A Decade of the Smartphone: Watching My Modern Brain Change
What is this doing to our brains? How does my smart phone change the way I think and work? And (most intriguing for me as a professional in the field of human communication) how does the reality of the modern digital age impact learning, creativity and productivity?
Several weekends ago I was invited to a friend’s home by the sea. I was looking forward to getting away from my work for a couple of days to enjoy the fresh air, take long walks on the beach and maybe even catch up on a few books that I have been slowly working through. In my mind, this was going to be a great little break from the endless list of tasks and responsibilities that normally face me—even on the weekends when I am home from work. I packed beach clothes, a novel or two, and my swimming suit. Oh, and by the way, did I mention that I also brought along my cell phone?
Anyone who has ever owned a smart phone (and who has ever tried to leave it behind) has probably already guessed where this story is going. On the first morning of my escape I awoke not to the sound of the sea (which I heard distantly in the background), but to annoying buzz of an incoming email on my bed stand. I quickly realized, in my groggy morning mind, that only a great victory of self-discipline would allow my weekend to turn out as I had originally imagined.
The age of truly “getting away from it all” has rapidly transformed into the age of “inevitably bringing everything with us.” Over the last ten short years the increased availability and immediacy of internet access has fundamentally changed the way we relate to the world. (Think about it…the first generation of blackberry devices with data and browser capability only came onto the market in 2002; the first iPhone was released just 5 years ago.) As Harvard Business School professor Leslie A. Perlow suggests, “We feel overwhelmed, overworked, always interrupted, lacking time to focus; we also feel exhilarated challenged, rewarded, and freed from the shackles of the office … Always being on, in fact, is becoming increasingly core to our identities.” (Sleeping with Your Smartphone: How to Break the 24/7 Habit and Change the Way You Work; 2012).
When I finally managed to turn off my phone completely (having scanned only a few emails and the headlines from of NY Times online—honest, no more than that!), I turned my attention to the important task of listening to the sounds of the sea.
But I couldn’t help wondering. What is this doing to our brains? How does my smart phone change the way I think and work? And (most intriguing for me as a professional in the field of human communication) how does the reality of the modern digital age impact learning, creativity and productivity?
Perhaps the biggest change I have noticed in myself over the last 10 years is that, despite fifty years of relatively effective ingrained habitual patterns, I am quite sure that my ability (or willingness?) to concentrate for sustained periods of time on a single task is indeed decreasing. When I sit down at the computer (which is most of my working day) I constantly toggle between multiple activities and applications—checking my email, writing a proposal, researching an idea, checking the news, responding to a text, filing a document, upgrading an app, purchasing an airline ticket; etc. etc. etc. All happening on the same screen, all happening relatively quickly and simultaneously, all easily accessible whether I’m alone at my desk, waiting with others in a conference room for a meeting to begin, in the drug store check-out line, or indeed, lying in bed at the home of a friend by the sea.
But what about the quality of the work? Here, indeed, is one of the central questions of our time. Surely tasks like buying airline tickets, or checking weather reports—fundamentally transactional activities—are not compromised when completed quickly or in the context of multiple other point of focus. But when it comes to solving complex problems, researching interconnected ideas, writing new material—essential creative activities—I have observed in myself that without the rigorous dedication to staying focused on the task at hand, quality will inevitably suffer.
What is your experience of working with your cell phone at your side? How does the constant accessibility of the internet impact your work process?