Is the iPhone the end of Western Civilization?


I came across an interesting piece by April Dembosky on dated Jan 3, which discussed how the increasing use of apps and social networking technologies have the potential to shape the kinds of minds that we evolve over time.

The author notes that some people are starting to wonder if all those hours spent staring at LCD screens and not other humans are starting to take their toll. As Dembosky notes:

Whatever is happening to our neural pathways, a categorical shift in behaviour is evident from the mere hours people spend accessing information and communicating with others through flat liquid crystal display screens.
At the Keating House, a bed and breakfast establishment in San Diego, California, hotelier Ben Baltic remembers one guest who came to him in a frenzy and thrust the battery of her husband’s BlackBerry at him. “Hide this!” she told him. Mr Baltic tucked it behind a clock during the couple’s vacation until the man sheepishly asked for it back the day they left.
Couples are indeed struggling to pull each other away from their devices to spend quality time together on a regular basis. Young people, in particular, have come to prefer communicating electronically over face-to-face interactions.

While it’s too early in this latest evolution of human-machine interaction, it’s easy to imagine that all that iPhone time must be having some sort of neurological impact, if not on adults then perhaps on children. On interesting point the author makes is when she quotes Jaron Lanier, author of You Are Not A Gadget. Lanier is indeed concerned that we are subtly shifting our thinking to accommodate our brains to tasks and environments developed by engineers:

“Today’s dominant internet programs reflect the analytic minds of the engineers who built them and fail to capture the humanistic elements of everyday life, he says. As a result, technology is reducing the range of cognitive styles, similar to monocropping in agriculture, where the cultivation of one massive crop of wheat on the same land year after year reduces the diversity of soil nutrients and results in less resilient plants.”

I am not sure if Lanier’s thesis is true, given the startling diversity of the app universe itself. Yes, app developers have a technical bent, but it may be a bit of a stretch to blend those who develop app concepts and the programmers who turn those concepts into software. After all, there are marvelous “human” apps focused on art, music, poetry, etc that don’t seem much the worse for wear because they are brought to us in code. That said, though, Lanier’s thesis cannot be dismissed lightly, since what is true of all these apps is that the mode of interaction is similar: constrained to small screens, we interact in small bursts of action and thought. It’s this aspect that intrigues me more than the fact that the apps were made by engineers.

Dembosky presents a fascinating topic that will no doubt get more and more attention the more we become app-focused. Indeed, I have spoken to a few professor friends of mine over the holidays about teaching today’s college first-years and how they seem unable in many cases to sustain interest in traditional modes of learning. Is this the beginning of the end of traditional teacher-student interaction, which traces its foundations to the start of Western Civilization? The answer is probably no, but it’s a great question to ponder as we start a new century with lives that are more human-machine than ever before.

FT subscribers can read the full piece here:

Carlos Alvarenga

Founder and CEO at KatalystNet and Adjunct Professor in the Logistics, Business and Public Policy Department at the University of Maryland’s Robert E. Smith School of Business.

5 thoughts on “Is the iPhone the end of Western Civilization?

  1. An outstanding share! I’ve just forwarded this onto a coworker who was conducting a little research on this. And he in fact bought me breakfast due to the fact that I stumbled upon it for him… lol. So let me reword this…. Thank YOU for the meal!! But yeah, thanx for spending the time to talk about this issue here on your website.


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