Confession of a web addict: ‘It broke me'

‘The noise grows’: Sullivan says phones and other technology have ‘robbed us of silence’.

In an explosive article, ‘I used to be a human being’, one of the most influential political writers of his generation describes how a manic information addiction became a threat to his life.

It will predict your response to a post on social media. It will help you book cinema tickets and play games. It will allow you to send messages in different sizes to show how important they are.

Allo is Google’s new smart messaging app. The company launched it yesterday, and it is expected to be very popular. ‘Too often we have to hit pause on our conversations,’ wrote Amit Fulay of Google in a blog post. ‘So we created a messaging app that helps you keep your conversation going.’

But for Andrew Sullivan, those ‘pauses’ are disappearing too quickly. This week, the brilliant English-born writer and academic has published a highly personal account of life as a ‘web obsessive’ and his efforts to ‘detox’.

For 15 years, he published several blog posts every day — immersing himself in, and reacting to, online news. Meanwhile, technology advanced rapidly. Facebook gave millions their own blog; Twitter became a forum for microblogging; and ‘then the apps descended, to inundate what was left of our free time’. Sullivan embraced this ‘era of mass distraction’: at one point he decided to update his blog ‘every half-hour or so’.

He was rewarded with ‘a niche in the nerve centre of the exploding global conversation’. But it became addictive, damaging his concentration, health and happiness. Finally, he ‘sensed a personal crash coming’ and ‘decided to live in reality’, putting his phone away and taking up meditation.

Smartphones have rapidly become ubiquitous: 46% of Americans now say they could not live without one. In one study, a group of young British adults checked their phones 85 times per day on average. Often these were brief, instinctive acts which they were almost unaware of.

Our reliance on this technology, Sullivan adds, has eroded our sense of community, public spaces, family life and practical skills. And though we may think we are educating ourselves, much of the content we consume online is largely chosen for us by complex algorithms.

Page diverted

We are too distracted, Sullivan argues. There is no time for us to enjoy simple pleasures: only when he gave up his phone, for example, could he truly appreciate birdsong or the autumn leaves. We cannot think deeply because we are too plugged in. We have become reliant upon technology, when it should empower us. It has made our lives shallower.

But there have always been scares over new technology, others respond. Sullivan even admits that similar complaints were made against the TV. Soon we will think the new fuss quaint. Technology has enriched our lives and opened a wealth of information and opportunities. We simply need some time to adjust to the change before we make the most of it.

You Decide

  1. Are you too attached to your phone?
  2. Is the ‘era of mass distraction’ a bad thing?

Activities

  1. Make a list of all the things you think you use your phone for (eg sending texts). Then keep a detailed log of what you really use it for, and how often, for a week. Discuss what you have learned as a class.
  2. Think of a previous technological advance (eg the car) which has had a major impact on our behaviour. Write a one-page memo explaining how it has helped and harmed society, to discuss in class.

Some People Say...

“We think we control technology, but it controls us.”

What do you think?

Q & A

I don’t own a smartphone. Do these trends matter?
You are in a minority among teenagers in developed countries: last year 73% of American teenagers had access to a smartphone, according to Pew. Even if you are holding out against the tide, these trends inform the way people around you are being socialised. This is likely to mean people of your age growing up more tuned in to the world than ever. Do you think this is a good thing?
Could my use of technology become a problem?
Andrew Sullivan’s account shows that it could. He describes the thrill of online interaction and the hit of the hormone dopamine which he felt when people responded to his work. Phones and apps have great benefits — but it is worth being aware of their risks too. The BBC Newsnight video under Become An Expert has more.

Word Watch

Predict
The app is fitted with an AI (artificial intelligence) assistant.
Amit Fulay
Google’s group product manager.
Addictive
Sullivan describes the feedback he got as ‘a constant dopamine bath for the writerly ego’.
Concentration
‘I tried to read books, but that skill now began to elude me,’ he writes. ‘After a couple of pages, my fingers twitched for a keyboard.’
Health
Sullivan, who is HIV positive, developed four bronchial infections in 12 months. ‘Did you really survive HIV to die of the web?’ his doctor asked him at one point.
Rapidly
In 2007, just 122 million smartphones were sold worldwide, according to Statista. Last year, that number was over 1.4 billion. Pew research shows that in 2011, just 35% of Americans owned smartphones; now 64% do.
46%
According to the Pew Research Center.
85
According to a study by Nottingham Trent University.
Brief
55% of the time, those taking part in the study touched their smartphones for less than 30 seconds.
Unaware
When they were asked to estimate how often they picked up their phones, the users estimated just half the true figure.

Subjects