The smartphone is the latest in a long line of technologies which have transformed the way we communicate. Television, personal computing, video games and smartphones have made our lives more convenient and more entertaining. They have also shortened our attention spans. By forcing our brains to adapt to increasingly condensed communication, they permanently change the way we process information . . . for the worse.
The more accustomed we become to the technological shorthand of texts, likes, and swipes, the more trouble we have with anything that requires more time and concentration, like reading a novel or creating a work of art. This is why bookstores and hobby shops have been vanishing from the retail landscape over the past few decades. So few people have the patience to read a book or dedicate themselves to a hobby, that retailers are running out of customers.
We naively assume that if something is harmful, we’ll be warned. But the medical community only addresses illnesses which it has permission to address. This is why television sets, computers, video games and smartphones carry no warning labels. The profits which technology companies and media giants generate are more important than your health or mine.
Television was the first mass market technology to degrade our attention spans. Cinema had already condensed storytelling from 500 page novels to two-hour movies. But TV was the real game changer, because it brought movies into the family home, and people could immerse themselves in it all day long. Television condensed storytelling even further than the cinema. An hour-long format became the standard for drama and variety programs, and a half-hour format was used for sitcoms. And woven into these programs were commercials, which could tell a story in as little as 15 seconds.
The Internet was the next major technology to alter the way we communicate. Emails replaced letters. So instead of receiving a card for your birthday, you now get an email with an animated gif (and you wonder if the sender was too cheap to buy a card and mail it). Unlike television, which is passive, the Internet is a two-way medium. Its impact on the way we process information is thus twice as powerful, because it trains us to both send and receive information in a specific way.
The effects of television and the Internet pale in comparison with the smartphone. This is the ultimate Attention Deficit Device. Its market growth has been astonishing, and in some countries, smartphones are more common than potable water.
The smartphone mobilizes the Internet. Liberated from the desktop computer, we can now indulge our social media habits wherever we go. We’re on our phones all day long, whether shopping, eating, driving to work, or walking in the park. Why are they so addictive?
Every time you receive a notification on your phone, your brain releases a feel-good chemical called dopamine. Pretty soon, you become accustomed to this never-ending parade of dopamine hits, which are just as addictive as the nicotine in cigarettes.
The result is that people never put down their phones, because they experience withdrawal symptoms if they do. And the longer they spend on their phones, the more their brain adapts to process the brief, shallow and impersonal messages they send and receive. The human attention span is being shortened to accommodate the smartphone paradigm. And no-one seems to mind making this personal sacrifice to the clever little device glued to their hand. Smartphones are running the show.
But this is the inevitable march of progress, you say. Well, that depends on how you define progress. At some point, you’ll need to have a face-to-face conversation with an actual human being, care for an infant, or do something else that requires more than a few seconds of your attention. This is where the trouble starts. Suddenly you don’t have the patience for it, because your brain can only handle one-line text messages. And a face-to-face conversation may not provide the dopamine hits your phone does, so the downward spiral accelerates. Pretty soon you start to avoid real human interactions. What kind of progress is that?
So although it may be fun to text, swipe and tweet all day long, be aware of the Faustian bargain you’re making. In return for convenience, entertainment, and ego stroking, your little plastic Lucifer is rewiring your brain, shortening your attention span, and making you anti-social.
Like quitting smoking, it takes a lot of willpower to give up your smartphone completely. Most people will never do it. So what can you do?
Rather than quitting cold turkey, the way to combat smartphone addiction is to gradually increase the time you spend on other activities you enjoy. As a reader of this blog, you know the solution: build a diorama.
The process of building a diorama, from inspiration to conception and construction to completion, is intensive and time consuming. These two qualities make it the perfect antidote to the brain deadening effects of the smartphone. If you’re able, set aside a separate room where you work on your diorama, and—this is important—never bring your phone into the same room. The more you work on your diorama, the more your brain will thank you.
The feeling of satisfaction and accomplishment you get after finishing a lengthy creative project is something your smartphone can never provide. Remember the last time you finished a diorama. You felt a sense of accomplishment and pride. That’s because you reached the reward centre of your brain the natural way . . . through discipline and perseverance. In this age of technological distractions, it’s easy to forget that through the hardest work come the biggest rewards.
If you like to build dioramas and want to learn more about how to optimize the visual impact of your work, you might like my new book, Diorama Design. It’s available in both ebook and print formats at Amazon.