Sunday, April 24, 2016

The end of introspection (and why it matters)

A friend of mine who teaches undergraduates provided insight into something I see regularly but don't experience in the thoroughgoing way he does, namely, young people (and some not so young) who appear to be entirely an appendage of their cellphones. One study concluded that "[t]he average college student uses a smartphone for about nine hours each day."

The take on cellphones is that you can customize them to give you exactly what you want. You are in charge. The trouble with this reasoning is that someone else is programming the apps you use; and those apps are programmed to get you to do certain things in certain ways that are generally to the advantage of the companies providing the apps and to advertisers (sometimes one and the same). These apps may be useful to you, but they are certainly not your apps; they are not actually customized. And, they only offer the illusion of control.

Moreover, there is no app I know of designed to get you to stop looking at your cellphone and focus on the world around you or on your inner life. Some people listen to music or podcasts on their cellphones while they exercise, walk, drive, study, read, eat, or do practically anything. I'm all for listening to music and podcasts. But some of the activities listed above are actually great all by themselves.

Then there is the constant texting. Texting is very useful, I find, for telling people I'm running late to a meeting, inviting people to something at the last minute, coordinating family hordes on vacation and so forth. My professor friend tells me that many of his students say they prefer texting to face-to-face encounters. One student went so far as to characterize face-to-face conversation as a form of "aggression." When my friend first told me this, I had the horrifying realization that it's possible that many groups of young people I see texting while standing in a group may actually be texting each other! (Perhaps I'm extrapolating things too far.)

Now, this started me thinking that we are creating a whole generation of people who are ill-adapted to the giant demands of our emerging predicaments related to climate change; energy, soil, fisheries, forestry and water depletion; species extinction; public health threats; and threats from rapidly evolving technologies such as genetic engineering and nanotechnology--just to name a few.

If most people are going to shrink from having a spirited in-person conversation with somebody else about a critical issue, how exactly are we going to move forward on the major challenges of our age? In order to address critical issues, one must do critical thinking. Where is the time for that when all one does is move from music selection, to podcast, to texting, to posting photos, to computer games, to email, back to music selection and so on? There's never a dull moment with your cellphone. But are they really your moments?

So much of our thinking is of necessity shaped by the mass media (especially television and movies), our educational system, our parents' views, and our peers' views. It may be hard to imagine that the little cellphone could really be the main reason for our inability to think our own thoughts.

Perhaps it's not. But it is the attitude the cellphone engenders that presents a major problem, namely, that there should never be a moment when we are disengaged from our electronic communications system, or from the framing of our world that the cellphone and its app-makers have created for us--that there is never a moment when we should be (or even need to be) left entirely alone with our thoughts.

It is true that being left alone only with one's own thoughts can be a frightening experience for many people, an experience some wish to avoid at all costs. For others being alone with their own thoughts merely means boredom. Their thoughts (and the feelings that accompany them) do not sufficiently entertain such people.

But those whose thoughts and feelings trouble them often avoid dwelling on those thoughts and feelings by substituting someone else's agenda for their own.

I would be overgeneralizing to say that this state of affairs characterizes the entire population of young people. There are many dedicated young activists I've met who are perfectly capable of generating their own critical thoughts and formulating actions that flow from them.

Perhaps it has always been true that only a small minority will ever value the inner life even though literature, philosophy and religion extol it as the most important part of our lives. I am reminded of Margaret Mead's famous quote: "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has."

Under ordinary circumstances I would say this is true. But we do not live in ordinary times. It is no exaggeration to say that the future of human culture is at stake. We need all hands on deck (if you'll excuse the nautical metaphor). And instead, we have most hands playing with their cellphones, mistaking the screen for the world and for a pathway to building genuine relationships.

Even people in my admittedly mature cohort find it odd that I almost never look at my cellphone when I'm with them. I never have the ringer on unless I'm expecting a call that will require me to make a decision or provide a response on the spot with no delay. And, that means almost never. When that rare situation arises, however, I always inform the person I'm with ahead of time.

When my friend asked his students to go on an electronic fast for 24 hours, they were horrified. This meant no cellphones, no regular telephones, no computers, no radio, no televisions, no electronic communications of any kind. Most found it extremely difficult and described maladies that can best be characterized as withdrawal symptoms.

The nice thing about withdrawal symptoms is that they go away if you stay away long enough from the thing from which you are withdrawing. Given the ubiquitous nature of electronic communications, it's hard to see any of the cellphone-induced behavior described above doing anything but getting worse. In fact, an article with the ominous title, "10 Ways Marketers Are Making You Addicted to Apps," is actually a general guide for showing developers how to create that addiction, not a warning about how to avoid it.

I'm not sure anything can be done directly about the ever increasing cellphone addiction I see. But there are some indirect things: cultivating an interest and love of the natural world; reading books (okay with me if you read them on an e-reader); going to public talks; playing music (instead of just listening to it); going to the movies (yes, there are some really good movies that stimulate the mind rather than enslave it); laughing with friends (without looking at your cellphone); and walking, biking, or doing exercise of any kind without listening to anything else except the birds and the ambient sounds of the environment. My own experience is that I notice all kinds of new things even when I'm on routes I take frequently. I also get some of my very best ideas when I'm exercising.

If these sorts of activities become your mainstay, the cellphone will find its proper place as a useful communications tool and nothing more. And, it might even be useful in a limited fashion for addressing those critical issues I believe must be our focus.

Kurt Cobb is an author, speaker, and columnist focusing on energy and the environment. He is a regular contributor to the Energy Voices section of The Christian Science Monitor and author of the peak-oil-themed novel Prelude. In addition, he has written columns for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen, and his work has been featured on Energy Bulletin (now, The Oil Drum,, Econ Matters, Peak Oil Review, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights and can be contacted at


Steve Rohs said...

Thanks, Kurt. I think it's worth considering Sherry Turkle's book Alone Together. An MIT psychiatrist and ethnographer who studies human uses of technology, she documents both human encounters and human costs of reliance on social media. It's also good to know that some of her young subjects voluntarily go on fasts, finding endless loops of social media exhausting. The thing that I find interesting is that the constant control required in the online presentation of the self is not often edifying, and seems to be taxing. I'm reminded of Illich's sense of conviviality that springs from personal encounters and the generative sense of community which can be difficult to reproduce online. But I'm also often surprised by my autistic son's sociality online, which I think provides a dimension of interaction he finds so difficult in "real life." So there's that...

Kurt Cobb said...


Nice to hear from you. And, thanks for the thoughtful comment and for pointing me to Turkle's book.

My work requires that I spend many hours on a computer in a typical day. But almost none of it is spent on social media. Rather the Internet is just a very convenient research tool that facilitates my writing and enables me to communicate with intelligent thinkers in many fields.

We all face the question of how to present ourselves digitally for professional or personal purposes if we have access to the Internet. Increasingly, one's connectedness (and thus profitability as a performer, a writer or even a graphic artist) may depend on gathering a larger and larger group of online followers. Often quality matters less than quantity as followers will pay more attention to those who stimulate them with tweets and posts more often.

If satisfaction is defined by the number of times one receives stimuli, then I am in a losing game as an online figure. But I believe I've found an audience that values depth and genuine analysis and regards those qualities as worthwhile even though they may come only once a week from me (with occasional breaks). And, I suspect that this audience spends a lot of time, probably the majority of their time, doing activities that have nothing with social media and the Internet. They are out actually doing things and experiencing other people.

How did I learn to see the computer as my servant and not as my master? I think it definitely has something to do with reaching maturity before the personal computer was in widespread use. By that time in my life, it was just another tool to be mastered to do my work and achieve my objectives. For those who grow up playing computer games, dwelling on social media sites, tapping out text messages, the computer and its extensions such as the cellphone are more a way of life than a tool.

How could that view be altered? I cannot say for certain. But I think it will be important to figure out in the not-to-distant future.