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Answer the Phone

How can we be so accustomed to answering our phones yet so oblivious to what our phones do to us?

About a hundred years ago, if someone told you that a device would be placed in your home that would randomly sound an alarm at any time of the day or night and that you would drop whatever you were doing to devote your full attention to that device, you probably would have said “you’re crazy!” It would have been a relatively short time after that conversation that we all began to have telephones in our homes. But now, they are not just in our homes, we carry them with us constantly.

We’ve become addicted to our phones. Well, if you prefer, we’ve become dependent on our phones. Exactly when and how does dependence transform into addiction, or does it? How can you tell the difference? Is it necessarily a bad thing?

The advent of every new technology always brings both good and bad. Usually the good far outweighs the bad. Nevertheless, that does not excuse us from mitigating the bad. And that is a mission to which we should remain relentlessly committed.

One of the most important developments in this fight is with children’s access to smartphones. How old should a child be before he or she is granted the freedom to use a smartphone? Susan Dunaway is a cofounder of the Amend Neurocounseling clinic in Overland Park, Kansas. As reported by Rick Montgomery, Dunaway has some insightful observations to share about this issue (“A Movement Grows to Keep Kids from Smartphones Until the Eighth Grade”, The Kansas City Star, pp. 1A, 17A):

Years of online overstimulation ‘acts on the brain the way cocaine acts on the brain. . . .

Too much dopamine is released. . . . Those pleasure centers should be going off once in a while. With screen time they’re going off constantly.’

As developing brains are most vulnerable, Dunaway said smartphones may be producing a generation prone to inattention, restlessness and bursts of anger when desires aren’t quickly met.” (p. 17A)

I believe most of us have literally watched this occur. We owe it to our world to promote the positive use of technology among all ages, but especially among developing children. Technology is marvelous, but let’s use it correctly at every opportunity.

All this compounds exponentially when we recognize the constantly growing incorporation of artificial intelligence into technology. AI is already inserting itself into numerous human-to-machine and machine-to-human interactions, often without our awareness. This trend will only accelerate as Frank Malcolm, Paul Roehrig, and Ben Pring affirm in their recent book, What to Do When Machines Do Everything: How to Get Ahead in a World of AI, Algorithms, Bots, and Big Data (Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2017):

Within the next few years, AI will be all around us, embedded in many higher-order pursuits. It will educate our children, heal our sick, and lower our energy bills. It will catch criminals, increase crop yields, and help us uncover new worlds of augmented and virtual reality.” (pp. ix–x)

The authors also make a forebodingly accurate statement about the ubiquity of AI within our daily devices:

Once we start using them we stop thinking about them.” (p. 1)

And therein lies the danger. Don’t get me wrong. I am all for the ongoing advancement, application, and use of our incredibly brilliant and powerful technologies on every front. However, let’s see if we can start using them while still thinking about them. That thinking about our overall interaction with smartphones, the Internet, and technology is what should raise many interesting questions that demand serious answers. Understand, I for one do not claim to have all the answers. Nevertheless, that should not stop us from engaging the questions. Here are some of those sobering questions to get you started:

1). Are we studying how we psychologically interact with technology as much as we study technology?

2). What are the short-term and long-term effects of technology?

3). What damage is being done by the bad effects of technology?

4). Is Google making us “brain stupid” or is it genuinely answering our questions faster and better thereby freeing our brains to attack more complex challenges?

5). How will we improve our ability to use the Internet to extract all its positive benefits while mitigating its negative effects?

6). Has the rate of technology development outpaced our human ability to adapt to it, and if so, what can we do about that?

7). Have you stopped thinking about them?

Your phone demands an answer and so do these questions.

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