This morning I read a New York Times article, “The End of Reflection” by Teddy Wayne, which posits that our use of computers and smartphones has led to diminished deep, or contemplative, thinking. Diminished not only in the sense of time spent doing this kind of thinking but also in the sense of capability: we not only do less deep thinking, but also are capable of it less.
This of course rings true for me. One reason I’ve put off getting a smartphone is that I’ve seen what it does to the people around me. Friends and strangers moving across my landscape look haunted, possessed. They gaze at their smartphones like novices clinging to the words of their mentors. It is an odd kind of possession—not the kind in a library, where people are engaged in study, or in a church, where they are engaged in spiritual improvement, but a kind of isolating self-absorption from which no one profits. No dreams, ambitions, creative ideas arise.
Accompanying the article was a charcoal sketch of Rodin’s The Thinker by an artist named Jon Han. Looking at it more closely, I realized that what I thought was a piece of colored chalk in the figure’s hand was in fact a brightly colored smartphone. I thought the figure was wielding a piece of chalk to color the world, but he in fact was gazing raptly at the display of a phone.
Wayne cites a study correlating the ability to think introspectively with “the amount of gray matter in the prefrontal cortex. (Introspective ability was defined for the study as the accuracy of measuring one’s own performance on a visual-perception task, a sign of metacognition, or ‘thinking about thinking.’)” It seems counterintuitive, he continues, “to say that we are entering an unreflective cultural phase, as our time tends to be criticized for its self-absorption. But our solipsism is frequently given outward expression rather than inward exploration, with more emphasis than ever before on images. When there is text, new media such as Instagram commonly sideline the role of language.”
He also quotes Nicolas Carr, author of The Shallows: “We’ve adopted the Google ideal of the mind, which is that you have a question that you can answer quickly: close-ended, well-defined questions. Lost in that conception is that there’s also this open-ended way of thinking where you’re not always trying to answer a question. You’re trying to go where that thought leads you. As a society, we’re saying that that way of thinking isn’t as important anymore. It’s viewed as inefficient.”
With my basic cellphone, I’m no doubt thought of as inefficient, uncooperative, and backward, but so it is. Embedded in my individuality is a stubborn streak: a desire to cut my own path through the world, and if I choose to do it without gazing at a smartphone, I believe that is not a bad thing.
Let me add here that I do rely on computers to do most of my creative work. My writing is done by hand as I believe that the hand-eye-mind connection is critical to the production of writing that is worth reading. Once I have a draft, it is typed on a computer, and oftentimes it is edited onscreen, as I am doing right now. Why don't I feel the same way about computers that I do about smartphones? I'll answer that in my next blogpost.