Has anyone else noticed that we reached a tipping point a while ago? That few of us now retain the mental fortitude to endure even five seconds of boredom, without reaching for our phones to pacify ennui?
It is now utterly epidemic. Everywhere you look without exception—on an elevator, in a subway, while driving or walking, in meetings and even at restaurants during normally intimate, social moments—we are not present. Instead, we are wherever the algorithms have taken us, down the wormhole.
The Chinese now have dedicated pedestrian lanes for what they call “heads down tribe”, complete with messages like “Please don’t look down for the rest of your life.” The German city of Augsburg has installed traffic lights embedded in the pavement to prevent pedestrians from walking into traffic.
It’s just the beginning.
In spite of our analog non-presence, we are mistaken if we believe that the time we spend in the wormhole is valuable. We are not actually fascinated by others’ meals, formulaic selfies, memetic reposts and unending stream of consciousness. Ditto much of what we read, buy, play, stream and text. What all of these things are, when all is said and done, is a dazzling display of epic boredom.
This should cue us in to the fact that something fundamental is missing from our digital immersion.
We don’t benefit from more than a tiny fraction of it. Little of the time we spend in the wormhole spits us out as better humans. And yet: we are hopelessly, utterly addicted to our little black mirrors and windows.
There is something evolutionarily incongruent— inhuman — about our latest addiction.
Fully 93% of communication is multi-sensory, requiring our presence to occur. Just 7% of it can be communicated with words, via social media, email or texting. More than half—55%—is non-verbal, comprised of body language and chemical signals; impossible to replicate without focusing on the person in front of you. This is a massive problem not only in our social lives, but at work, which has gone entirely digital.
If we are not using 93% our senses in most of our interactions, then can what we are doing even be called communication, or connection, or relating?
I think the answer is a resounding “no”.
Globally, humans now spend seven hours a day staring at a screen. That’s 43%—nearly half—of our waking hours. For Fillipinos, it’s eleven hours, or 68% of their days. The Brazilians and South Africans (63% each) aren’t far behind.
It feels to me that we have largely traded living our own lives to become passive observers of others’. What’s ironicabout this gambit is that the majority of what we absorb on our screens is either fabricated, misleading, incomplete, or outright false.
The falseness of the digital ether takes two primary forms. First, what real people post is highly curated content, scrubbed of life’s complexity and presenting an idealized and often falsified excerpt of a life. This applies to what we do, with all our #winning and #goodvibesonly, which is conspicuously free of (shared) doubts, fears or challenges not overcome; and applies equally to what we look like. Of the 93 million taken daily, 71% are digitally manipulated.
The second form digital fakery takes is the stunning fact that on any given year, between 40% and “a healthy majority” of internet traffic isn’t even human. It’s the product of bots.
These phenomena—falsified lives, bodies and information—serve to weaken our links to one another, to deflate our sense of self (akin to how the endless arrays of airbrushed, skeletal models have screwed up women’s confidence and body image), and to destroy our ability to make sense of the world.
It is no wonder that skyrocketing rates of depression and anxiety, and record levels of suicide (up 33% in just twenty years), are being fueled by our digital addictions. According to generational researcher Dr. Jean Twenge, Ph.D., and reported by Psychiatryonline.org:
“The prevalence of mental health issues among U.S. adolescents and young adults began to rise in the early 2010s. These trends included sharp increases in depression, anxiety, loneliness, self‐harm, suicidal ideation, suicide attempts, and suicide, with increases more pronounced among girls and young women. There is a growing consensus that these trends may be connected to the rise in technology use.”
Our troubles stem from many places. First, there are body-image and life-image issues that stem from measuring our own real, often messy, up-and-down lives against the sanitized ones we flick through on social media. These lead to feelings of inadequacy. Second, there is total social isolation that comes with losing out on 93% of connection. Which is another way of saying we are lonely. Third, there is a negative impact from an always-on life, without adequate downtime. We lack an off-switch, yet biologically, downtime is central to mental health. Fourth, we can’t hide from our deep understanding that we are largely wasting our lives by filling them with distractions from our inner ennui, instead of spending time in analog relationship-building. This is boredom avoidance. And fifth, because so much of what we read is false, or digitally generated, or misleading, or algorithmically self-amplifying, we have lost our sense-making abilities, and feel listless. Which is another way of saying we are lost.
Scientific American links boredom to downtime, calling both critical to our ability to make sense of the world, and rejuvenate.
When is the last time you ate a meal without screen-watching, or spent an evening with friends or loved ones without once pulling out your device? When did you last go 24 hours without checking your phone, or even wake up without it being the first thing you reached for? When did you last have an experience—see an exhibit, the sights, a concert, or a protest—without feeling the need to document some aspect of it, digitally?
When did you stop being able to live your life—to do anything—without a smartphone: to travel locally or abroad, to eat, shop, socialize, entertain or be entertained, to work, play, or even exercise… without some aspect of it being tied in some way to your device?
65,000 years of “behavioral human modernity” has been replaced almost entirely in just 25 years, since the advent of the very first smartphone, in 1992; and even then, for most of us, in just 14 years, since the very first black mirror—the iPhone—changed everything.
We are at the precipice of seismic change. It is clear that we are ready to give up our analog humanity for a digital simulacrum. The facts are in. Tech won. In just 14 years, we have given half (or more) of our lives over to a digital existence, voluntarily. Imagine what the next 14 will do, when virtual reality, alluring avatars, telecommuting, the Internet-of-Things, on-demand everything and computational advances we can’t even fathom of right now (haptic suitsex, anyone?) come to the fore. The writing is on the wall. We will spend decreasing amounts of time together outside of a virtual interface.
What happens then?
What happens when we interact with bots who tend to our physical and emotional needs without any of the messy emotional drama of ‘real life’? Philosopher and superintelligence expert Nick Bostrom believes that artificial general intelligence (AGI)—the point at which machine capacity will be indistinguishable from human—will likely occur within the next 20–25 years. Elon Musk and the late Stephen Hawking both believe(d) human extinction is a real threat. Both of these things are potential outcomes of the technological singularity, and we are all funding this enterprise with abandon, through our total voluntary immersion in digital life.
AI is big business.
The truth is, I don’t think we know what will happen, but whether or not we do, the future will arrive. When it does, we can be sure of a few things. That we will be more distracted than we are today. I can’t recall having a complete conversation recently—not with my wife, my best friends, or my children—without losing them momentarily to pop-up notifications, phone calls, digital sharing, or flicking out of boredom the moment my eyes aren’t on them. Our addiction is nearly complete. Beyond our distractions, we will lose the ability to function without our phones. Already, our payments, movements, learning, social lives, work lives, provisioning, and even health are all inextricably linked to our phones. Without them, we are sunk, and the trend is toward increased digital immersion. Lastly, as technologies improve, there is the small matter of human obsolescence. As I wrote for CODEX, The Rise of the Useless Class is coming. What that means for us is that human purpose itself—one of our three biggest drivers, as a species—will have to be totally redefined. If our purpose in life isn’t tied to what we do with our adult lives and hours, then what is it, exactly? The answers are myriad, but the need will be very real.
We have done this to ourselves. Personally, I fight the urge constantly, myself. When I’m with others, I implore them to put down their phones, or “look up” when I’m speaking to them. I say this to grown adults who know better, but as I said, we are speaking about addiction. Telling the alcoholic to put the bottle down is easily asked, but difficult in the execution. But fight we must, if we are to retain our ability to function, curb suicide and depression, truly connect with one another, be bored—and in the process, assimilate information, and insight—and engage the senses we were born with, for the purpose of sense-making and engagement with the world.
Digital oblivion is not a dramatic moniker. It’s more likely than not. At some point, we may trade our bodies for the cloud, as Ray Kurzweil believes we will. It’s called mind uploading. For that to occur, we’ll have to learn whether consciousness can exist outside of the body—whether, in fact, our religious indulgences are real, and there is in fact a soul. As long as we can capture it, and transfer it from our brains to a machine, we may yet become immortal.
If not the “real” us, then perhaps a simulation, based on powerful algorithms that can act like us, fooling even our families. AGI makes this a real possibility, soon. What price would you not pay for a chance to interact with a loved one, in perpetuity.
Two of my favorite minds today—Yuval Noah Harari, of Sapiens and Homo Deus fame, and Tristan Harris, Google’s former chief ethicist, and the founder of the Center for Humane Technology, recently discussed AI with Wired Magazine.
It started with some quips:
“Amazon will soon know when you need lightbulbs right before they burn out. YouTube knows how to keep you staring at the screen long past when it’s in your interest to stop. An advertiser in the future might know your sexual preferences before they are clear to you. (And they’ll certainly know them before you’ve told your mother.)”
Quickly, it gets serious, when Harari says:
“Maybe the most important fact about living in the 21st century is that we are now hackable animals.”
Referring again to YouTube, Harris says:
“When you open up that video, you’re activating Google’s billions of dollars of computing power, and they’ve looked at what has gotten 2 billion human animals to click on another video.”
Using Garry Kasparov’s astounding chess loss to IBM’s Deep Blue as a metaphor, he adds:
“If you think of your mind as a chessboard, and you think you know the perfect move to play… the computer sees your mind and it says, “No, no, no. I’ve played a billion simulations of this chess game before on these other human animals,” and it’s going to win.
…Everywhere you turn on the internet there’s basically a supercomputer pointing at your brain, playing chess against your mind, and it’s going to win a lot more often than not.”
“Everywhere you look on the internet, there’s basically a supercomputer pointing at your brain.” —Tristan Harris
Harari and Harris are making the central point that as soon as computers know our desires and needs faster—or better—than we do, we will gladly give in and give up. We will quite likely become a race of “input receivers”, in a mostly one-way feed from our digital providers to our hacked (and grateful) brains.
When that happens, as Harris says, “It’s checkmate against humanity.”
Or, more benignly, digital oblivion.