Smartphones Were a Mistake
Did Steve Jobs create a perpetual anxiety machine?
I stopped drinking a little over a year ago. My life has improved in so many ways since I gave up alcohol, but one of my favorite ways it’s improved is that my brain seems to be functioning at a much higher level now than when I was drinking. I’m able to pay attention more intensely and for longer periods of time, and also, I feel like I have an easier time understanding new concepts. My memory is still pretty shitty, but, even then, it seems to be less shitty.
With my newfound clarity, I’ve been learning more about things I like and dislike, as well as generally being more cognizant of if something has a positive or negative effect on me. When you’re constantly drunk, it’s hard to diagnose specific things, since you never really have a “control group” - you’re always drunk or hung over, so it’s hard to say if something is wrong or if you’re just hungover. Or going through alcohol withdrawal. Life’s like a box of chocolates!
Anyway, now that I’m actually aware of what’s happening beyond my next drink, I’ve started to notice some thing. I recently deleted the Twitter app from my phone, because I noticed a few things happened most of the time when I used the app:
I would get incredibly agitated either at the state of the world or at specific hot takes or elected officials. This tends to come out in unproductive ways, like angry tweets. I don’t think my weird half-joke tweets have affected any changes on any recent legislation, so, I guess that wasn’t a great tactic.
I would continue scrolling because I needed that next hit. I understand this is probably by design, because I’ve learned what the term “gamification” means. (You can tell I’m really smart because I just linked to Wikipedia, didn’t even expend the effort to link to the dictionary)
Essentially, it refers to designing apps/products/services in a way that makes them “like a videogame” - but preferably one that isn’t very fun and requires you to spend lots of money. So, an Electronic Arts release, I guess.
The point is to get you to keep scrolling. It’s called “infinite scroll” and the inventor regrets inventing it. Oh well, too late now!
But, I also noticed that I had a much different experience when using Tweetdeck on my desktop computer. For me, that almost serves as a more passive form of stimulus, like TV (although Marshall McLuhan referred to television as a “hot medium” - if only I had him right here to explain his work, but alas, I’m taking a big enough risk making this reference!) - and I’m able to communicate with the folks on Twitter I like, without getting upset about hot takes or bad news. To be honest, I think it may just be that my desktop monitor is much bigger than my phone, so a tweet on a PC takes up far less real estate, visually. Perhaps this has some sort of effect, mentally.
This sort of surprised me. I figured I was just going to use Tweetdeck as a backdoor to “relapse” or “cheat” and use Twitter - but, I haven’t found myself staring at Tweetdeck endlessly like I would with the Twitter mobile app.
For a short while, when I had the urge to check Twitter on my phone, I would try to check the New York Times or Bloomberg apps instead. But that got old fast, because those are designed to give you the latest news, so they’re not so great for just browsing and reading. Y’know, like you used to do on the internet, when there were websites. You would go to websites and read articles, or maybe post on forums, whatever. Now, it feels as if there are just the 4-5 main social media platforms (it varies depending on geography and age) and everything is designed with mobile platforms in mind anyway.
And then I began to think about when the internet was “ruined” - so to speak. This is something I’ve tossed about in my head over time. But clearly something is not right with regards to humanity’s relationship with the internet. It’s an incredibly useful tool, it’s amazing how much information can be accessed and shared on it, it’s amazing how people all over the world can interact with each other on it. In fact, I even got sober on the internet. During the height of the pandemic, before vaccines, most AA groups were only doing Zoom meetings, and believe it or not, many people were able to quit drinking from attending AA meetings on Zoom (it’s about the only use of the software I care for.)
But the internet can do other things too. It has the power to take that reach and the connections it can create and use it for evil. Whether that be mis-information, or the destruction or entire industrial sectors as a side effect of consumers switch from specialized firms dealing in specific goods to catch all online marketplaces that allow anyone to sell anything, and then gets the item to you the next day through a Rube Goldberg machine of human suffering. It can poison the minds of teenagers and children, or to promote suicide. Rule 34 no longer applies only to pornography.
So - when did that change start? If you ask me, it was in 2006, when Steve Jobs introduced the world to the iPhone. I’m probably not the first person to make this argument, but, since a decade of smartphone usage has rotted my attention span, I refuse to Google it. (Alas, Google no longer functions as a search engine, because of search engine optimization and Google’s own never-ending desire for ad revenue, but that’s a separate issue)
Smartphones had a two pronged effect - they greatly increased access, and they realized the vision of the Dotcom Bubble, that the internet would be a great hub of commerce. It didn’t happen in 2000. It happened over time. But happen it did, and ads were quick to follow the opportunity.
There used to be these things called “pop up ads” - now we all have Adblock (which we need to disable for visiting the remaining few websites, but most of the time that takes longer than the 10 seconds you planned to spend reading a local newspaper article about Alec Baldwin charging at a reporter outside of Woody Allen’s apartment) - and they would, as the name suggest, pop up on your screen when visiting a website. They were annoying and potentially dangerous, as some would infect your computer with malware when clicked.
You would think that we would have eradicted them, since the Big Lie of Big Tech is that “technology” (a term that is totally devoid of its original meaning and is now at best a signal to consumers and investors about a firm’s vibe) makes things better. But really, they just found better ways to show us more ads, and more accurate ads. And now you can run a drop shipping business on your computer without ever physically touching any product, as long as you can invest a few thousand dollars in start up capital, and also can effectively target rubes - er, “customers” - who will be interested in your product. Luckily for you, companies like Google and Facebook provide services where they give you access to consumer data so you can accurately targer your ads. You’ve all read about it in the paper.
So no, pop up ads didn’t go away. They just became “notifications.” We’re not schnorring you to watch the latest terrible Netflix movie, we’re notifying you of an increase in the selection available of our terrible movies. And if you don’t like it, that’s ok, we will notify you again tomorrow of the latest Dave Chappelle special. No need to sign up for this, we’ll do it by default.
And of course, by default, we’ll have a little noise and vibration go off. We wouldn’t want you to miss this opportunity for even a second. Don’t worry, eventually the vibrating will just create a phantom sensation in your thigh, so you won’t be able to tell if it’s actually vibrating or you’re just imagining it!
You can fix this by putting your phone on do not disturb mode, BUT, that comes with some risks. Because we are all on our phones constantly, it’s now considered rude to ignore someone’s text, and frankly, if your phone is on silent and doesn’t vibrate, then it’s hard to be aware if someone tries to contact you. (If you want to spend $200, you can get a Fitbit. I like mine, it’s cool. Was it worth $200? None of this stuff is. But like technology, money is also fake)
They say that this is connecting us to other people - making us all be at everyone’s beck and call, beholden to the latest information from the little processor/chip jamboree we carry in our pockets. If you ask me, I think human communication is pretty complicated as is, and reducing it to text messaging (or, even worse, emojis) creates ample opportunity for misunderstandings. But, how do you tell someone you don’t like to text without seeming like an asshole?
And what happens when you realize you do like to text, but that some conversations should be had in person or on the phone, because of the technological limitations of SMS messaging and how the natural flow of a conversation is supposed to go. How do you communicate that nuance? Is it really more convenient that we have to decipher these extra, new parts of language?
I’m not trying to blame Steve Jobs (I imagine he didn’t invent the iPhone anyway, but probably someone working for Apple did.) In fact, I wish every day that Steve Jobs was still alive, because I would really like to hear his opinion on the Covid-19 vaccines. But, as I go over the timeline in my head, I can’t get away from the conclusion (possibly wrong) that 2006 is when many of the trends that made the internet suck began. The push to mobile OS and apps erased the border between the real and virtual, and we are all paying for it.