Are we Addicted?

As an entrepreneur, a heroin pusher has a big advantage. His customers become addicts; they cannot do without the product he sells. Pushers have no problem with getting repeat customers.

Heroin addiction is a terrible national problem, but it is far from the most widespread addiction. According to an article in today’s Houston Chronicle, “The Talking Dead” by Prof. James A. Roberts, Professor of Marketing at Baylor University, the typical (‼!) American checks his or her smartphone every 6 and a half minutes—approximately 150 times a day. 53 percent of 15 to 30 year olds report that they would rather give up their sense of taste than surrender their smartphones. According to Professor Roberts 80 to 90 percent of people use smartphones while driving, resulting in, by one estimate, 6000 deaths and 9 billion (with a “b”) dollars damages annually. College students spend 8 hours 48 minutes on their smartphones each day.

 I have observed smartphone addiction firsthand. In my classes students often just cannot last through an hour and fifteen minutes of class without getting out their phones. One student last spring term sat on the front row, holding up his phone in front of his face during my lectures. These students soon make an interesting discovery, namely, the decibel level that can be reached by a sixty-something professor. Actually, I don’t get all that loud. I just get nasty: “Are you texting??? In my class??? How dare you!?!?” One outburst a semester generally takes care of the problem. And it is not just in class. Twice while attending the Houston Symphony performance, the maestro had to stop in the middle of a piece when someone’s goddamn phone rang repeatedly.

I knew that something very strange was going on when, a few months ago, I passed the Advising Office, and several young people, male and female, were waiting their turns on chairs and sofas in the hallway. Now, I imagine that throughout human history and prehistory, whenever young men and women found themselves in each other’s company in a relaxed, unsupervised circumstance (a situation that parents in previous generations often were anxious to prevent) there would be some banter, chit chat, and maybe a bit of flirtation. On this occasion each was buried in a shell of perfect solipsism, intent only on their devices and ignoring each other. This is very odd.

I was feeling very self-righteous when reading Professor Roberts’ piece since I often go a day or more without checking my phone. I then recalled that the first thing I do when arriving at the office each morning is to check my e-mail. I check it again periodically throughout the day. I am not as bad as those I heard of who cannot play a round of golf without pausing at each hole to check e-mail. I also check the postings and comments on Secular Outpost a half dozen times or more during a day at the office. So I am addicted too.

I have not seen the studies yet, but surely our electronic devices must affect the pleasure and pain centers of the brain much the same way that narcotics do. Our devices are changing our brains, and not necessarily in good ways. Prof. Roberts cites evidence of the decline in attention span from 12 seconds to 8.5 seconds (a goldfish has an attention span of 9 seconds), and this nearly 30% decline has occurred just over the last 15 years. Maybe this is a correlation, not a cause, but surely electronic obsession is the most obvious candidate for an explanation.

What to do about it? I think the genie is out of the bottle, and there is no feasible way to go back to the era before personal electronics. Will willpower work? I am going to try. I will limit myself to checking Secular Outpost twice a day, in the morning and in the afternoon. I will report my success or failure.

If willpower will not work, what will? Should we just concede that this situation is how things are and will be and try to adapt? I have already been told that my teaching style is far out of date. I am told that today’s students just cannot pay attention to a lecture or group discussion. “Flipped learning” is the model Ed.D.s now favor for our attention-deprived students. In flipped learning the professor is no longer the “sage on the stage,” but the “guide on the side.” That is, I must give up on trying to tell students what I know and then engage them in a Socratic exchange. They just do not have the attention spans for learning philosophy as it has been taught for 2400 years. Instead, I must put them on self-study projects—using their smartphones, I guess—which I then try to guide in useful directions. Sounds like a pile of crap to me. (I have lived through many now-defunct educational fads, including the “new math” in seventh grade).

So, are old farts like me just swimming against an irresistible tide? Or, are we ready for a sort of Butlerian Jihad (nerdspeak: See Frank Herbert’s Dune)? Perhaps the Pokemon Go zombies roaming the landscape will be the final straw, and there finally will be a movement to restore some sanity to our use of electronic devices. Otherwise, some fascist might take over our country, and we would be so busy playing Pokemon that we do not notice.