I was at a fancy-dress party recently, dressed as a leopard and feeling pretty pleased with myself. The hours prior to this had been happily spent getting creative with face paints, which had reminded me how much I like drawing, something I haven't done properly since my teens. It was a welcome change from the usual Netflix binge that sucks up all my down time nowadays. My bubble of nostalgia induced well-being was burst however by a stranger dressed as a piece of sushi, who asked if I had come as "that snap chat filter". Thanks, sushi woman.
The encounter left me thinking, is this how our brains make sense of the world now, jumping to digital reference points over real life ones? And are we so plugged into our digital lives that our sense of reality has become warped? It also compounded some worries I've been having about how much time I spend looking at a screen. From the moment I wake up Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, online news, Whatsapp and Spotify eat up my attention, and my day becomes dictated by my phone. After 7+ hours flicking between apps and my work computer screen, I often stumble out of the office feeling like I'm having an outer body experience, with every ounce of my being screaming this is such an unhealthy way to live.
What is more unsettling about the universal presence of technology in our lives is how quickly this has become the case and how rapidly it has stopped being a choice. As a millennial born in the '80s, I'm part of the last generation to remember a pre-internet era. Twenty years ago many of us lived lives largely devoid of screens, and yet now the average person checks their phone 150 times a day, and we've accepted this dramatic change in our lifestyles unquestioningly. Collectively, we've all become addicts.
We often blame ourselves for checking our phones too much, but billions of dollars and the world's brightest tech talent pour into making technology as addictive as possible. Ever wondered why the urge to check Facebook and Twitter is so strong? Functionality like the Like button, hearts and retweets reward us at random with the happy brain chemical dopamine, so we constantly check to see whether we're going to get a hit. Web developer Rameet Chawla has described this phenomenon as the first digital drug, and the effect is potent. So attached are we now to our smart phones that studies have reported subjects feeling separation anxiety when parted from their device, as well as brain patterns reflective of feelings of love that are normally triggered by a close friend or family member being near.
Tristan Harris, former Google employee and current CEO of Time Well Spent is, according to The Atlantic, "the closest thing Silicon Valley has to a conscience". He's lobbying tech companies to design products more ethically, and likens them to the tobacco and gambling industries of the 20th Century, who worked to meet consumer demands without thinking about collateral damage to their lives. But is staring at a screen all the time really that damaging? And isn't it a bit of an overreaction comparing phone addiction to smoking forty a day? Unfortunately, not really. Recent research shows how tech-heavy life styles can affect concentration, IQ and eyesight. A swathe of physical and neurological conditions, from anxiety, to insomnia, to "text claw" are being linked to digital habits. Worst of all, scientists don't yet have enough data to fully understand what phone radiation does to our bodies long term. Its feels as if we've been tricked into this situation, and now it is too late to do anything about it.
But there are signs that society is starting to react. The popularity of mindfulness, where people are rejecting constant stimuli and seeking out stillness, seems to be a knee jerk reaction to the modern digital lifestyle. So too is the fashion for the home made, the organic and the outdoors, coined by the much parodied #liveauthentic. Nokia is also relaunching the retro 3310, tapping into a desire for a more straightforward pre-digital world. Popular culture is equally preoccupied by the issue. Dave Eggers' novel The Circle hypothesises what would happen if companies like Apple and Google started encroaching upon all aspects of our lives. Apps appearing like Apple Pay and Home on the iPhone make Eggers' dystopia seem less far-fetched.
When Harris of Time Well Spent was working for Google, he sent a slide deck advocating ethical tech development to some close colleagues that went viral across the company. Lots of people misunderstood his point, thinking he was arguing that social media should be banned. Instead, Harris was arguing that developers have a moral responsibility to consider the impacts of new digital products and services. As consumers, it seems wise that we do the same. Rather than coveting unthinkingly the latest smart phone model, innovation or technology disruption, we must ask: is this something that we actually want?