Have you ever received a “phantom” text message? If you’ve been convinced your phone is vibrating or ringing in your pocket when it turns out to be nothing, the answer is yes. And you’re not alone. According to the Pew internet research center, 67% of American adults in a national survey experienced the same thing.
The same report also found that almost 37% of those surveyed said that they “couldn’t live without” their smartphones, depicting a world in 2013 where ubiquitous computing is increasingly taken for granted – and where our bodies are every bit as involved as our minds.
In my case, phantom messages sometimes arrive when I don’t actually have my phone. I usually keep it in my left trouser pocket and, even when it isn’t there, I sometimes feel a silent-message-style buzzing in my thigh muscles, as if a message has been sent directly into my skin. It’s a disconcerting feeling, and suggests an unwelcome degree of physical conditioning, not least because of the invariable accompanying rush of blood at the thought of someone or something wanting my attention.
Text messages may seem a trivial business, but one thinker who’s increasingly concerned by the dynamic of how we interact with machines is the author and computer scientist Jaron Lanier. In a December interview with the Smithsonian magazine, Lanier railed eloquently against the social consequences of a culture conditioned to respond instantly to services like texts and social media.
“Look what we’re setting up here in the world today,” he says. “We have economic fear combined with everybody joined together on these instant twitchy social networks which are designed to create mass action. What does it sound like to you? It sounds to me like the prequel to potential social catastrophe.”
Lanier’s view may sound extreme, but it chimes with other thinking. Take the words of behavioural economics Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman, for example. In his 2011 book Thinking, Fast and Slow, he writes “the often-used phrase ‘pay attention’ is apt: you dispose of a limited budget of attention that you can allocate to activities.” High quality human attention is a scarce resource; and whenever it is in short supply, the universal human tendency is to fall back on what Kahneman calls “heuristics”: snap judgements based on assumptions and shortcuts, not to mention more visceral impulses and appetites.
Much of the time, these heuristics are vital to successful living, allowing us to function on a daily basis while conserving our higher faculties – the “slow” thinking of the book’s title. When it comes to challenges more complex than recognizing a friend or selecting a favourite food, however, our rapid-response systems for decision-making are alarmingly prone to error: riven with bias and prejudice, and ripe for manipulation. Even something as simple as the amount of time since we last ate can have a profound effect on our decision-making.
In Lanier’s terms, this is precisely what many of the constantly-connected patterns of online living push us towards: a metaphorical dismembering, in which we become little more than clicks and eyeballs. We risk, his interviewer Ron Rosenbaum says, “outsourcing ourselves into insignificant advertising-fodder”, twitching from one stock response to another, and possibly into more vicious forms of stock action than mere trolling-by-tweet.
When I sense a phantom message buzzing in my leg, I find it hard not to think of Lanier’s warning against how technology is eroding our better natures – or, at least, of the time and attention it takes to treat each other as more than a means to constant diversion and aggregation. I’m also, however, conscious of the ways in which these very systems might help us push back.