Our minds are becoming bookended by glass.
—Google co-founder Sergey Brin, speaking at TED earlier today
This statement is notable because it’s safe to assume that as an original Googler, Sergey Brin has profited handsomely from people’s addictions to that very same ‘glass’ he speaks of. Google’s Android is the most popular mobile operating system in the world with as many as 700 million active Android devices. Sure, part of his motivation for describing the use of smartphones as ’emasculating’ may have been the fact that he was hocking Google Glass, the company’s newest gadget that places many of the smartphone’s functions right into your field of vision (which is aimed to bring information ‘closer to our senses’) using a connected pair of futuristic glasses that remind me of something future soldiers or cyborgs would wear. (The Verge’s Joshua Topolsky has spent time with the glasses and you can read his fascinating take here.)
With all their speed forward, connected devices have actually taken us a step back in civilization
In reality Brin’s motivation is irrelevant, though, because he still hit on an immutable truth: with all their speed forward, connected devices have actually taken us a step back in civilization. Just take a look at the new posture of society: looking down at our devices. Looking through people and into an infinite abyss. A fatuous need to check check check on a missed text or tweet or email or a friend’s inane Facebook post… It’s the first thing many of us look at in the morning and the last thing we lock before bed. It’s hard to even realize that you are being rude or disrespectful with technology because standards have plummeted—everyone is doing it. Everywhere. Even at work. I remember a time in the not-too-distant past when the thought of checking a phone at a meeting was taboo, frowned upon, grounds for termination even. Today? Heck, constant email replying and texting is par for the course in an average meeting.
I’ve owned a smartphone for almost four years now, and I’ve found that my attention span is as short as its ever been. Society has been concerned about shortening attention spans for decades since the invention of TV and video games, but at least those distractions required the users to be anchored to a static location where the activity could be relatively controlled. Today, distraction is more portable than ever. We can stuff movies, TV, video games, newspapers, books, and educational programs into devices that are eight millimeters thin and five inches across packing PC-grade processing power. What’s more, we’ve turned our phones into our ‘life hubs.’ Our personal calendars, contacts, social networks, emails, pictures, and home videos are all in there. Losing our phone immediately constitutes not a frustrating inconvenience but a real crisis. And even when we use technology to try to capture special moments by recording video or taking pictures of, say, your kids performing onstage, the device ends up wedging itself between you and reality, adding simulation to what should be a full, real experience.
As a self-professed gadget lover with a solid grasp of technology’s pros and cons, I’m not going to start making apocalyptic claims here. In many ways, society has never been smarter and more well-informed. We are always a few taps or clicks away from a world of knowledge and some of the most exciting advancements have only been made possible by the oldie-but-goodie term, the ‘Information Superhighway’ and all its progeny. And that universal database continues to grow. Knowledge acquisition has always been the hallmark of any society’s progress and evolution and there is no question that we are in the midst of a knowledge explosion that has gained the momentum of a 30-foot tsunami with no sign of receding. So I’m going to cheesily but happily quote Peter Parker’s uncle here (via Stan Lee via Voltaire via Luke 12:48):
With great power comes great responsibility.
Lets face it, we cannot beat back progress. We can’t hearken back to a simpler time. That’s not realistic. What is realistic is a plan of moderation. My wife and I have imposed a no-phone zone from when I get home until both kids are in bed. At work, I’m working on limiting most of my consumption to my lunch hour and only a few timed breaks (studies have shown that regular browsing/reading breaks make for more productive employees :))
Thing is, I want my kids to be tech savvy and know their way around the technology of their time and to also be proactive information seekers. But what I have to show them, both by example and by instruction, is to place awareness first. Look people in the eye. Listen actively. Don’t let moments pass you by while you stare down at that glass screen looking for something that will never mean as much as who or what is right in front of you.