It’s strange that we still call them mobile phones. Using them as a device to make actual ‘phone calls’ is the very smallest part of their function and use. In reality they are extensions, connections to nearly any sort of information at any time – only hindered by lack of reception or running out of data. They are almost a part of our bodies and I really wonder if they are harming us, far more than they are helping us?

There are very few places we can go to in our everyday life where we are not are surrounded by other human beings fully immersed in their portals to the virtual world, often ourselves included. Seemingly, we have created a simulation whereby we are never ‘alone’. Not so long ago people sat on buses and looked out the window, if they weren’t reading a paper, a magazine or a book. We could argue the mobile phone today is the book of yesterday but it isn’t and it’s far from it.

“Seemingly, there is nothing we cannot read, see, or listen to – no fact we cannot find out, no question left unanswered.”

Smartphones are pure hardware where users can be connected to a massive variety of information presented through so many different media forms. We are real time purveyors of whatever we want to engage with. Seemingly there is nothing we cannot read, see, or listen to – no fact we cannot find out, no question left unanswered. We can be directed by a virtual voice to a point on a map and watch any film, television show or concert. We can buy anything, publish anything, locate a recipe, search our ancestry, complete a professional qualification or meet the next love of our life.

“What have we become and what are we likely to become as these technical marvels in our hands mutate and evolve into other functions and uses? “

It used to be that there was a distance and a level of action required to obtain information. We would travel to libraries, bookstores, video stores, and concerts. We would sit around television sets and indulge in a weekly soap or drama or tune into the news. There was no immediacy; desire did not almost instantaneously deliver a result.

I was thinking recently about attention spans and we are now well beyond the place where it is even questionable that smart phones have altered attention spans – but what is the result? What have we become and what are we likely to become as these technical marvels in our hands mutate and evolve into other functions and uses?  TV series, for example, can be consumed in their entirety and ‘binge watching’ completely describes the practice of gorging on hours and hours of online television.

“So how is unfettered access to information really helping us?”

I am no Luddite and I could list all the things my phone can do that make my life easier – I’m just not sure it makes it better.  I’ve watched more television shows, documentaries and films in the past two years than I have over the preceding ten years. That’s great for entertainment but it is hurting my memory and ability to do other things that would be far more beneficial and useful. I’m not convinced the glut of information I indulge in daily is being processed and remembered in the way that reading a book would, for example. I can sometimes get stuck on Wikipedia for hours and then forget what I’ve read in the coming weeks and months.

“Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat are now so enshrined within popular culture that it seems difficult to recall a time before their ubiquity.”

So how is unfettered access to information really helping us? Not so long ago the ‘information superhighway’ was touted as a revolution in the way we would do business and that has doubtlessly become true. Barriers of time and distance have been eradicated in global commerce. There are very few places on the planet where it would not be possible to access financial information and transact business. Business could well be conducted from a mobile phone without ever having to physically meet anyone. That may be a good thing – but what about all the other uses of technology – the ones we use to interact with each other in the ‘personal sphere’?

The other day I was talking to a friend about social media and the lack of real regulation around its use. Sure we have investigations or raise committees to look into disturbing privacy breaches and data sell-offs, as well as nefarious campaigns to influence elections and referenda – but what about social media itself?

” . . .  it is evident that the biggest social media sites are more like battlegrounds than virtual zones of connection.”

Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat are now so enshrined within popular culture that it seems difficult to recall a time before their ubiquity. What once began as virtual meeting places for family and friends, sites like Facebook have now morphed into complicated tendrils of forums, video sharing, marketplaces and avenues to argue and create hostility and difference.

Of course, we don’t all use social media the same way and there are no norms about levels of engagement but it is evident that the biggest social media sites are more like battlegrounds than virtual zones of connection. Since Facebook bought out Instagram in 2012 what was initially an application to share photographs has become a meme laden opinion fest where strangers argue about everything from sports, fashion, politics and music – to history, culture, science and religion. Anyone can present his or her opinions with very little control or oversight.

“The social aspect of social media seems to have disappeared.”

Strangely enough at a time where we can find out almost anything in seconds we are fighting over concepts such as facts and truth. The truth has never been so untruthful and obvious facts can be denied away with lies, smokescreens and whataboutisims. Where once we may post pictures from our holiday for friends and family to see, strangers who never meet in person rip each other to shreds for little more than scoring points. I can still remember when it would only be the Letters to the Editor section of the newspaper that would irk me. Now? There is a glut of opinions in comments threads, reactions to posts on Facebook and Twitter. We are never far from knowing what someone else thinks on so many different topics.

The social aspect of social media seems to have disappeared. More and more I am reminded nowadays that the divisions between human beings has never been more obvious. Our phones may make our lives easier but they have not made us smarter. They have not made us more social by the definition of the word – if anything they create antisocial behaviour that can lead to greater disconnection from the real world. I don’t think that will ever make our species better, in fact I think that we have created a monster that we are not entirely sure what do with anymore.

Some decades ago I looked forward to the time when I could carry a phone around with me and make calls whenever I liked. I think I’ll try to find one of them and disengage from all the sparkly allure of a contemporary mobile phone. It will make be a better person, I’m sure of it.