The Phone Zombies

I have heard many people complain about the phone zombies. I’m sure you’ve seen them too: they populate subway wagons and cafeterias, staring dumbly at their screens instead of focusing on the world around them. They detach themselves from reality and instead devote their attention to their virtual, meaningless lives, to which they remain always connected, foregoing real human contact, literature or thought.

Gone are the days when people actually read in the subway. Or contemplated. Or stared at the other passengers while considering the great truths of the human race.

English: Dan Brown, bookjacket image.

God Bless You, Dan Brown. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The thing is, I really don’t remember those days. Back when there were no phones to stare at, I remember people sleeping or staring blankly at infinity. Some others looked positively sad. I even have a vivid memory of a guy with a knife that liked to poke holes on the subway wall while singing and clapping loudly. Yes, some commuters would do crossword puzzles and, yes, some would read, though probably not Nietzsche but Dan Brown or whatever the equivalent was back then.

I don’t really mind the phone zombies. In fact, I think they only look like zombies. To be more precise, I think some of them are zombies, but not because of their phone. You see, people who don’t like thinking or reading don’t need any excuse to not do any of those things. They just don’t do them. Listening at the noise of the rails is distraction enough. People who like thinking or reading or contemplating the great truths of human existence will most likely use technology in order to further these passions and, even though they will seem to be lost in their screens, they will be doing something productive.

For example, I like to read my flipboard and my feed.ly when I am on the tram. I get updated on science and technology issues and, sometimes, I check the news. I probably look like I’m a babbling idiot, but that’s because my brain is engaged in highly demanding cognitive processes that deviate my brain’s attention from trying to look cool while I read.

Subrata Ganguly, a thirty six years old lady u...

Subrata Ganguly, a thirty six years old lady using her Nokia 1100 cell phone. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I have also noticed that many people actually read on their phones. Sometimes, incredibly heavy stuff. Before technology boomed, you could not read “In search of lost time” in the subway. It just didn’t fit in your handbag or your pocket or whatever it is you had. You had to stick with light-weight works, which were the only ones that were easy to transport. But now you don’t even have to carry any extra stuff with you: you turn on your phone, go to Google Books and start reading “A tale of two cities” for free. And boy, isn’t that wonderful.

What I want to say is that I don’t think technology is making is dumber. We may look dumber, but have you ever looked at someone who’s watching TV? Yes, not the prettiest sight in the world. It’s just the relaxed face muscles. Technology cannot make you dumber or smarter: you are dumb or smart and it is this characteristic that’s going to determine how you use technology. You can use Coursera to learn Quantum Computing or you can post comments on youtube saying “ur hot” to 15-year old girls. But technology is not making you do these things. Your brain wiring is.

That said, I do feel there has been a shift in the weight that new generations put on cognitive abilities, but that has happened before. Before the printing press, people memorized books. This may seem like an amazing achievement to us, but it was relatively routine back then. Right now, no sane person would even try. But why would we? We have books. We don’t have to memorize them. The information is there, readily accessible: we have outsourced the need.

This outsourcing trend is continuing to a much higher degree now. We can check any fact we want in our phones in less than 30 seconds. Why would we bother to memorize any dates? Today we need to be good at browsing and filtering information, not at retaining it. We have machines that do this for us. Of course, a person may look dumber since, without their phone, they seem to possess a lot less knowledge than a person from 30 years ago. However, if we could bring someone from back then here and give them a phone, their global man-machine performance would in all likelihood be lower than that of a man-machine set today. That is: we have adapted to our new tools, so much so that our intelligence cannot be measured without taking them into account. Our gadgets work as extensions of our psyches.

Have we become dumber? I don’t think so. Separate from our extensions, maybe. With them, there is no contest. Consider this: I teach a 16-year-old who knows more about cutting-edge science and technology than I do. How? Reddit and an interest in the subject. This was unthinkable when I was his age: the information just wasn’t available. Now it is, for anyone who wants to have it.

Is it any wonder we spend hours glued to our screens?

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20 thoughts on “The Phone Zombies

  1. bloggingisaresponsibility

    I’ve always taken these “technology is making us dumber” concerns to be another manifestation of “Good Old Day Syndrome” aka fear of change.

    Technology is about replacing people. It started out by replacing muscle (machines) and now is replacing the brain (computers). I’ve said it before; people don’t worry about being able to make a fire with two sticks since we have stoves, so why worry about being able to add two numbers when we have ubiquitous computing? And I say this as someone who loves math and reasoning. However, I won’t let my love of those blind me to the fact that it’s an aesthetic at this point.

    As for detachment — why not? I think we both asked what’s so hot about reality anyway? If people are happier in their own world and they have their own portable VR devices, so be it. Obviously reality isn’t worth their attention and their fixation is no different than the fixation of someone reading Proust or contemplating the truths of existence.

    In both cases they’ve checked out and more power to them if they’re happier for it.

    Pretty soon, reality will be optional.

    Reply
  2. elkement

    M feelings are mixed. I have taken a time-out from social media in summer because I noticed the symptoms that Nicholas Carr describes in his book The Shallows – what the internet is doing to our brains. My ability to read (lengthy, scientific, complicated) texts has deteriorated and I seem to regain it after limiting my exposure to social media.

    I don’t care about reading on paper versus reading on screens, but I loathe the distraction sometimes… 100s of popups and links that require you to take the decision to ‘click or not to click’. Carr’s theory is that your brain gets rewired in a way that fosters decision making (often based on incomplete information, ‘scrolling and skimming’) at the cost of what he calls ‘deep reading’. You can of course develop strategies how to deal with distraction through bookmarks, feeds, organization in general – but it requires mental energy nonetheless.

    Reply
    1. David Yerle Post author

      That’s true, there’s plenty of distractions. I guess I don’t care as much since I have a great capacity for concentration. If I’m really focused on something, I don’t even see what’s around me.
      In tablets, though, most reading software will hide notifications and the like so that you’re not disturbed. And when I want to read something longer (normally a paper from the Arxiv) I download it as a pdf and read it without my browser on, so the notifications don’t bother me.
      Reading blogs and the like, is true, can be trickier. For that I use feed.ly. I just love the thing. Love it. Have you tried it out?

      Reply
      1. elkement

        Probably there is something like a personal threshold. I believe I was able to work and read efficiently despite the noise and distraction level in an open-plan office in a job / sector determined by all-time urgency and hyper-activism – but I think I found it more exhausting than most colleagues.

        Though I was an internet early adopter and ‘pseudo-blogged’ to old-style non-interactive websites for more than 10 years I was overwhelmed by the professional / corporate counterparts of interactive tools, and thus I did not start using social media ‘for fun’ before I was able to cut that part of my professional work down to reasonable levels.

        So I am maybe too negative about all this and my opinion is still based on my first experiences with ‘social’ tools. It is maybe more about psychology than technology.

        Reply
  3. MrJohnson

    Smartphones provide quick and easy stimulation. Who wants to think about stuff that doesn’t really benefit one’s life on paper? Well, I do but I don’t think most do. I can’t see how it was better before when people were just bored out of their mind on the subway. One gripe though is how people walk around the streets staring at their phone not aware that there are cars on the road. People need to put their phone away sometimes like myself who needs to get back to work now.

    So true about young kids being so informed. The internet is making old people with wisdom and experience worth a lot less.

    Reply
    1. David Yerle Post author

      True, phones and walking don’t combine well. Even with the “text and walk” app. I wonder if anyone has actually made some statistics on phone-related accidents with people being run over or falling off the stairs…

      Reply
    1. David Yerle Post author

      Precisely. But in a way it forces you to be creative, especially since there are gazillions of people with blogs who are trying to come up with an original idea. It also goes to show how unoriginal we actually are…

      Reply
      1. elkement

        David and Steve, I couldn’t agree more!! The painful process of discovering how cliché and unoriginal we are has been a pet topic of mine … I am really not sure if it is good or bad – to find out so quickly by googling that your alleged great idea has been figured out and implemented already.

        But on the other hand – in one of the discussions related to this I have been pointed to Mark Twain’s epic quote: “…the substance, the bulk, the actual and valuable material of all human utterances — is plagiarism. For substantially all ideas are second-hand, consciously and unconsciously drawn from a million outside sources, and daily used by the garnerer with a pride and satisfaction born of the superstition that he originated them;..”
        http://www.brainpickings.org/index.php/2012/05/10/mark-twain-helen-keller-plagiarism-originality/

        Reply
      2. elkement

        Steve and David, I couldn’t agree more – it has been a pet topic of mine how cliché and unoriginal we are … and how easy it is to find out that your most recent great idea has already been figured out and implemented.

        I find solace in Mark Twain’s epic quote (A fellow blogger pointed me to this in a comment on one of my Our-lives-are-cliché posts):
        “the bulk, the actual and valuable material of all human utterances — is plagiarism. For substantially all ideas are second-hand, consciously and unconsciously drawn from a million outside sources, and daily used by the garnerer with a pride and satisfaction born of the superstition that he originated them;”
        http://www.brainpickings.org/index.php/2012/05/10/mark-twain-helen-keller-plagiarism-originality/

        Reply
      3. elkement

        Steve and David, I couldn’t agree more – it has been a pet topic of mine how cliché and unoriginal we are … and how easy it is to find out that your most recent great idea has already been figured out and implemented.

        I find solace in Mark Twain’s epic quote (A fellow blogger pointed me to this in a comment on one of my Our-lives-are-cliché posts):
        “the bulk, the actual and valuable material of all human utterances — is plagiarism. For substantially all ideas are second-hand, consciously and unconsciously drawn from a million outside sources, and daily used by the garnerer with a pride and satisfaction born of the superstition that he originated them;”

        (I had tried to post this twice, probably it get caught in the spam filter as I had added a link to the source. I tried again nonetheless as I was not sure if it was another technical glitch – I still see the Like button as permanently grayed out. Anyway – you can delete the comments in case they are pending)

        Reply
      4. elkement

        Steve and David, I couldn’t agree more – it has been a pet topic of mine how cliché and unoriginal we are … and how easy it is to find out that your most recent great idea has already been figured out and implemented.
        I find solace in Mark Twain’s epic quote (A fellow blogger pointed me to this in a comment on one of my Our-lives-are-cliché posts):
        “the bulk, the actual and valuable material of all human utterances — is plagiarism. For substantially all ideas are second-hand, consciously and unconsciously drawn from a million outside sources, and daily used by the garnerer with a pride and satisfaction born of the superstition that he originated them;”

        (I am not trying to post this comment without a link – seems my previous attempts including a link to the text by Mark Twain has been tagged as spam).

        Reply
    2. elkement

      Steve and David, I couldn’t agree more – it has been a pet topic of mine how cliché and unoriginal we are … and how easy it is to find out that your most recent great idea has already been figured out and implemented.
      I find solace in Mark Twain’s epic quote (A fellow blogger pointed me to this in a comment on one of my Our-lives-are-cliché posts):
      “the bulk, the actual and valuable material of all human utterances — is plagiarism. For substantially all ideas are second-hand, consciously and unconsciously drawn from a million outside sources, and daily used by the garnerer with a pride and satisfaction born of the superstition that he originated them;”

      (I am not trying to post this comment without a link – seems my previous attempts including a link to the text by Mark Twain has been tagged as spam).

      Reply
      1. elkement

        Yikes – thanks for unspamming! 🙂 Now I have demonstrated to readers how not to be original by trying to re-post the same comment over and over 🙂 Sorry to subscribers – I thought this might be some glitch.
        (You could delete any previous versions of that comment… as you like…)

        Reply
  4. DoowansGardenSupply.com

    Yo, David been a while. This made me laugh. How true. They stare at there screens as if the answers to life’s questions will suddenly appear. What will they ever do if the Grid goes down?

    Ever wonder why the government bought all those bullets? Zombies man, Zombies.

    Good to have you back. Some amazing things have happened. Well amazing for me. Ever woke up in a dream and realized you were still dreaming? That’s only the first step. When you wake up in a dream and realize your are still dreaming and then wake up in that dream only to realize you are still dreaming. Well you get the idea. What do I do? I keep waking up in a dream. Maybe I’ll go to sleep and see what happens. Good night!

    Reply
    1. David Yerle Post author

      Hi Doowans!
      Haven’t seen you in a while. That was a pretty cryptic comment you just left, but I take it you’re doing great. Glad to hear it and good night to you too!

      Reply
  5. Humans Are Weird

    The only phone zombies that truly piss me off, Dave, are the ones that I have to zigzag around while I’m walking down the street; they’re so absorbed in their little glowing screen, doing whatever it is that they’re doing, that they don’t even realise they’re in public, walking, into other people. Bah. Fists of rage. I rarely wanna punch people, and I don’t think that I ever would, but these zombies, Dave, punch…. oh my oh my. I think I might one day.

    Reply
    1. David Yerle Post author

      Hi Rob, sorry for the late reply. I’m “connecting” about once a week lately. It’s sad but I’m just too exhausted to read or write anything meaningful. There’s no need to punch the phone walkers, though. Odds are they will end up crashing on a street light or run over by a car. The sin is the penitence or something like that.

      Reply

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