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What Are We Becoming? How Smartphones Are Affecting How We Think and Interact


It only takes a quick glance around any coffee shop, sporting event, or virtually any public space with the possible exception of church to see some quantity of people fiddling with their smartphones.

Concerts, ballet recitals, lecture halls; it seems these handy little pocket computers pervade nearly every place we find ourselves visiting.

Take even the most intimate of social gatherings—a table of best friends sharing dinner at their favourite local restaurant—and still, devices wake and sleep, thumbs tap and hover and the group struggles to hold unity for more than a few moments at a time.

But it’s understandable. Our smartphones allow us to interface with a high volume of people through a wide variety of platforms, all in real time and all while on the go. Also, apps like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Vine, YouTube, Periscope, Soundcloud and Snapchat (to list but a fraction) each offer a unique social environment in which we can creatively express ourselves to an online community.

And the portal to this magical cyber world can now fit comfortably in our pockets, granting us access to this dimension, anytime, anyplace.

Thanks to the rapid emergence and extreme diversity of cyber communication channels, we are more connected than ever before. But with these developmental leaps come cultural wobbles. These habits we’ve formed around our smartphones are drastically changing the way we use our minds, from our fundamental cognitive abilities to the way we socialize with each other. And it’s all happening really fast.

Outsourcing Our Abilities

A few weeks ago, I made plans with a friend to exercise at a gym located in an area I didn’t know very well. No issue, I thought as I climbed into my car, Siri will tell me where I’m going. I punched in the address and followed the turn-by-turn to the plaza the gym was located in. Business as usual.

On my way back, however—and I should mention it was quite late at night at this point—my phone died. Worse yet, my car charger wasn’t drawing power from the outlet so I couldn’t recharge. Before long, I was lost, nervous, and feeling a little ashamed of my complete lack of spacial sense. Luckily, I found an open gas station and a kind night shift worker helped me find my bearings.

This little experience got me thinking. I am beginning to realize just how dependent I am on the intelligence in my phone. What if I couldn’t find an open store? What if it was winter? What if I ran out of gas? I realize now that I should probably have a general idea of where I’m going and my destination’s surrounding area before heading down the road. But the truth is, I never quite developed a decent spacial sense because almost all my experience driving has been aided by a GPS.

Spatial navigation isn’t the only mental function we entrust to our smartphones; memory is outsourced as well. The hard drives in our smartphones continue to grow as we store in them an increasing amount of information—some in the form of media like videos and pictures, and some in the form of semantic knowledge like names, addresses and phone numbers. And since we can mine the internet instantaneously for other semantic information should the need arise, we don’t need to encode or recall information to and from memory nearly as often. There’s no sense in memorizing information precisely if we know exactly where to find it.

This means we no longer need to use those creative tools for remembering things: techniques like adapting information into a jingle, or creating a story in your mind to fabricate context around the material. The result of using such methods is what cognitive psychologists call elaborative encoding, and it’s our best bet if we want to recall information over the long term.

And that’s not all. Now even executive mental functions are being carried out by our smartphones. Consider the maps application on your iPhone. It plans a route for your destination while factoring in traffic conditions and construction. These are variables that used to be weighed by human minds, not the intelligent algorithms programed into our palm computers.

Altering Our Abilities

Not only does our mobile computing habits lay our cognitive duties onto the shoulders of AI, it also changes the way we use the mental functions we do employ.

Attention is the mental tool most obviously affected. Although it may feel as though we can pay attention to lots of stuff at once, attentional resources are indeed limited and some actions are more expensive to carry out than others. So when we’re talking to friends at the dinner table and scrolling down Facebook all the while, we’re creating a competition for resources. Both tasks cry for more attention.

The issue here is, sometimes we don’t realize just how short we are on attentional resources. Suddenly our friends erupt in laughter and we’re left looking around wide-eyed wondering what’s so funny. It’s only then that we realize that we weren’t following conversation as closely as we thought. What’s more is that the user interfaces on mobile devices have become hyperaccessible. And everything’s so responsive. So we’re constantly booting from sleep, dragging empty notification bars down, and swiping left and right until the next message rolls in. Even when our phones are tucked away, we’re still vigilant for their vibe and chime.

Our attention is perpetually divided.

How We Connect

By now it’s probably not hard to imagine how our mobile computing habits might affect the way we socialize.

Managing multiple social aliases and interacting on multiple social platforms all while using texting as a primary source of interpersonal communication doesn’t leave much time for those good ol’ fashioned face to face chats. We’re back to that attention problem.

And sadly, the majority of messages we send to each other are drained of the personal flavors that make interaction so vibrant. Ever tried using sarcasm through iMessage? Or consider the difference between texting a heart to your significant other and telling them you love them in the flesh. The message may be the same, but the feeling provoked is certainly quite different.

The millennial generation is ushering in a culture in which we have less time to talk to more people using less articulate mediums. What do we really mean to communicate when we like, favorite or retweet some content our friends or family wrote or shared? And what percentage of our daily messages is packaged in this way?

Not Dangerous, Just Different

Our smartphones really do affect a lot of what we do. But ultimately the nature of these changes come down to our perspective. Sure, we do spend a lot time on our devices. But then again they allow us to interact in completely novel ways that add a sense of value and excitement to our lives. They allow us to know things we would otherwise never have known, and to know them now. And when used intentionally, they free up a ton of time for us by aiding in our responsibilities. Granted we should be careful not to turn around and pour all that freed-up time right back into cyber space. At least not always. FaceTime is a pretty amazing app, no question. But real facetime is irreplaceable.

Contributed exclusively to the Daily Mac View

By: Dylan Smart

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