The smartphone and the diorama artist

Some technological advancements do more harm than good. The smartphone is a good example. The original idea behind this seemingly harmless little gadget—providing people an affordable, mobile communications device along with Internet access—was sound enough. And in the hands of a responsible and self-disciplined user, this is exactly what the smartphone would have provided.

Unfortunately, responsibility and self-discipline fell by the wayside, leaving us with the typical smartphone user of today: an attention craving narcissist with a short attention span and a need for instant gratification. Addicted to social media, games, and the app of the moment, this mindless drone has eschewed the physical world for the instant gratification of cyberspace.

Aside from the obvious need for artistic talent, what are the personal qualities that make a good diorama artist? Traits like patience, dedication, a long attention span, the ability to concentrate, and a strong work ethic come to mind. The smartphone is a threat to all these things, because it prevents these traits from developing in children and weakens them in adults.

As smartphone prices have dropped, the number of users has multiplied exponentially. They are now part and parcel of the urban landscape, meandering down crowded streets at half the pace of normal pedestrians, head down, frantically texting with both hands. They don’t watch where they’re going, so others are forced to jump out of their way to avoid collisions. They remind me of the Borg in Star Trek: The Next Generation, those half-human, half-machine aliens that served a central machine consciousness called The Collective and had no independent will of their own.

Did the scientific minds behind the smartphone anticipate that their nifty little invention could encourage and amplify some of the worst aspects of human behaviour? Probably not. But it’s fair to say that the marketers who popularized this attention deficit device understood the commercial benefits of addicting an entire populace to their product. With each new game and app, the addiction intensifies.

Most addictions are harmful because they either directly endanger the health of the addict or alter them in a negative way. Let’s look at what smartphone addiction does to people.

Text messaging is one of the cornerstones of the smartphone’s feature set. Since this technology encourages brevity, full sentences are no longer used. Messages are radically condensed. After repeated exposure to short messages, the brain adapts, and longer messages become harder to process. After a while, no-one has the patience to read sentences or paragraphs.

People used to read books on public transit. Now, everyone is playing with their phone. We’ve become so used to abbreviated character strings that wading through an entire book seems like a chore. Our attention spans are getting shorter by the day.

Phone drones are not just on the city streets. These automatons indulge their addiction in cafes, restaurants, and even movie theatres. Try talking to one, but better make it quick. At the first opportunity, they’ll turn away to check their phone. This constant phone checking begins as a habit, and then develops into a nervous tick repeated hundreds of times a day.

Killing conversation is not the smartphone’s only achievement. By making the brain lazy, it also affects our ability to concentrate. A good test of this is how far you can make it through a novel. Can you remember all the subplots and minor characters? Or do you find yourself getting frustrated at the amount of mental energy you need to stay on top of the story? The proportion of the population that reads fiction has been declining for decades, so you’re not alone if you feel that getting through a long novel is a struggle.

If people don’t have the attention span to engage in a passive activity like reading a book, how does this bode for creators, builders and inventors, where even greater energy and mental discipline is needed? Michelangelo spent two years creating his David. Without the rigorous work ethic he held himself to, this monumental task might have taken much longer, or may not have been finished at all. I wonder how many modern day artists gave up halfway through creating the masterpiece that would have catapulted them to fame, because they got bored and decided to squander their time on Twitter instead.

And regardless of whether you’re a painter, sculptor or diorama artist, you need to have the ability to tune out external noise and concentrate single-mindedly on a task. In other words, you have to be comfortable with being alone with yourself. For the phone drone, this is a horrifying prospect.

The lack of research on smartphone addiction is surprising when compared to the enormous efforts taken to curb vices like cigarette smoking. Cigarettes still claim more lives than fatal traffic accidents caused by texting drivers. But unlike smokers, drivers who text often kill innocents along with themselves. So they aren’t harmless.

The damage wrought by the smartphone—which can be summarized as fundamentally weakening mental stamina—has gone largely undocumented. Social and psychological phenomena are notoriously hard to quantify. There are no smoking guns and no corpses to count. Apart from the odd YouTube video or independent blog, there is virtually no discussion of the effects of this tragically misused piece of technology. The mainstream media is silent on the topic. And there is a reason for this.

To governments and global elites, a socially alienated, weak willed, and undisciplined populace is highly desirable. People are easier to control when their attention spans are too short to make critical arguments against the status quo, and when they give up their real friends for ones they’ve never met, courtesy of Facebook. Because when their friends are gone, they must turn to the government for help.

Governments also like to know who you are, where you go, and what you do. Your smartphone provides them with this information. It’s a core component of the surveillance state, and you’re paying for it. And even better for governments, anything you text, say or tweet on your phone is evidence that can be used against you for the rest of your living days. We’ve opened Pandora’s Box, and we don’t even know it.