My generation is the first to live in a world where we can distract ourselves for every waking second.
I have memories of being a child, sitting in my room, having read every book, played with every toy – perhaps it was a rainy day where I couldn’t go outside – and I was bored to tears. I remember that boredom, a ragged, raging feeling in the stomach that threatened to short-circuit the mind. This boredom has now been eliminated.
There are few situations I can imagine where one is left merely in the presence of their own mind. In the German embassy, I remember, I sat without my things, due to security concerns. In high school, back in the day, one wasn’t allowed to be on their phone – but of course, one was listening attentively to the teacher. In the shower – one would think – but my roommate confessed recently that she plays music loudly to avoid having to be left alone with her own thoughts.
My generation is anxious due to the increasingly tight social control that we exert on ourselves. In an age of transparency and visibility, everything we do has the potential to be broadcast to millions of people – or even only one’s extended friend group. We are all pressured into forming that profile, the idealized version of ourself we promote to others. My generation is anxious, and anxiety is and always will be a product of the mind.
And therefore we distract ourselves – but this is not a conscious decision, as it is completely subconscious. Scientists have found that our brain has two different attention systems – one which is external, and one which is internal, and is activated when we are daydreaming. However, our mind is biased toward occupation, and this is why we all reach for our smartphones when we are not distracted by immediate social or environmental stimulus. What does this do to our brain? It is not known, and I am not a scientist, but to me, it is clear that my generation is increasingly uncomfortable with their own thoughts, and I fear that this will have repercussions on intellect and creativity.
To me, it seems it has become a nervous habit. This is not only due to discomfort with our own minds, but also due to heightened social anxiety – if we are not visibly preoccupied, does this mean we must make eye contact with others – or even engage with them? This is a terrifying thought to many people. In professional discourse, many are saying that the effects of this elimination of daydreaming will not be observable until the phenomenon is a couple of decades old, but I believe otherwise.
Terrifyingly, this is what the tech companies wish to achieve, and this is perfectly in adherence with the model of capitalism. “On-time” is the currency of applications in the internet, and the major companies such as Snapchat, Instagram and Facebook invest incredible sums of money into experts who know exactly how to maximize people’s screen time and stimulate those dopamine-rushes caused by satisfactory social media interactions. The lag that occurs before the notification appears when twitter users refresh their page? This is a technique borrowed from gambling, which causes anticipation and is resolved in a feeling of reward. Has anyone else noticed that Facebook now sends notifications for the most trivial things – things that no one cares to be notified about – and these notifications increase in volume when one is logged in. These are all clandestine techniques to steal our attention – the ultimate prize.
Similarly terrifying, it seems to me that the ethics of social media are virtually unexplored.