Are the smartphone users of today in a digital disarray?
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Are the smartphone users of today in a digital disarray?

Are the smartphone users of today in a digital disarray?

It’s about time all of us seriously reflect on how we break this addiction

I started working in the telecoms sector back in 1993, when electronic distractions in the office were controlled by turning off the antiquated green screen computer connected to a squeaky dial-up modem.

Today, my working time feels like it is incessantly shattered into a thousand shards of digital distractions, pulling me from one thought to the next, never allowing me to settle, reflect and find deeper meaning. Instead, I find myself  programming my mind to think in a browsing mode, jumping from one thing to the next.

I didn’t sign up to this kind of digital future. Did you? Probably not, but this present-day distraction crisis is upon us and here is why.

When the late Steve Jobs launched the first Apple iPhone in 2007, like millions of others I purchased it with great awe. We were on our way to a general-purpose mobile computer, the likes of which we had seen the crew of Star Trek using. Paid wifi was being actively rolled out in many public places, enabling emails to be accessed from any location, but back then there was no app store and no social media notifications.

In fact, if you watch Jobs’ keynote address when launching the original iPhone, he said: “The killer app is making calls”.

Now remember back then we used to have mobile phones from companies such as Nokia, Ericsson and Motorola. There were those who had BlackBerry phones and were addicted to them. People also walked around with an iPod, for listening to music. The result was we had two devices in our pockets. Now along comes the iPhone which enabled your iPod to make calls. That was the “killer app”.

In the keynote, it’s not until 33 minutes into the presentation that Jobs gets around to highlighting features like improved text messaging and mobile internet access. If you told me in 2007 that in the near future the average iPhone user would obsessively check their device 80 times a day, I would have dismissed the notion.

Nowadays, Apple even has an app on the phone called ‘ScreenTime’, to show how often you are using the phone. They know how addictive it is. I am not really sure this is the type of digital world we wanted, but it is the one we got. Sometimes you arrive at a place and time not where you intended to be, but where you need to be. Maybe this is one of those moments, when upon seeing this great tsunami of distraction, we finally wake up, and do something about it.

The obvious follow up question is: Did we arrive in this digital miasma by accident or by design? Unfortunately, many of the digital tools and platforms which tech companies have us hooked onto are not as innocent as they appear. Equally people are not addicted to their screens because human nature is inherently idle or sluggish. The primary reasons why we are in the present digital disarray is because a handful of technology investors have funneled billions of dollars into making this a reality.

During an episode of the CNN talk show 60 Minutes, in a segment titled Brain Hacking, host Anderson Cooper interviewed Tristan Harris, a former Google engineer and whistle-blower. Harris called the smartphone a slot machine.

He said: “Well, every time I check my phone, I’m playing the slot machine to see ‘What did I get?”. He said there is a whole playbook of techniques to get users using the product for as long as possible.

His conclusion: “They are programming people…because that’s how they make their money.”

It’s about time all of us seriously reflect on how we break this addiction, as this is not the digital future we deserve for ourselves, our families and the coming generations, nor should we be persuaded into believing there is nothing we can do about it.

Rehan Khan is a principal consultant for BT, an educator and novelist

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