our senses. We use our hands and eyes and maybe our ears but the medium itself (the screen) is hardly remarkable. This is a bigger problem than you might think.

Memories feed off of physical and emotional markers. Simply put, we don’t remember many digital experiences very well. Study after study has shown this. You are more likely to remember content from a paperback than a Kindle. The physical anchor of that paperback creates stronger memories. Same with emotion. Memories that have stronger emotions connected to them are more likely to stick.

This is why digital communication sucks- conference calls, email, etc. They all strip out emotion- the undertones in our voices, the body language, the physicality of a letter- all gone with most of these communications. People just don’t remember stuff when their senses aren't fully engaged. They aren't fully present- not even to mention they are probably multi-tasking.

I long for a day when we no longer have to stare at screens all day to do meaningful work. A musician buddy of mine, Vess Ruhtenberg, said to me recently- “I don’t think I would have started recording if I’d gone to a studio and everyone was starting at screens. What appealed to me was how studios looked like the deck of the Starship Enterprise”. I totally get that. There are many beautiful, wonderful things that technology has brought up but the screen is proving to be one of my least favorite. I’m hoping that the lords of tech will help us get beyond the screen and bring rich, human interaction back to technology as it existed pre-screens.

Yes, I totally get the irony that this post was written and read entirely on a screen. I wanted to send you all a hand written letter but... and yes, I also know you will probably not remember any of this. Damn screens!

Some research and references for this rant:

Power Cues (all about how we communicate)
Scientific American article about memory retention screens vs paper