Watch out for the Sinister Side of Smartphones

Smartphones dominate our lives, but unchecked use leads to addiction and privacy issues. Learn to use them responsibly.

If somebody pulled out a gun on a crowded train you were riding on, would you notice? People in San Francisco didn't. Why? Because they were too into their smartphones. Smartphones run people's lives at every level. But unless you exercise restraint and caution and become a responsible digital citizen, the convenience of modern technology may be far less rewarding than the trouble it causes. Indiscriminate smartphone use may lead to full-blown mental addiction and obsessive compulsiveness. The way you interact with others via your smartphone sends out subtle waves of information which can alter your social landscape by either drawing you in or pushing you away from your friends. Learn how smartphones give commerce and government a way of profiling and tracking you. Never before has one device gathered so much data about an individual. Indiscriminate use of your cellphone may get you into some serious legal hot water and if it doesn't do that, it can easily undermine your productivity, erode your relationships and dilute your friendships, leaving you depressed and listless towards life. Is the nature of social media and smartphone usage so strong so that it is becoming a human plague? Does the proliferation of the smartphone create an atmosphere of shallowness and weaken the human capacity for empathy?


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If somebody pulled out a gun on a crowded train you were riding on, would you notice? People in San Francisco didn't. Why? Because they were too into their smartphones. This happened when an assailant shot 20-year-old Justin Valdez in the back. San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon said, "We're seeing people that are so disconnected to their surroundings. This is not unique. People are being robbed, people are being hurt, people are being run over by cars because they're so disconnected because of these phones." He went on to add, "Just for our own safety, wouldn't you want to know if somebody standing next to you is pulling a gun out? I think I would." It's true that not all smartphone distraction leads to opportunistic crime but we'll be exploring how this kind of compulsive obsession can seriously affect your social interactions with others and how it can dramatically reduce your productivity. In short, the addictive nature of social media and internet browsing is so strong, it is becoming a plague.

John C. Dvorak wrote a nice column in PC Magazine a few years ago. In it he speaks of M.I.T. Professor Sherry Turkle's lamenting how the smartphone creates an atmosphere of shallowness and weakens the human capacity for empathy. She bases her conclusions on research but the circumstantial evidence is strong and quite noticeable. There is an addictive nature of our inner reward system to the use of a mobile phone. The addiction mechanism was first observed in the late 1990s with the appearance of the BlackBerry, which soon earned this phenomenon the nickname "Crackberry." The interventions required to overcome this form of addiction are about as strong as those needed to overcome a crack addiction. With this global obsession comes a noticeable and disconcerting emergence of new norms of politeness and civility. Anyone around 1998 would tell you that it's rude to use a cellphone in a restaurant or to chat loudly in public. That's no longer the case. Mobile phones are usually on the table in restaurants, on the desk in the office or somewhere else close by. Most people I've shared a meal with, flick their attention to their phones with alarming regularity. It is as if there is an obsessive compulsion to know what crops up at any given moment in time. One or more cellphones are sure to ring at some point during a theatre performance, a varsity lecture, during a public presentation, at the dinner table or at the movies. It doesn't matter how many times people are told to silence their phones, invariably one will ring and some people actually have the inconsiderate audacity to take the call. Smartphones run people's lives at every level.

I'm not going to try to explain the science behind this, other than to remind you that there are reward functions in your brain that let you shy away from pain and encourage you to follow pleasurable pathways in life. Even the lowly single-celled amoeba has this primitive binary toggle. Receptors on its cell membrane cause it to reach forward to engulf its favourite food, a certain kind of bacteria, and to detect and withdraw from the dangers of its enemy, the amoeba-eating bacteria. Whenever you reach a moment of reward, parts of your brain sparkle as dollops of dopamine are released to hold you interested. Psychology Today says, "Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that helps control the brain's reward and pleasure centers. Dopamine also helps regulate movement and emotional responses, and it enables us not only to see rewards, but to take action to move toward them. Dopamine deficiency results in Parkinson's Disease, and people with low dopamine activity may be more prone to addiction." If sex and chocolate didn't release healthy amounts of dopamine, you wouldn't have the motivation to use these things at all. Depressive people who lack dopamine often lose interest in sex and tend to eat more chocolate to try and find pleasurable dopamine rewards to enhance their happiness. This is an over simplistic explanation at best but it's important for you to know a little bit about these mechanisms so that we can unpack the risks around smartphone addiction.

A modern anthropological masterpiece of reward is Facebook's Like button which began as a quick and easy way to interact with others. If someone posts anything mildly positive, all you must do is acknowledge the moment by clicking the Like button and your commentary and recognition are noted with a thumb's up sign. The Like button lets you reaffirm your connection online. It tells the poster that you are an active node in this social network, and that you want connection with the him or her. Liking, presents a means of belonging or securing attention online. To Like something announces your presence loudly and connects you not only to the poster but to the entire social network of linked friends. Although this is a little tangential to our topic today, there is an unwritten set of etiquette rules governing the use of the Like button. Friends will quickly label you as an attention seeking, inauthentic intruder, if you simply like for the sake of liking. Liking major events connects you to them but you should refrain from liking someone's everyday events if you don't know them well. Your liking style says a lot about your personality and it tells you a lot about other's affiliations with you. There is however a very sinister side to Facebook's Like button. It is called datamining. Facebook isn't the only enterprise that snoops in on your internet presence, nearly all companies strive to profile you as best they can to their advantage. Another buzzword for this snooping habit is tracking. These analytical and data gathering systems are like voyeurs peeping through the keyhole while you're having sex, and they're about as shameless as paying guests at a Montmartre peepshow in Paris. Christopher Mims wrote an interesting article on cellphone tracking wherein he describes how visitor's movements are tracked through shopping malls, museums, offices, factories, secured areas and just about any other indoor space. The data is used to examine pedestrian patterns in retail spaces, assure that a museum is empty of visitors at closing time, or even pinpoint the location at any time of any individual registered within the system. If you leave your Wi-Fi on, you can be tracked using triangulation methods — an application of the trigonometry you might have learned during maths lessons at school. Tracking systems can generally determine where you are but not necessarily who you are, since all they see is a Wi-Fi radio, well, not unless you give Big Brother permission to track you by name. Big Brother in this instance are Google, your network provider and the likes of Facebook. All you have to do is agree to provide them with your email address or credit card number and, ah, voila, their tracking of you is no longer anonymous. As if that information isn't enough, give them permission to access your contact list and they will skim information about your friends and family too. That's enough to allow them to join the connecting lines between you and all who associate you. These companies track your whereabouts, your product purchases and how you pay for them. My cellphone has a heartbeat monitor, an accelerometer which tracks my movements in three-dimensional space, a GPS to pinpoint my location on Earth, an infrared sensor that knows how much solar radiation it is receiving, a magnetometer to know which way I'm facing. There's also a fingerprint reader that captures my personal biometrics and a front-facing camera that is used to track you by facial recognition. My smartphone has an ambient light sensor that'll know whether the phone is in my pocket, on the table or held against my ear. I haven't yet mentioned its other camera and the sensitive microphone it has. They are all good information gathering tools, and they are used more often than you can imagine. Every movement you make, everything you see and hear can be tracked and the information about you is siphoned off by Big Brother. For what purpose? To build an online dossier of who you are. I can't even remove the battery from my most recent phone to stop it from gathering data. Parts of the phone are always on — permanently. But It's not just the smartphone hardware that allows tracking. Many apps are written, not because the developer benevolently believes you'll enjoy the free service you're offered but through the use of the app, you inadvertently give them permission to track you in so many ways. "Baloney," you say, "This sounds like a farfetched conspiracy theory if you ask me." Well, take one well-known app as example, WhatsApp. Facebook paid US$ 19 billion for it in 2014. Why? To offer you alternatives to high-cost mobile calls and SMSs? No! They have access to all the photographs you send. Image formats like JPG and PNG have embedded metadata that stores the GPS coordinates of the location of each photograph. Recognition software identifies faces, features and text within these images, all of which are rich pickings for any snooping sleuth. But it's not just sweet photographs you are sending, you're revealing a sizeable amount of personal information in the texts, voice messages, location pins and other attachments you affix to your daily transmissions. It's one thing to have commercial enterprises track you to enhance their sales but it's quite another thing being tracked by your government. You'll remember how much trouble Edward Snowden got into for whistleblowing on the extent of snooping the CIA does on American citizens and others worldwide. He had to seek asylum and may not return to his native land for what he did.

I met Tamsyn de Beer, one of the two authors of the book, "Don't Film Yourself Having Sex." She and her co-author say that in the digital age you can get into serious legal trouble at the wrong press of a finger. The shift from passive Internet user to active digital citizen has brought about unprecedented levels of online interaction, creation and connecting. But as people begin to share more and more about themselves and their lives on social media, they are finding themselves getting into trouble for what they say and do online. Tamsyn and Emma Sadleir run one of South Africa's leading social media law consultancies. They point out the social traps and legal tangles that you could find yourself facing as you navigate the murky waters of the digital age. They outline the laws and rules applicable to what you do and say on social media, and give practical and common-sense advice. The book highlights the legal and reputational risks you take by not practising responsible digital citizenship. You might remember the Penny Sparrow case. She was found guilty of racist hate speech and fined a hefty amount for her online rant in which she complained about black people littering Durban beaches. Then you'll also remember how vital the mined data from various cellphones was in establishing motive and a flipchart of events in the Oscar Pistorius murder trial.

Be careful out there.

Have you ever heard of flow — no not your wealthy great aunt Florence but that mental state in positive psychology, also known as the zone? It is a mental state of operation in which you perform an activity, fully immersed in a feeling of energised focus and enjoyment. Essentially, flow is characterised by complete absorption in what you do. It is your full involvement in the activity, to the exclusion of all else. Remarkable singers, musicians, artists, performers and winning sports men and women all get into the zone. Without it, they risk being mediocre. To understand a little about flow, we must first have a small insight into how the brain works. You have three levels of awareness: consciousness, subconscious beliefs and memories, and your deeply unconscious thoughts and processes that control your bodily functions. Sigmund Freud proposed this layered analogy of the mind, saying that it reminded him of an iceberg with only a fraction of its bulk peeking above water. He likened the protruding part to conscious awareness. It's the part of your mind's thinking process that you can experience. Immediately below the waterline are your subconscious beliefs and memories. We are not always fully aware that we know this stuff but we can access at will if we need to. Take the date of your birth as an example. You don't go about life consciously aware of this date but you can access it and bring it to mind whenever the need arises. Subconscious beliefs influence the way you behave. You will mainly act in line with the things you believe to be right and proper. The deeper you go below the waterline the darker, fuzzier and murkier things get. It's possible but you'll need to do some deep hypnosis to have conscious control over your blood pressure, heart rate and the secretion of information and processing chemicals in your body. Dr Norman Doidge speaks about neuroplasticity and the controversial and developing field of epigenetics in his book, "The Brain that Changes Itself." It's a compelling and worthwhile read that proves that our subconscious and deep unconscious beliefs and thoughts can alter the very DNA encoding inside the cells of our brains. Constant negative thinking degrades DNA; while positive thinking repairs damaged DNA.

Coming back to flow. Your subconscious and unconscious thoughts, memories, beliefs and processes happen instinctively. You don't need to actively direct or influence them because they happen automatically, before you have time to think properly. Just because they happen automatically, doesn't mean that your instinctive reactions are worthwhile. Sometimes, due to past events and what you were taught, you might have automatic responses that are deeply self-limiting and inappropriate. This is where good therapy comes in. We can with a little effort, completely revamp our thinking so that the next time you react automatically, it produces a worthwhile, meaningful outcome.

The subconscious mind is believed to process 40 million neurological inputs every second — that's fast. The way your conscious mind works is very, very different to the subconscious and unconscious processes running at those deeper levels. The conscious mind has a tiny bank of short-term memory, lots of analytical and puzzle-solving skills and it has a very limited processing capacity, able to deal with only five to nine chunks of information at any given moment in time. It takes time for the conscious mind to get into a state of flow and it distracts easily, quickly losing focus. The line between the conscious and the subconscious is very blurred. Using Freud's iceberg analogy, the iceberg isn't calm, it bobs up and down a lot. Parts that are at times below the waterline rise above it and at other times, most of the iceberg sinks below the waterline. By way of example, suppose you're really stressed out by the events of the day and are battling your way through peak-hour traffic to reach an important meeting on time. Will you notice the beauty of nature around you? Probably not. But change the scene and imagine yourself in your idyllic natural environment without a worry in the world and all the time at your disposal. Will you now notice the beauty of nature around you? Probably so. Sometimes, the same thing lies above or below the waterline, it may enter your consciousness or it may lie submerged in your subconscious mind.

You now know that your conscious mind fumbles and drops the ball when you overload it. Remember, it can only process a maximum of between five and nine chunks of information at a time and if you try to give it more, it'll drop one that it is already processing to pick up the next. It's like a novice juggler. In computer science (a subject in which I'm and expert, having been a Software Engineer through my working career) thrashing occurs when a computer's internal processes rapidly exchange data in memory for data on disk, thus diverting the computer's processing ability away from the applications running in the mix. This causes the performance of the computer to degrade or collapse. The same thing happens in your conscious mind. Overload it with things to do and it thrashes too. To effectively utilise the full processing capacity of your conscious mind, you need to do a bit of state management. By the way, what state are you in right now? Relaxed? Sleepy? Curious? Sceptical? It took a while for you to settle into this state of mind. Your emotions set the tone and responded as the state developed. But what if you suddenly heard a bloodcurdling scream? Do you think you'd be able to hold your state of flow? Definitely not. It takes a while to elicit and develop an effective state but all it needs is something sharp to pull your attention away from it and you'll lose your state of flow in a flash. Having diverted your attention to process the interruption, it now takes you quite a long time to elicit the state of flow once more. Too many interruptions cause mental thrashing. This causes attention deficit which quickly undermines your productivity. A common state-break culprit are the notifications you receive on your smartphone. I've many a time been engrossed in a marvellous conversation with somebody, both of us in the flow of the moment, when "beep" a message comes through on the other person's phone. It's enough to distract his attention for a second as he checks the message out. That's enough time to break our state of flow. He glances back my way and tries to pick up from where we left off, "What were we talking about, again?" And, the moment vanishes. The rest of the conversation is shallow and trivial.

Richard Koch in his fascinating book, "The 80/20 Principle" has a lot to say about social media and its effect on our relationships. Carl Young remarked, "We need other people to be truly ourselves." We can only make sense of life through relationships. Modern life however is making it increasingly difficult to make and sustain high-quality relationships. Through social media, most of us, says Koch, "are opting for a greater quantity of lower quality relationships. We have more relationships but they mean less. And, our principle relationship is ever more elusive and endangered." Digital technology increasingly impinges on our time and is grabbing more and more of our attention. To compensate, families are getting smaller and family duties that were once done by family members are now being outsourced to others, like childminding and the care of the aged. Koch asks, "Do more relationships add to more happiness?" Professionals at Carnegie Mellon University conducted some research that was sponsored by computer and software companies who hoped to prove that the greater variety and richness of internet relationships would decrease social isolation and raise a sense of wellbeing. But the results startled the sponsors and researchers. It turned out that the greater quantity of internet relationships and time spent on the net, the more lonely and depressed people tended to become. While the quantity of relationships increased, the quality of them stayed shallow, and the time pursuing them detracted from the quality time you could have spent with family and essential friends. This research found that intense and deeply personal relationships turns out to be vital for our feelings of security and happiness. Koch noted that busy, money-focussed people tended to seek lower quality relationships but on greater scale, engaging the services of others to fulfil that social need, like: personal trainers, personal assistants, coaches, manicurists, shrinks, massage therapists, hypnotists and a host of others. What is being bought and sold are relationships. Such businesses are on the increase as the demand for low-quality, time-constrained relationships increase. If you are too busy to spend quality time with family and friends, you are likely to purchase time with others in manageable, bite-sized chunks to fit in with your busy diary. One of the chapters in my book, "It Is What It Is, grace through acceptance," has the title, "More is Never Enough." It's a sad artefact of modern living, more is never enough. But the converse is particularly true: more comes from less. Developing good quality, primary relationships is what leads to happiness. Sadly, modern living is transfixed on acquiring more from more. We are even prepared to expend more of ourselves to get more of a financial portfolio. Koch cleverly points out that technology is immutably driven in quite the opposite way. It strives to acquire more from less — more value from smaller spend, more bandwidth from smaller cabling and more travel using less fuel. The fewer relationships, the more centred and deeper, more authentic, powerful, loving and loveable you become. When it comes to your use of your smartphone, know how to prioritise by sacrificing more time with your virtual friends, in favour of spending time building your high-quality relationships. Eighty percent of your satisfaction flows from twenty percent of your relationships. What proportion of your time and effort do you invest in the few quality relationships that give you most of your satisfaction and meaning? You need to devote eighty percent of your relationship-energy to the twenty percent of people that really matter to you.

Smartphones enhance life and they are here to stay but there's a good and bad side to them. The proper thing to do is to find yourself liked and acknowledged by a handful of truly meaningful people. Give priority to developing a few quality relationships and maintain shallower digital social connections whenever time permits. Smartphones have their sinister side. Thoughtlessly expressing yourself or distributing compromising content can get you into some deep legal trouble so watch your public opinions carefully. Weigh up the benefits versus the risks of being tracked and profiled and turn off inessential functions and features. Be careful not to sign up for dodgy stuff. Most people in this modern world don't give a hoot about privacy — I on the other hand, thrive on the idea of invisibility, anonymity and autonomy. Decide for yourself how digitally naked or clothed you are prepared to be. Lastly, and most importantly, an obsessive need to connect with your virtual friends is not only going to frequently break your state of flow and undermine your productivity, it will eventually rewire the reward systems in your brain and lead to full-blown addiction. You don't want this kind of insidious virus infect your brain.

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It Is What It Is: Grace through acceptance

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