The Good Phone: Superhumans Will Use Less Technology, Not More

The Good Phone: Superhumans Will Use Less Technology, Not More

Two weeks ago, I tested using a distraction-free iPhone – no social media, no email, no entertainment, no news, and no web browser. I loved it so much that I named the device the “Good Phone” in my settings. I don’t think I’ll ever go back to my old distraction-full phone (“Bad Phone”).

The most important thing I learned during my test is that we as a society may be wrong about technology augmenting humans. We talk a lot about glasses and other wearables giving us the ability to more effectively interact with machines. We talk about brain-machine interfaces as a next step to endow us with the intelligence of AI. We talk about pharmaceuticals that are supposed to enhance cognitive function.

I’m beginning to think that those who find ways to minimize technology use will be the superhumans of the near future — maybe even the far future — not those that endow themselves with the most wearables, chemicals, and implants. I’m going to explore this across several observations and ideas I had while I was distraction-free.  

The Average Smartphone User Is a Tech Addict

Having done this test, I’m willing to bet most people who own a smartphone are addicted to technology to some degree. I’m also willing to bet most people who own a smartphone don’t think they’re addicted to it and will never seek to change behavior.

Humans are adaptive by nature, a property that extends itself to society made up of many individual humans. Technology “addiction” isn’t going to end society. We’ll adapt to it and form an average around people who are addicted to technology, but function at some impaired level relative to the non-addicted. Since impaired function will be the norm, most won’t even recognize it as impaired.

There will be an extreme of addiction in which some minority group is basically non-functional due to technology addiction. There will also be some minority group that’s hyper-functional because they’ve minimized technology addiction. Those are the superhumans of the future. My guess is that this will probably be represented by a fat-tailed distribution that skews toward average/non-functional rather than superhuman.   

Technology Withdrawal Returns Control to Users

Our phones are ever-present totems begging to distract us with an endless supply of information and stimulation. The dings and vibrations of notifications create a Pavlovian response-reward mechanism that keeps us coming back for more. Content provides the reward.

When I was sitting with nothing particular to do during my Good Phone test, I would instinctually reach for my phone, even without a notification, to engage in a normal distraction like email, news, or Twitter. The first time I reached for my device after going distraction-free, I quickly realized there were no distractions to be had, which led to a pattern of opening and closing various apps looking for my fix. I was in technology “withdrawal” reading about my airline miles and swiping around Google Maps. Luckily, neither activity is very addicting.

After the second day, when I got the itch to grab my phone, I felt empowered to easily ignore it since I knew there were no distractions. Technology withdrawal broke the spell my phone had cast on me by showing me how useless the pattern of addiction can be.

Instead of wasting time on unimportant things like I used to, now I redirect the natural need for distraction to something more useful — usually reading the endless supply of historical essays and academic papers I’ve accumulated on my Dropbox account. Anecdotally, I also feel less inclined to visit distracting sites while using my Mac. The power of technology withdrawal may lend us more control over how we use all of our devices.

The More We Use Our Devices, the More We Become Machines

As the addiction cycle broke for me on day two of my test, I started to look differently at how we use our devices and the software on them. We think that our devices are machines that we control to serve us, but we’re wrong about that. We serve our devices, and the more addicted we are, the more machine-like we become.

Our devices have trained us to stay busy with simple activities that never end. On social we comment, like, and favorite. On YouTube we stare and drool. On email and Slack we tag, send, and respond. It’s the definition of mindless activity: so simple or repetitive as to be performed automatically without thought. Sounds a lot like what a machine does.

Creativity, Community, and Empathy Are What Make Us Uniquely Human

We’ve written often about our belief that creativity, community, and empathy are uniquely human qualities that robots aren’t capable of, which will make them the most important skills for humans in an automated future. The Good Phone test made me believe they’re already the most important skills, we just don’t realize it yet.

These things that make us uniquely human happen when we’re not connected to our devices.

Creativity happens when accumulated ideas and observations have a chance to collide in our brains. The manifestation of creativity is producing something from those ideas. Our devices can help us consume new ideas, but when we’re constantly consuming, things don’t have a chance to collide.

Creativity is the most important form of human productivity. Our devices fool us into thinking we’re being productive by keeping us busy with meaningless tasks like email and Slack. At best, our devices let us share creative productions that we invented while being disconnected.

Community happens when we understand our connection as human beings and want to help one another. Empathy happens when we listen to and want to understand another person’s perspective. Community and empathy are thus very intertwined.

The problem with our devices and the software they enable is that they dehumanize us. They make us machines as described above, distracting us with endless stimulation that prevents us from even engaging in empathy in the first place, or worse, encouraging us to process endless opinions and rants on Facebook and Twitter. Anger, the addicting voice of social media, destroys empathy and therefore disables the creation of meaningful communities.

Technology Isn’t Bad, Human Is Just Better

We always come back to the idea that technology is neither good nor evil, it just amplifies existing human nature. When taken to extremes, that can create problems. In the case of our devices, they have the potential to enable the addictive mechanism that accompanies stimulation. Our devices also make our lives easier and better in a lot of ways. They let us stay in touch with loved ones, navigate the world, and be more mobile.

I didn’t come out of the Good Phone test thinking technology was bad, I came out with an appreciation that living on the efficient frontier of connectedness that allows us to enjoy being human is just better.

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Philosophy, Tech Addiction, Technology