Resistance and the Smartphone

In the latest, tenth-anniversary edition of The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to our Brains, Nicholas Carr describes a basic problem all our brains have, and how our brains solve them.

At every instant of the day, our nervous system is bombarded by stimuli that may be worthy of our attention–objects in our field of view, sounds and scents, people we know and people we don’t know, ideas and memories, emotions, bodily sensations. From the near-infinite welter of possibilities, the mind has to choose a target. This enormously complicated, enormously important task–nothing so determines our thoughts and behavior as the distribution of our attention–is accomplished through a neural system called the salience network.

“Spanning many areas of the brain,” the salience network gives priority to four kinds of stimuli:

  1. The novel and unexpected
  2. The pleasurable or otherwise rewarding
  3. The relevant
  4. The emotionally engaging

At this point, it’s worth asking: in our modern life, what are the kinds of things that grab our attention in these ways? Carr answers quickly and singly: these four kinds of stimuli that so attract our attention “are exactly the kinds of stimuli our smartphones supply–all the time and in abundance.”

Refreshing their contents continuously, our phones are fonts of new and surprising information. Our phones give us stimulation and gratification whenever we check them, triggering releases of the pleasure-production neurotransmitter dopamine. Because they are deeply person repositories of photos and messages, our phones are always of immediate relevance to us. And our phones are emotionally charged. They send and receive signals of our social status, and they flood us with information on the people, events, and subjects we care most about. Imagine combining a mailbox, a newspaper, a TV, a radio, a photo album, a public library, a personal diary, and a boisterous party attended by everyone you know, and then compressing them all into a single, small, radiant object. That’s what a smartphone represents to us.

This is astonishing. Carr proceeds to describe other forms of media that have drawn us in, but observes that the smartphone is in a league of its own:

Even in the long history of mesmerizing media, the smartphone stands out. It’s an attention magnet unlike any our minds have had to grapple with before. It acts as what Ward calls a “supernormal stimulus” that is able to “hijack” attention whenever it’s part of the surroundings–and it’s always part of the surroundings. With the smartphone, the human race has succeeded in creating the most interesting thing in the world. No wonder we can’t take our minds off it. (emphasis added)

Later, Carr gives yet another phrase: the smartphone’s “colonization of the salience network” has been proceeding since Apple introduced the concept over a decade ago.

A hyper-attractive attention magnet. Supernormal stimulus. The colonialist of our salience network. A hijacker. “The most interesting thing in the world.” This is the smartphone, from the perspective of our capacity for attention.

Now, I’ll be frank: this is scary. For our capacity to attend to what we intend is vital. As Carr pointed out, “nothing so determines our thoughts and behavior as the distribution of our attention.” This is perhaps why the poet Mary Oliver once said that “to pay attention, this is our endless and proper work.” And James Williams, one of the growing number of technologist-turned-technological-skeptics, wrote of his time at Google that he came “to understand that the cause to which I had been conscripted was not the organization of information, but of attention. The digital technology industry was not launching and iterating neutral tools, but directing flesh-and-blood human lives.” This is another way of describing not just the true aims of most companies, but also the nature of attention itself: it is what directs our “flesh-and-blood human lives.”

There’s an extra dimension to all this for me, a practicing Christian. Simone Weil, a Christian mystic, once wrote that “the key to a Christian conception of studies is the realization that prayer consists of attention. It is the orientation of all the attention to which the soul is capable toward God. The quality of attention counts for much in the quality of the prayer.” Mary Oliver, again, also recognizes this: “attention is the beginning of devotion.” If technology so divides my attention, it so divides my capacity to worship–my capacity to be “at one” with my God.

This is all part of why understanding technology, and being selective about which technology I allow to enter my life, seems so vital to me. As Marshall McLuhan once said, understanding is a form of resistance. It’s also the first line of self-defense in our modern world, which David Foster Wallace described as an environment “that precludes everything vital and human.” Hyperbole, perhaps. But if attention is vital and human (and I believe it is), and is being directed by powerful corporate interests via “the most interesting object in the world,” objects that surround us inescapably–well, I must make efforts to either limit this encroachment or push it out altogether. To do any less is to risk my humanity and future.