Wander the city in 2015 and all you’ll see is people staring at screens or talking on handsets. Is it changing who we are? Tom Chatfield weighs up the arguments.

A group of people wait by a monument, unaware of each other’s existence. A woman strides open-mouthed down a busy street, holding one hand across her heart. Two young men – brothers? – stand behind a white fence, both their heads bowed at the same angle.

These are some of the moments captured in photographer Josh Pulman’s ongoing series called Somewhere Else, which documents people using mobile phones in public places (see pictures). Almost every street in every city across the world is packed with people doing this – something that didn’t exist a few decades ago. We have grown accustomed to the fact that shared physical space no longer means shared experience. Everywhere we go, we carry with us options far more enticing than the place and moment we happen to be standing within: access to friends, family, news, views, scandals, celebrity, work, leisure, information, rumour.

Little wonder that we are transfixed; that the faces in Pulman’s images ripple with such emotion. We are free, if “free” is the right word, to beam stimulation or distraction into our brains at any moment. Via the screens we carry – and will soon be wearing – it has never been easier to summon those we love, need, care about or rely upon.

Yet, as Pulman himself asks, “If two people are walking down the street together both on the phone to someone else, are they really together? And what is the effect on the rest of us of such public displays of emotion, whether it’s anxiety, rage or joy?” To be human is to crave connection. But can our talent betray us? Is it possible to be “overconnected” – and, if so, what does it mean for our future?

Life down a line

Telephones have been both an engine of social disruption and a focus for technological anxiety ever since their invention. Imagine the scene through 19th Century eyes, when the infrastructure of the first telephone networks began to be laid out: mile upon mile of wires hung along the side of public roads, piercing every house in turn. Walls were being breached: the sanctum of the home plugged into a new species of human interaction.

The electric telegraph had already given the world something miraculous: messaging at the speed of electricity. Telephones, though, bore not the business-like dots and dashes or Morse code, but the human voice, whispering out of the ether into any willing listener’s ear. “We shall soon be nothing but transparent heaps of jelly to each other," lamented a British writer in 1897, fearing privacy’s replacement by the promiscuity of a new media age: one in which there was nowhere for the unmediated self to hide.

Doom-laden warnings over new technology are nothing new, as I described recently in a programme for BBC Radio 4. Here’s a clip, pointing out why the practice goes back at least to the Ancient Greeks:

Hear the full BBC Radio 4 programme: Has technology rewired our brains?

Still, while early fears about the telephone may have been exaggerated, they were also prophetic. If one great technological drive of the late 19th and 20th Centuries was to plug every place of work and leisure into networks of power, transport and communications, then the emerging story of the 21st Century is the interconnection of our own minds into a similarly networked state. We’re no longer drilling holes in the walls of our houses for telephone wires. It’s ourselves we’re plugging in; and we’re starting to feel the strain.

Always on

Like its 19th Century ancestors, the mobile phone began as a status symbol for the busy and affluent: a weighty hunk of the cutting edge, to be bellowed into as publicly as possible. Over time, the luxury became universal, the symbol splintered into countless social circumstances. We began to weave constant availability into our conception of public and private space; into our body language and everyday etiquette (“I’ll get there for midday and give you a ring”). Being uncontactable has become exceptional, outlandish, a brand of luxury and distinction – or, depending on your perspective, a source of escalating anxiety in itself.

And, like history repeating itself, warnings of the ill effects of mobile communication are once again rising – a focus for angst in an age where our ambivalence about constant connection conceals the more pressing question of what, precisely, we’re connecting to.

Consider the ease with which a news story spread recently about a 31-year-old-man treated for “internet addiction disorder,” related to his excessive use of Google Glass (a technology since shelved in the name of redevelopment). In many ways, using Google Glass is like strapping a smartphone to your face. A wearable device boasting built-in camera, microphone, tiny screen and internet connectivity, it’s activated either via voice or by a gentle tap of the fingers. Doctors noted that the subject compulsively mimicked this movement, moving his right hand up to his temple and tapping his skull even when he was not wearing Glass. He had been using it for up to 18 hours a day, and at night dreamed that he was looking at the world through the device.

This is a scare story tailor-made for our times. A troubled life (the man in question had a history of mood disorder and alcohol misuse) meets a seduction too great to resist and sinks into addiction. For some readers, though, I suspect it also raises nervous questions. How often do your own hands twitch involuntarily towards your phone, or the spot where you normally keep it? How does the buzz of each arriving message make you feel – or its absence when there’s no network? How far does the prison of an addict’s life echo your own relationships with technology?

The problem is, these aren’t questions with definitive answers. Drawing a line between habit and pathology means deciding what we mean by normal, healthy and acceptable behaviour. And if technology excels at one thing, it’s at shifting old norms faster than even the nimblest neophyte can handle. I’ve spent years trying to evaluate our relationships with technology, and still find myself pulled in two different directions.

On the one hand, as the philosopher Julian Baggini once put it to me, “human beings may be changing but in many ways we remain very much the same”. I can still read translations of ancient Roman or Greek literature and know exactly what their authors mean when they talk about anger, passion, patriotism, trust, betrayal.

On the other hand, digital technologies mean my relationships with others and the world are extended and amplified beyond anything even my grandparents knew. I outsource memories, routines, habits and responsibilities to ubiquitous hardware; I gratefully automate everything from route-finding and research to recommending movies.

As philosophers like Andy Clark and David J Chalmers have argued, my mind is a kind of collaboration between the brain in my head and tools like the phone in my hand: “I” am a complex system that encompasses both. And why shouldn’t I simply celebrate this ease, much as I do the freedoms that come with owning a car or a dishwasher, or wearing glasses to correct my sight?

One objection is that, even if you don’t buy into the hypothesis that my phone is effectively a handheld piece of my mind, it’s hard to ignore the mounting evidence around human cognition’s vulnerabilities. We are not only creatures of habit; we are also creatures of limited and easily exhausted conscious scrutiny. Distract or tire someone – give them a few mental arithmetic problems to solve, flash adverts at the corners of their vision – and their willpower is depleted. “Nudging” our every decision is now a science fed by billions of bits of data. And what better mechanism for tiring even the sharpest thinker than the tireless buzz of hardware in our pockets and software in its encircling cloud?

It’s this exponential impact of information technology that poses the greatest problem for everything we used to think about as normal, balanced, self-knowing and self-regulating. We live in an age of suffusion, and our pathologies are those of excess. Junk food, engineered to a tastiness we cannot stop cramming into our mouths. Junk media, junk information, junk time – attention-seeking algorithmic twitches seeking to become part of the patterns of our minds.

Time off

Do we need to diet, to detox? Whether it’s physical or mental health you’re talking about, neither works for most people – or begins to address the causes of excess. What’s the point of unplugging if the only reason for doing so is to plug yourself still more eagerly back in at a later date? Better to face facts, and to begin with the extraordinary intimacy of a relationship that is only going to get closer: between the brains in our bodies and the glistening webs of automation we’re weaving between them.

After all, I’m pouring my hours and minutes not simply into a screen, but into the most comprehensive networking of human minds ever achieved, each one more powerful than the fastest computer. If I’m so often enthralled, appalled, over-engaged, distracted and delighted, it’s because there are others out there sifting and refracting this world of information right back at me. And if I’m going to change this, it’s only going to happen if I can find others with whom I can build new habits, patterns and modes of practice.

To quote my exchange with Julian Baggini once again, there’s a paradox underpinning the power of even the most intricate technological manipulations: that “the methods used to manipulate us are more sophisticated than ever, but precisely because knowledge of how to do this has grown, we are more able to defend ourselves”. For instance, I don’t need to know everything there is to know about privacy, hacking and encryption to protect myself against government snooping. If I can find expert, reliable advice on protecting myself, I can at least begin the journey towards greater control and engagement.

In this sense, machines themselves are a misleading target for anxiety. Toxic offline communities and systems abound; technology, as it has always done, facilitates interactions at each extreme of the human spectrum. It may be hard to disconnect, but we can seek better to control who we connect with and what we ask of each other.

My favourite photograph in Josh Pulman’s series “Somewhere Else”, the eighth, is unusual because the woman in it is smiling (see image, above). I have no idea why she’s smiling, but I suspect it’s in response to the voice crackling into her ear; good news, relief, a joke. Everyone else caught on their phones seems anxious, alarmed, unhappily torn between worlds. But she is glad to be elsewhere, and I assume her partner in conversation is too. The pattern is rich enough not to be a prison; two minds are delightedly spanning the earth.

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I’m pouring my hours not simply into a screen, but the most comprehensive network of human minds ever