“My cellphone is my best friend.” Carrie Underwood
When exactly the phone evolved from our tool to our master is murky.
Years ago, I was on the road often in Maine and carried a pager. That was my introduction to being always on call. Prior to that, I would call my office for messages a couple times a day. I knew where the best payphones were in many towns and cities. My favorites were hanging on a wall by a table on which I could spread out necessary supporting documents and notes in a warm café with good coffee, free refills, and a tolerant owner. I kept the numbers of several of them in my planner and could schedule incoming calls.
The next connectivity upgrade was a bag phone with a separate dialer and a handset like an old home phone; the handset had an attached springy coiled cord. The whole contraption weighed about as much as a gallon of milk, took up most of the passenger seat, and plugged into my cigarette lighter in the car. Back when we called them cigarette lighters, they were in the pull-down ash tray back when cars came equipped with pull-down ash trays and cigarette lighters in the consoles. [i]
All that bulky equipment soon became obsolete with the advent of flip phones, so that we were even more immediately on call if we had service, which in rural Maine was somewhere between intermittent and completely dead. One bar was considered a strong signal. To dump an inconvenient call delivering a problem to which I yet had no answer was simple. Hang up, call back later, and blame it on a tower switch out. Excuses and dropped calls today are much harder to justify with plenty of signal strength bars almost everywhere. Crinkling aluminum foil in the microphone in a pretty good imitation of static and lamenting in a fading voice that “I’m losing you!” lacks all credibility.
Now, of course, smart phones with five bar signals provide instant access to every possible means of messaging and data inundation; they are in everybody’s pockets or mounted on our dashboards and beyond anyone’s ability to sip from the waterfall of information without nearly drowning. What once were just phones to call home now boast exponentially more computing power than Apollo 11. As I often complained when I was working for a living, “The good news is that I am always connected, and the bad news is that I am always connected.” Privacy is an anachronism. As is peace and time to contemplate beyond the next beep or ringtone.
“It is okay to own a technology, what is not okay is to be owned by technology.” Abhijit Naskar, Mucize Insan*: When The World is Family * Human Miracle
To watch kids waiting for the school bus is to watch kids who have overdeveloped thumbs watching tiny screens.[ii] Or for that matter to watch many families in restaurants. They don’t talk, they text. And not to one another, but to some other disembodied person not present at the table about some trivial occurrence entirely irrelevant to real life in most cases – a joke, a clever quip, a meme, a whine, a perceived slight, a social media post, a satirical remark, some gossip about another disembodied mutual acquaintance who is the victim flavor of the day, or passing along a link to a video that is supposed to amuse or outrage or indoctrinate us further into a culture that has left us abandoned to alienated hollow existences in isolated bubble survival pods. Always connected. Always alone.
Recently I was discussing this curious and deadening experience, and I remembered visiting a school where the phones were collected at the door until the end of the day. They were monitored for emergency calls from parents. No phones in classes. Ever. I’ve attended business training where phones were required to be shut off and woe to the poor clown who had an amusing loud ringtone sound in his pocket during the class.
But far more common is the school today with phones in every pocket, and in classes that are not in good order with a weak teacher, students openly watch them, text their friends two rows over, or even listen to their derivative, repetitive music through earbuds that never leave their rapidly emptying heads.
Failure to learn is reflected in plummeting test scores and in graduating students with a working knowledge of imaginary gender fluidity, bogus ideologies, and deviant sexual practices, but most could not identify a poem by Keats, whether music was composed by Mozart or Aaron Copeland, if a painting was created by Caravaggio or Turner or even who Thomas Paine or John Milton or Aristotle or Emily Dickenson or Aristophanes were and why they were important. Or used to be.
Analogous to the “always connected” mode of existence being good news and bad news, the instant availability of data and information is similarly good news and bad news. No guarantees that either the data or the information is true is only part of the problem. Our attention spans are provably attenuating, and the younger we are the more they have diminished. We want to be informed and informed now. A dismayingly high percentage of Gen Z folks get their information, including their current events and news from TikTok[iii]. The shorter and more entertaining the video, the better.
Fewer and fewer have time for deep (or any) analysis as we jump our monkey minds from one subject to another, following links as the algorithms lead us around to best monetize our incessant clicks. Our comprehension is becoming as compromised as our attention span. More information? Certainly. More understanding or dare we say wisdom? Of course not. TikTok and the like are the most addictive form of bait and designed to be such. Format and algorithms lure us to sweep from one video to the next, all increasingly customized as the servers ‘learn’ our habits to push us to the next one. And a few tenths of a cent at a time glean millions of dollars a day. The data of our preferences are collected on TikTok and accessed in China every day. For what purposes we do not know.[iv]
Another potentially ruinous effect in a democracy is the rising noise of woefully ignorant social media commentary afflicted with the Dunning-Kruger syndrome. Dunning-Kruger studied and verified the human tendency deluged with superficial entertaining “news” sources; we possess a deep self-assurance that not only are we right, but that we think we know a lot more than we actually do about extremely complex issues. Confirmation bias has been taken to a new plateau of false confidence. We are unaware and untutored in subtlety and nuance, especially if presented as counterpoint to our impregnable ignorance and expertise. Our self-confidence is without foundation and based on very little.
The various social media platforms have algorithms written by genius exploiters that store what we like and lead us click by monetized click to more of what we like, thus confirming us in ever more superficial knowledge what we believe we know. Exacerbated by an ideologically tilted SEME (Search Engine Manipulation Effect)[v], we are lured step by enticing step down the path we think we want to go.
Click. Click. Click. Click.
“The universe begins to look more like a great thought than a great machine.” Sir James Jeans[vi]
As a personal sidebar, I was particularly vexed by a TikTok video shared on Facebook put out by Neil deGrasse Tyson. Heavily redacted information masquerading as enlightenment confirms us in our incandescent ignorance. His long evident animus towards religion of any kind notwithstanding, he could have least offered a fair-minded assessment of the origins of science that he believes debunks what he sees as illiteracy and superstition. In a somewhat long piece (at least long for TikTok attenuated attention spans) on a bowdlerized history of math and science, his only mention of medieval Christianity is to bemoan what he describes as the main activity of the benighted times: disemboweling heretics. He may be a lively media figure and even a credible astrophysicist, but his knowledge of history is deliberately vacuous. His knowledge of the philosophical roots and history of science nonexistent or at least unapparent, and his theology sophomoric.
No mention of the development of science in Western universities, encouraged, and supported by the Church.[vii] No mention of the scientists and mathematicians who laid the groundwork for modern science and were either ordained clergy, monks, or devout believers. Roger Bacon is credited for inventing the scientific method, which is a metaphysical and empirical construct that cannot be proven or disproven by its own tools. Isaac Newton developed the calculus that enabled current physics and cosmology. Gregor Mendel discovered genetics. Nicolaus Copernicus uncovered our heliocentric solar system. And in the last century Father Georges Lemaitre developed the math for the “Big Bang Theory.” deGrasse Tyson fails to mention the underlying metaphysical concept of the intelligibility of the universe, the assumption that undergirds all of science.[viii]
Voices like his try to persuade us that truth resides solely in the material, and what can be proven or disproven by science. Such voices might explain the tones of stringed instruments in mathematical terms of vibrations per second, the degree of tension in the strings, and the plucking or bow that sounds them. Charts and diagrams to follow. But such reductionism loses the truth and beauty of music found in Bach or Mozart or in Luciano Pavarotti’s voice or for that matter in the compelling artistry of Doc Watson or Emmy Lou Harris. Perhaps they would “explain” Michelangelo in the chemistry of pigments used to color the buon fresco technique on Sistine Chapel ceiling. Such a forlorn and pinched attenuation of our human power to soar and our capacity for joy.
“Religion — or rather theology — is, I think, the great integrating discipline. It takes the insights of science — doesn’t tell science what to think — but it takes science’s insights and understandings, it takes the insights of morality, takes the insights of aesthetics, the study of beauty. The wonderful order or pattern of the world that science discovers and rejoices in is a reflection, indeed, of the mind of the creator, whose will and purpose lie behind the world. Our moral intuitions, our intimations of God’s good and perfect will, our experiences of beauty, I believe, are sharing in the joy of the creator, the creation. You can soon see the gross inadequacy of thinking that science can tell you everything that you could possibly know.” Sir John Polkinghorne, Interview on PBS.[ix]
I enjoy and employ access to the world’s knowledge as much as most of us and would not like to forego the privilege unknown to all generations before mine. However, subtle, deliberate, and credible lies and confusion abound on the screen that sits in our pockets, luring us like Sirens to the shore. A recent article in Wired magazine suggested Silicone Valley has gained a seat at the table with Jerusalem and Athens in shaping Western culture. See the link in the footnotes below with the Wired article by Luke Burgis on “The Three City Problem of Modern Life.”[x]
How we manage that will form or deform our culture in the decades ahead. As my father who died in 1982 would not recognize the world we inhabit now. Neither, I expect, would I recognize what will befall us forty years from now.
Click. Click. Clickclickclickclickclick. Clicks at the lunch table surrounded by others doing the same. Clicks in the classroom. Clicks on the bus. Clicks while sitting silently with those with whom in better times we would converse. Clicks. Desultory or urgent. Clicks in their never to be satisfied quest for distraction, entertainment, and their pitiful consolations.
Clicks trying to fill the void in our hearts that can only be filled as Augustine wrote 1,600 years ago: “Late have I loved you, O Beauty ever ancient, ever new, late have I loved you! You were within me, but I was outside, and it was there that I searched for you. In my unloveliness I plunged into the lovely things which you created. You were with me, but I was not with you. Created things kept me from you; yet if they had not been in you they would have not been at all. You called, you shouted, and you broke through my deafness. You flashed, you shone, and you dispelled my blindness. You breathed your fragrance on me; I drew in breath and now I pant for you. I have tasted you, now I hunger and thirst for more. You touched me, and I burned for your peace.[xi]”
Wishing a most blessed and peaceful time of Giving Thanks to all.
“I’ve been wanderin’ through this land
Doin’ the best I can
Trying’ to find what I was meant to do
And the people that I see
Look as worried as can be
And it looks like they are wonderin’, too
And I can’t help but wonder where I’m bound, where I’m bound
Can’t help but wonder where I’m bound.” Tom Paxton [xii]
[i] Picture from https//www.smartcitiesworld.netnewsnewssmartphones-smarter-than-humans-1468
[ii] Future Humans May Have Abnormalities From Using Technology Too Much, “Interesting Engineering”
[iii] Over a quarter of Americans under 30 get their news from TikTok, Pew Research
[v] Does the Search Engine Manipulation Effect Have an Impact on Elections (PNAS – Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences)
[vi] Sir James Jeans knighted for contributions to mathematics and astrophysics, development of quantum theory and stellar structure. Author of “Philosophy and Physics.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Jeans
[viii] Why The Supposed Conflict between Science and Religion is Tragic Nonsense (Robert Barron)
[ix] Sir John Polkinghorne resigned his prestigious chair at Cambridge as a mathematician and physicist to pursue additional education and credentials as an Anglican priest and theologian. Prior to that he studied and contributed to the development of the theory of quarks and elemental particles. In addition to his position as a senior fellow at Cambridge, he spent time at Stanford, Princeton, Berkley, and CERN in Geneva.
[x] Link to Luke Burgis Wired article The problem is that unlike Athens and Jerusalem which focus on rationality and religion (analyzing the relationship between science, philosophy, and a moral code), Silicone Valley’s ethic is utilitarianism. Does it work? Does it make money? Quotes from the article: “The question of whether Athens is incompatible with Jerusalem—the relationship between these two cities, which symbolize two different ways of approaching reality—is a question that humanity has wrestled with for millennia. The Catholic Church arrived at a synthesis between the two, with the late Pope John Paul II writing that faith and reason are like “two wings on which the human soul rises to the contemplation of the truth… But today there is a third city affecting the other two. Silicon Valley, this third city, is not governed primarily by reason (it is practically the mark of a great entrepreneur to not be “reasonable”), nor by the things of the soul (the dominant belief seems to be a form of materialism). It is a place, rather, governed by the creation of value. And a large component of value is utility—whether something is useful, or is at least perceived as good or beneficial.”
[xi] From Augustine’s “Confessions.”
[xii] I like the Nanci Griffith interpretation of Can’t Help But Wonder Where I’m Bound
As with the last post, below are multiple links to varied articles detailing some of the issues called into question.
Some related links of interest (at least to me).
The Chicago School of Media article on Smartphones
Balsamo argues for a connection between the user and the smartphone that is even more fundamental than McLuhan’s extension of the senses. In contrast to McLuhan’s definition of media, she states that she pulls the smartphone into her very essence, stating “I incorporate it as a prosthetic extension of my corporeal being. Not merely an extension of my ear, as McLuhan would have argued, it is me. My body/myself—my iPhone/myself. I become the cyborg I always wanted to be.”
TikTok’s Greatest Asset is not its Algorithm, It’s Your Phone (Wired)
Rather than see specificity and device limitations as an inconvenient hurdle to omnipresence, TikTok embeds itself within them—taking advantage of the fact that mobile technology limits how people engage with content and leaning into these constraints (e.g. the user only sees one video at a time and can only proceed linearly to the next video by swiping). This narrow focus enables a “flow state” to open up between the platform and spectator, as attention is entirely channeled to the content at hand. The immediacy created by this user-platform flow allows TikTok to forgo the reflective processing associated with active viewership. The distance necessary for critical intervention and interpretation is trampled under the continual stream of curated short-form video and the addictively mindless infinite scroll. When presented in this nonstop succession, the video (a high-bandwidth medium that combines text, visuals, music, and movement) is amplified, saturating the viewer with a deluge of information. There is no time to think about what you just saw because as soon as the clip ends, you’re on to the next one. The spectator is rendered a consummate consumer, rather than a viewer tasked with engaging and unpacking the content they’re seeing—on TikTok, Chayka writes, “you don’t have to think, only react,” as the platform has already done the hard work of analysis and selection. As critics writing on algorithmic identity first noted, when everything is running smoothly, the user feels completely synchronous with the platform..
Terms of misuse: What data does TikTok collect on its U.S users? Dot.LA
Like other social media giants, TikTok gobbles up a lot of user information. To start, TikTok receives names, ages, phone numbers and emails when people sign up for the service. The app also knows users’ approximate locations and mobile device identifiers, such as IP addresses.
Germain told dot.LA the most valuable info may come from the way users interact with the video sharing app. TikTok is quite good at figuring out peoples’ interests based on the videos or accounts they’ve previously liked or followed. Those insights are useful for advertisers and—potentially—for spreading political messages, Germain noted.
“This vast trove of data that every social media company has—on what people are interested in, what makes them upset, what makes them happy—is incredibly valuable,” he said.
How TikTok reads your mind NY Times (may be a paywall)
There are four main goals for TikTok’s algorithm: 用户价值, 用户价值 (长期), 作者价值, and 平台价值, which the company translates as “user value,” “long-term user value,” “creator value,” and “platform value.”
That set of goals is drawn from a frank and revealing document for company employees that offers new details of how the most successful video app in the world has built such an entertaining — some would say addictive — product.
The document, headed “TikTok Algo 101,” was produced by TikTok’s engineering team in Beijing. A company spokeswoman, Hilary McQuaide, confirmed its authenticity, and said it was written to explain to nontechnical employees how the algorithm works. The document offers a new level of detail about the dominant video app, providing a revealing glimpse both of the app’s mathematical core and insight into the company’s understanding of human nature — our tendencies toward boredom, our sensitivity to cultural cues — that help explain why it’s so hard to put down. The document also lifts the curtain on the company’s seamless connection to its Chinese parent company, ByteDance, at a time when the U.S. Department of Commerce is preparing a report on whether TikTok poses a security risk to the United States.
FCC Commissioner says US should ban TikTok Axios
What he’s saying: “I don’t believe there is a path forward for anything other than a ban,” Carr said, citing recent revelations about how TikTok and ByteDance handle U.S. user data.
Carr highlighted concerns about U.S. data flowing back to China and the risk of a state actor using TikTok to covertly influence political processes in the United States.
There simply isn’t “a world in which you could come up with sufficient protection on the data that you could have sufficient confidence that it’s not finding its way back into the hands of the [Chinese Communist Party],” Carr said.
Carr sent letters to Apple and Google in June asking the companies to remove the apps from their stores due to concerns about data flowing back to China.
Why Are Our Attention Spans Shortening? https://www.wsj.com/articles/attention-spans-shortening-tiktok-social-media-gen-z-millenials-reading-education-focus-11667336185
TikTok is the most detrimental thing to happen to our attention spans. It’s an endless cycle of bright colors and catchy sounds meant to be consumed faster than our brains can process the content. Why are we always on our phones? Because tech moguls and social-media developers designed a piece of technology so addicting and damaging that we can’t handle concentrating on real life.
We shouldn’t be too hard on ourselves for being easily distracted; developers created this technology to be addictive. But we can resist by making real efforts to slow down our consumption. Reading a book is an easy and simple solution because it forces us to concentrate on the words on the page. There’s nowhere to scroll.
—Maddie Heinz, Macalester College, English and political science
Modern liberalism’s advancement of efficiency and corporate interests, under the intellectual guise of human flourishing, have contributed to this problem. Replacing God, community and family with individualism has left people looking within themselves to find meaning that is not there.
How will we pursue what is honorable, chivalrous and beautiful if we cannot maintain an attention span longer than eight seconds? Romantic virtues aside, millennials and Gen Z are experiencing astronomical levels of anxiety and depression. Could a lack of self-agency and control contribute to these heightened feelings of anxiety and vanity? An inability to put aside pleasure is apparent in our declining marriage rate: If individuals struggle to devote seconds of attention to a task, how will they devote the rest of their lives to a partner?
We are responsible for addressing this attention span crisis, lest the corporations drugging our society continue confining us to Brave New World-style slavery.
—Chanidu Gamage, The University of British Columbia, political science
Teen girls developing movement tics. Doctors say TikTok may be a factor WSJ (may be a paywall)
Teenage girls across the globe have been showing up at doctors’ offices with tics—physical jerking movements and verbal outbursts—since the start of the pandemic.
Movement-disorder doctors were stumped at first. Girls with tics are rare, and these teens had an unusually high number of them, which had developed suddenly. After months of studying the patients and consulting with one another, experts at top pediatric hospitals in the U.S., Canada, Australia and the U.K. discovered that most of the girls had something in common: TikTok.
Technology and the Soul: The Spiritual Lessons of Digital Distraction Public Discourse, Joshua Hochschild
The age of digital media has unleashed a profoundly threatening human experiment. By drawing us to waste not only our time, but our attention, social media seduces us to waste our souls. Our brightest engineers have trained our most powerful technology to act with the psychological craftiness of demons. Neuroscience helps us understand how digital media is changing us, but we need a more classical language about the soul to understand, and protect ourselves from, the most ominous of these changes.