iParadox: Your Smartphone Isn’t Making You Wiser

An excerpt from “Thrive.”

One of the things that makes it harder and harder to connect with our wisdom is our increasing dependence on technology. Our hyper connectedness is the snake lurking in our digital Garden of Eden.

“People have a pathological relationship with their devices,” says Kelly McGonigal, a psychologist who studies the science of self-control at Stanford’s School of Medicine. “People feel not just addicted, but trapped.” We are finding it harder and harder to unplug and renew ourselves.

Professor Mark Williams sums up the damage we’re doing to ourselves: What we know from the neuroscience — from looking at the brain scans of people that are always rushing around, who never taste their food, who are always going from one task to another without actually realizing what they’re doing — is that the emotional part of the brain that drives people is on high alert all the time. . . . So, when people think “I’m rushing around to get things done,” it’s almost like, biologically, they’re rushing around just as if they were escaping from a predator. That’s the part of the brain that’s active. But nobody can run fast enough to escape their own worries.

Mindfulness, on the other hand, “cultivates our ability to do things knowing that we’re doing them.” In other words, we become aware that we’re aware. It’s an incredibly important tool — and one that we can’t farm out to technology. There are some who believe the increasing power of Big Data (using powerful computers to sift through and find patterns in massive amounts of information) is going to rival the human consciousness at some point. But there’s also growing skepticism about how effective Big Data is at solving problems.

As Nassim Taleb, the author of The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, writes, “Big data may mean more information, but it also means more false information.” And even when the information is not false, the problem is “that the needle comes in an increasingly larger haystack.”

“There are many things big data does poorly,” writes David Brooks. “When making decisions about social relationships, it’s foolish to swap the amazing machine in your skull for the crude machine on your desk.” The quest for knowledge may be pursued at higher speeds with smarter tools today, but wisdom is found no more readily than it was three thousand years ago in the court of King Solomon. In fact, ours is a generation bloated with information and starved for wisdom.

At the Aspen Ideas Festival in 2013, one of the best speeches I heard was by Harvard Business School professor Nancy Koehn. What we need, said Koehn, is wisdom, because “information . . . does not equal knowledge, and knowledge does not equal understanding, and understanding does not equal wisdom. . . . Aren’t we searching like frisky pilgrims through the desert for that right here, right now?”

At HuffPost we started a section titled Screen Sense, devoted to our addiction to our devices, and publishing the latest scientific studies, reports, and explorations about how technology is impacting our lives, our health, and our relationships. The price for this addiction is high. More than three thousand deaths and four hundred thousand injuries nationwide are caused by distracted driving and especially texting, which the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration calls “by far the most alarming distraction.”

In her opening post titled “Mom’s Digital Diet,” Lori Leibovich, HuffPost’s executive lifestyle editor, wrote about the family vacation she recently took that included a vacation from her phone. She told her kids, “If you see me doing anything on my iPhone besides taking pictures, take it away from me.” Like all diets, it wasn’t always easy to stay on. But there were rewards. “Yes,” she writes, “there were moments when I felt existentially lost without the iPhone’s Pavlovian ping alerting me to a new message or tweet. But it also felt exhilarating to use my hands for digging tunnels in the sand and turning the pages of a novel instead of just for tapping away on a screen. For the first time in I don’t know how long, I was really seeing my kids. And they were relishing being seen.”

Disconnection is a two- way street. Caroline Knorr from Common Sense Media wrote about a study conducted by her nonprofit that found that 72 percent of children under the age of eight and 38 percent of children under the age of two have already started using mobile devices.

According to Stephanie Donaldson- Pressman, clinical director of the New England Center for Pediatric Psychology, “Clinically, we are seeing an increase in symptoms typically associated with anxiety and depression,” which include “short- term memory problems, decreased attention span, sleep deprivation, excessive moodiness and general dissatisfaction.”

While “the average eight-to ten- year- old spends nearly eight hours a day with a variety of different media, and older children and teenagers spend more than eleven hours per day,” the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends children and teens have no more than one to two hours a day of entertainment screen time. And screen media exposure of any kind is discouraged for children under two years old. The key to these recommendations is having parents model healthy, non addictive behavior.

Louis C.K. has put a brilliant comedic mirror in front of us and our screen addictions. In one of his routines, he captures the absurdity of children’s events where none of the parents is actually able to watch the soccer game or school play or kindergarten graduation because they’re straining to record it on video with their devices, blocking “their vision of their actual child.” We are so hell- bent on recording our children’s milestones that we miss them altogether. “The resolution on the kid is unbelievable if you just look,” he jokes. “It’s totally HD.”

File it under Be Careful What You Wish For. Big Data, unfettered information, the ability to be in constant contact, and our growing reliance on technology are all conspiring to create a noisy traffic jam between us and our place of insight and peace. Call it an iParadox: Our smartphones are actually blocking our path to wisdom.

Excerpt from Thrive pp. 139–142