alf-a-century ago the American Yellow Pages aired a television commercial with the tagline, “Let your fingers do the walking.” Animated fingers shimmied like dancers and happily turned the pages.
If only those dated smiley-face fingers hadn’t stuck around for the next best thing.
Increasingly, hundreds of millions of people on all continents spend incalculable amounts of time peering into “smart” devices that encourage access to friends, coworkers, information and games. No one, not even A.I.-loving fantasists, foresaw a single device acquiring such centrality. But smartphones that now double as transmitters, cameras and data portals are as central as it gets, and commercially venerated — the most vaunted compliment consumer society pays to innovators it reveres as the gods of the new.
But what these machines have also done is scramble accepted mental hygiene. The middle ground between thinking and doing, a creative state long associated with revelation, has been diluted. Hands-on communication creates constant distraction and inattentiveness that habitual fidgeting only worsens. As a result, the billion-plus members of the tuned-in collective — to their detriment — increasingly see distraction, interruption and broken attention spans as a version of normal.
Identity and social belonging now hinge on serve-and-volley contact validated by constant quid pro quo exchanges that can sometimes turn fanatical. Connectedness is part of an “assisted” identity that prompts incessant status checking, which in turn facilitates and grooms various postmodern deficit disorders. Gadget management offsets the oldest private “peril,” boredom, which interruption invites as relief.
But keeping fingers and voices busy also makes resourceful minds constantly shuffle and reshuffle the contents of experience. Since the mind often seeks many things at once, leaning on impulse-friendly devices may invite overload and contradiction (“Only Julius Caesar was able to do several things at the same moment,” joked Italian novelist Italo Svevo) and produce mental lapses that distort decision-making. Gone are restraint-oriented bromides such as “sleep on it…”
Filter-less minds are like filter-less cigarettes. They convey and revel in adrenalin. And cigarettes suit this argument. Gadget fidgeting has some of the cigarette smoking’s addictive legacy. Hands like to hold, and to move.
But if toxic cigarettes were cool-tool diversions that punctuated presence, gadgets are about absences and encourage none of the face-to-face social posturing, sometimes awkward, that lighting up represented.
The change is radical enough even to interfere with epiphany, an important 20th-century concept that in Christian and secular terms suggested sudden and profound awareness of truth or change. Gadgetry squeezes out most potential transcendence. Passing moments are rarely available to the sublime. The smart but spread-thin self is too restless to absorb such vapors.
Over time, the chronically distracted begin seeing their gadget-driven enslavement as normal. More paradoxes ensue. Users complain that bosses or lovers fail to notice or reward them without noticing that their own focus has been diminished by the constant need to look constantly down or away.
This dyslexia of concentration works against the flirtation many gadget-addicts still crave, wanting to be wanted in person and not just via phone or device. It can turn dangerous when casually sent photo-incitements unleash direct sexual menace.
While there’s much to cherish and applaud about the newly smart world, its least savory aspect how citizens lavish gadgetry with the undivided attention they once reserved for an entirely different kind of intimacy. Machine love subverts the phrase, “Left to one’s own devices.” The “device” of that final resort was self. Now, being left to one’s own devices is a literal state, and being left without devices can make the newly scrolling self feel bereft of what it needs to feel, say or be.
“The finest trick of the Devil,” wrote Charles Baudelaire, “is to persuade you he doesn’t exist.” The spread of devices of mass distraction is a trick of its own, and the Devil, astounded by its own shrewdness, relishes the deception.