Is Your “Smartphone” the Death of Wonder?

photo credit — Willie Brent

As is known by anyone with a smart phone (80% of the world by the end of this decade), mobile devices are the new arbiter of public discourse. Any statistic is available at the swipe of a finger, allowing arguments to be shot down, wagers to be settled, and questions to be answered by the oracles of the modern world — “The Web” and its plucky sidekick “The Cloud”. There’s a feeling of empowerment that comes from this new immediacy of information, but there’s also a growing sense that something important is being lost through our ability to instantly respond to any question, idea, supposition or claim without even really, truly thinking.

And now it looks increasingly likely that within a decade, we will literally be unable to separate not only our fingers, but our minds, from technology. In fact, a survey done by the IEEE at the 2015 Mobile World Congress showed that respondents believe the human mind will be the technology of choice to control devices in everyday life in 2025. “The next step in this evolution will be the ability to control technology in a hands-free way using brainpower alone,” said one IEEE member. And from there? The Singularity? The rise of Artificial Intelligence (AI)?

Even if not completely understanding why, people sense that this trajectory is deeply unsettling. Calls for “digital detox”, the growing quest for “mindfulness” and the rise of meditation, tips on overcoming “analysis paralysis” from the explosion of data — all of these point to the same thing: a desire to unplug the mind, to be present, and by being present, to have some head space again to wonder.

We human beings have an innate connection to wonder. If you’re a parent, you may remember seeing the world through the wide eyes of your children as they experienced everything (a soap bubble, the vroom of a motorcycle, a dog licking their face) for the first time. There is nothing more joyful. And there is perhaps nothing more fleeting. As we grow up, and the layers of social conformity start to smother us like a thick wool blanket on a humid summer afternoon, wonder subsides. “Reality” sets in.

And today, we find it almost impossible to escape a reality that is brought to us by an omnipresent digital, virtual world. A world that never turns off, and is always at our finger tips. It promises to give us answers, and to quench our thirst for knowledge. But more and more it seems to drag us from the world of wonder. And increasingly, I find myself being tossed and turned in a digital sea and wondering who is manning the rudder.

Ask yourself: When was the last time you said “I wonder”? And even if you did recently, did you actually wonder? Or did you just pay a visit to Google five seconds after you had the thought to search for “the answer”?

The beauty of wondering is not having to know the answer to “Why?” or “How?”. To be comfortable with not knowing, to stew in your own emotional and intellectual limitations and to use that uncertainty, freedom and sometimes even anxiety to dream, explore, and postulate. And maybe come up with a hunch, a guess, or even a powerful new idea. Conversely, I could also also see the proponents of climate change denialism or creationism also playing the wonder card (“Oh, don’t bother with science, just marvel in the wonder of God’s intelligent design”, they might say), but such garbage will ultimately be swept aside by the broom of history, so that is not my concern here.

There is a difference between knowledge and wisdom. Surely we gain knowledge from being able to access virtually any database in the world. And that is an amazing development — something unimaginable to the generation that preceded me and what my children now take for granted. But does it make us wiser? I doubt it. In fact, I wonder if it is leading to the end of wonder.

Of course it doesn’t have to be that way. Creating space to wonder, while challenging in today’s world, is possible if you are semi-conscious. Going for walks without any digital tethers. Or calling a person instead of writing an email, WhatsApp-ing, etc. Even better, visiting them in person. It may take more time, but time paired with no agenda is the catalyst for wonder. I also recently got a cheap dumb phone that has no interconnectivity other than voice. It’s a great way to avoid the temptation of always staring down into the abyss of your smartphone screen, and it requires you to speak with live people (assuming you can get them to answer their phone).

So the ultimate question: is the goal to merge the human brain with technology, or is it to try to preserve the mind as our final frontier — the wilderness, if you will — of wonder? Are the two paths mutually exclusive? This is a major question as digital natives begin to assume positions of power. I fear that the digitization of the mind is a dirge for wonder and the death of poetry.

What do you think?

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