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! 

My Week Off The Grid

I recently resolved to go a week completely off the grid- no email, Facebook, Twitter, Google, etc. It helped that it was also a week that my family would be spending at Union Pier on Lake Michigan. But let's be honest, how often do we truly "unplug" for vacations. I never have. In the past I have always checked email several times a day, taken some calls and generally kept half my mind back at work. The result was that I always returned feeling half rested.

To commit I left my laptop at home and deleted all relevant apps from my phone. I did take my phone since I needed to be available for emergencies- which, thankfully, there were none. I even moved Safari to the furthest reaches of my iPhone screens so it wouldn't tempt me. 

I did go through a brief detox and experienced some digital withdraws but overall going off the grid was much easier than I expected. Within a day I reached a state of relaxation that usually takes 3-4 days, which is right before I have to leave- sound familiar? 

Did I cheat? I did succumb once to research my new obsession- Carl G Fisher. But otherwise I stayed clean. 

I wish I had been hooked up to some monitors when I reinstalled the apps on my phone. I felt sweat creep across my forehead, my heartbeat increased and my stomach started to turn. Stress, like a heavy jacket, came down on me. I hadn't realized how relaxed I really was until that moment when the grid came rushing back into my life. I would imagine it might be similar to a junkie taking a hit after being clean for a while. The body at first freaks out and then readjusts to the new normal. But let's not kid ourselves, stress ain't healthy.

The week was one of the most relaxing ones I can recall. My company survived, and even thrived, in my absences. Stuff got done and life went on without me. I spent focused time with my family, read books and slept- a lot, if you ask my wife. I highly recommend you try it on your next vacation. Don't worry, the grid will take you back with open arms, drug dealers always do.

Why Physical Objects least for now

Seems like a strange topic for a blog, right? Of course physical objects matter! I am writing this on one, I use one to get to work everyday. But we may be closer than we realize to a world where we have increasingly less contact with actual physical objects.

Consider a future where your computer and phone are part of your body. Or beyond that, to a time when you no longer even have a body. Your existence becomes purely virtualized. I know, it sounds crazy but when you start walking down Singularity's exponential path, mixing in Moore's Law, you may start to see that this future could intersect your lifetime. In many ways we are, perhaps unintentionally, conditioning ourselves to this transition. Technology is already invading our biology.

Digital experiences are becoming the norm. Soon we may have few areas of our existence that don't have a direct digital aspect. This ranges from always-on Bluetooth headsets to sleep monitoring. It just makes sense that we are moving towards digital co-habitation. But I'm concerned we may get lost in the transition. 

When we interact with physical objects we have a distinctly different experience than interacting with digital objects. Physical objects engage all of our senses- we can smell, feel and touch the object. It can age and change. In engaging all our senses it also taps into all our types of memory. These older types of sense memory are much stronger than our more recently evolved verbal memory. As I learned in Moonwalking With Einstein- we can remember an image for years but words slip away easily, they need another sense to act as an anchor.

Presently, our digital experiences only engage a few of our senses- sight, hearing and maybe touch. But they do not engage smell at all and barely touch, touch. Digital experiences often go by like a TV show. Something we watch with interest but stand removed. 

Physical objects ground us in a particular way- they require our presence. We cannot interact with them in any meaningful way without being present. Also, they can age and change. They can be lost. They cannot be infinitely cloned like a digital object. There is no "iCloud" for people and stuff- at least yet. Most importantly they engage all our senses which leaves dimensional craters in our memory. This connects us to the passage of time and to each other. We all share in this fully immersive reality but it seems we are running from it towards inferior digital realities.

The further we move towards digital interactions that only engage a few senses the closer we get to becoming Star Trek's "borg". A being that has forgotten its humanity. Ironically to avoid becoming the borg we may need to speed up digitally connecting our bodies. Our digital experiences need to engage all of our senses. Maybe digital spaces could have a feel and smell all their own- like walking down a hall in high school.

I fear we may need to quickly become the borg to save our humanity. If we spend too much time in transition we may collectively lose some of our fundamentally human characteristics. A quick change could bring all that we love about analog human experience directly into a digital existence. But inbetween we are left with a half real digital existence. That will wear on us. The way we flock to the newest devices reminds me of how everyone sold their records when CDs came out and then many grew to regret it later. We must remember that analog existence has its charms. Let's not lose ourselves as we embrace the Singularity.