Is Anybody There?  How the smartphone rules our lives  by Wouter van Noort



1 Is anybody there?

2 The goldfish

3 Digital detox

4 The fruit machine in your pocket

5 The Facebook echo chamber

6 The Pokémon Go economy

7 Data dictatorship

8 What now?



Sample from the introduction, pp13-20

We feel that something is not quite right. We know it’s not normal to get so worked up when the battery runs out; during conversations with friends we try not to be distracted the entire time by apps. But are we right in our gut feeling that there is something wrong with our smartphone usage? That is a particularly important question because never in history has technology reached so many people so quickly. In 2014 the total number of smartphones and tablets had already passed 7.2 billion, meaning there were more smartphones in the world than people. That was barely seven years after the introduction of the iPhone, the definitive breakthrough of the technology.

Humans have always had a tendency to be completely absorbed by new technologies, and at the same time to complain about them. British author Virginia Woolf wrote an essay criticising the 1930s mass media explosion, referring to it as ‘the present discordant and distracted twitter’, a phrase which could easily come from a discussion of social media today. We might conclude that people have been complaining for decades at least about the constant, distracting, incoherent chatter over new media. Twitter, WhatsApp and Snapchat are nothing new. There is a famous anecdote about the Greek philosopher Socrates. In Phaedrus, a dialogue written by his associate Plato, Socrates lamented the invention of writing, which we could think of as the latest app at the time. The ability to write things down, instead of having to remember them and pass them on by word of mouth, was making people forgetful, Socrates complained. Previously the Greeks had generally passed on stories by oral tradition, and in order to do so they had to be much better at remembering the narratives. But is the world so much worse off for writing?

When the television became popular, too, concerns were expressed; people made a song and a dance of getting rid of their televisions; artists criticised the way the masses allowed their lives to be excessively ruled by that superficial, distracting TV and the degenerate pulp it exhibited. The TV probably did change the world, but whether we have regressed as humans as a result is no longer really a matter of debate.

The fact that technologies influence us can be established with some certainty. And that observation has been made for centuries, for instance in correspondence between the nineteenth century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche and a friend who believed that since Nietzsche had begun using a typewriter his style of thinking, speaking and writing had changed, becoming more succinct, more like a telegram. ‘Perhaps this machine will lead you to speak a completely different language,’ he wrote. The friend, who was a composer, also noticed that in his own work the music he wrote was often dependent on the quality of pen and paper he used to write the notes. Nietzsche told him he was right: ‘The tool with which we write determines how we form our thoughts.’

Perhaps we will soon see that happen with emoji: do the many smileys and symbols available in part determine how we shape our thoughts? Will we soon be thinking mainly in smiley faces or laughing turds? When I look back through my recent WhatsApp messages, I could almost believe we would.

When it comes to the effects of the smartphone on our thinking and behaviour, surely there is reason to sit up and pay attention: it took many centuries for writing to reach the majority of people; radio and television took decades. Even the PC and the internet took much longer than the smartphone to reach such a large proportion of humanity and to take up so much of their time. If we have started doing something completely new in less than ten years, something which keeps us occupied for several hours a day, it seems smart at least to pay attention to what we are doing.

How problematic is it that we are constantly distracted by those push messages? What do smartphones do to our social behaviour, our society? What does it mean when a president communicates his policy mainly through the Twitter app on his smartphone? Are technology companies intentionally getting us addicted? What should we do to combat fake news that undermines elections? Should we be less dependent on the smartphone? And if so, how? Young as the smartphone is, these questions are now the subject of countless studies worldwide. But what do all these studies tell us precisely: what is fact and what is myth? How do we distinguish trashy tabloid-style surveys from robust scientific studies repeated at reputable universities?

It is worth noting that many researchers and writers make a clear choice for one side or the other: either smartphones are the devil or they signify a wonderful new world. Technology optimists from Silicon Valley argue enthusiastically that thanks to smartphones and other smart technologies we are on our way to a world in which abundance, health and unparalleled happiness are within everyone’s reach. They see technology as the solution to almost all problems. The Belarussian technology critic Evgeny Morozov and the German professor of computational sociology Dirk Helbing in fact warn of new forms of fascism that can arise due to our dependence on smartphones and the fact that our data might fall into the wrong hands.

Recent discussions on the smartphone relate to the way we change psychologically due to our connection with that little screen, what it means that so many people now voluntarily choose to share intimate details of themselves with the world and with technology companies. There are plenty of warnings about unparalleled oversight by governments, made possible by the fact that we always have a convenient, hackable package of sensors in our pocket. What does our dependency on technology mean for us as individuals, for our interactions with others, and for us as a society?

Plenty of studies point out that we are becoming stupider and less sociable, but there is also serious research which points to the positive effects of smartphones and social media. Many inventions of the past decades have made our lives much richer and more pleasant; the smartphone need not be an exception. There are fascinating promises of pioneering medical services via smartphones or artificial-intelligence-based assistants which could make our lives much easier. The quantity of information we now have access to, the ease with which we can communicate, the time gained now that we can find the way with Google Maps; I wouldn’t want to do without these things again.

Commentators just as easily defend the viewpoint that smartphones make everything better as the idea that we have arrived in the kind of dystopian data dictatorship described in George Orwell’s 1984. The media talking heads often pick one nice clear stance which does not always do justice to the nuanced reality, but I am fed up with all those black-and-white outlooks. I miss the honest sense of wonder: how are we really changing due to this mass use of smartphones? Stanford University professor Paul Saffo made a good statement on the subject, with which I wholeheartedly agree: ‘There are two kinds of fools: one who says this is old and therefore good, and the other who says this is new and therefore better.’ Hence this book, to explore the truth of the matter.

Over the past seven years, in my work as a technology journalist for NRC Handelsblad and Elsevier I have travelled a great deal and have seen both the positive side of the smartphone revolution and its flipside. It is difficult in Silicon Valley, where all the big American technology companies and exciting start-ups are located, not to be infected by the faith in progress which prevails there. I have seen with my own eyes how smartphones can make a world of difference in Africa. While out reporting in a dusty cattle market in the middle of nowhere in the village of Merille in North Kenya I looked on, dumbfounded, as members of the Rendille tribe, rings around their necks and wrapped in traditional cloths, paid for a camel. For a couple of years now they have been doing this through the service MPesa on their mobile phones, meaning that they are no longer attacked by thieves on their long walk back to the village. They can also use their phones to check which cattle market offers the best prices, so that they can take care of their families better. When you see that, you can only admire technological progress. We now live in what MIT professor Andrew McAfee, author of The Second Machine Age, called a ‘science-fiction economy’ when I interviewed him in 2016.

But what does living in a science-fiction world mean? I have also had worrying conversations with people who are paid to make smartphone apps as addictive as possible. I have seen how in South Korea smartphone addiction is such a serious problem that there is a special government policy to tackle it. At Facebook’s head office I have observed how risky it can be when one company has so much power over how we spend our time (more on that in chapter 5). Technology and social media have played an important role in recent social unrest and revolutions. Changes are rapid and at the World Economic Forum annual meeting of world leaders and top entrepreneurs in Davos I heard how powerless our leaders feel when it comes responding. It is evident that people who consume all their news via Facebook have recently been in the process of total radicalisation, on issues ranging from ‘Black Pete’ (the helper of Saint Nicholas in Dutch tradition) to the American elections and the debate on refugees. The handful of companies running the show on smartphones earn billions and barely pay tax on them. Economic inequality is growing and the digital divide seems to be widening rather than narrowing. We can only guess at the long-term political consequences.

What is clear, in any case, is how rapidly smartphones have become a crucial component of our lives, work, friendships, love, news provision and discussions of how we shape our collective life and politics. It is high time we properly investigated what precisely these changes look like, and what we can do about it if we are not happy with them.




Translated by Anna Ansbury