Welcome to the “Generation of Idiots”

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OUTSIDE THE BOX

By Alex Otti alex.otti@thisdaylive.com

“I fear the day that technology will surpass our human interaction. The world will have a generation of idiots.” Albert Einstein.

The above quote, credited to the great Physicist, Albert Einstein, says a lot about the current world in which we live. There has been a debate about whether Einstein actually said this or not. Some argue that this quote first appeared on the internet around 2012, a clear 57 years after Einstein’s death. It may just be that he did not say that, just like Robert Mugabe is credited with numerous quips and pithy statements, but there are a few other things Einstein said that confirm his worry about modern technology and how it impacted negatively on human behaviour and relationships. For instance, in a letter to his friend, Otto Juliusburger, seven years before his death, Einstein wrote, “I believe that the abominable deterioration of ethical standards stems primarily from the mechanization and depersonalization of our lives; a disastrous byproduct of science and technology”. Since Einstein wrote this, it follows, therefore, that even if there is no proof that the earlier quote was his, he had sufficient concern about the impact of science and technology on human interaction and relationships.

Before I go further into the issue for today, let me confess that I am one of the culprits of the impact of technology on efficient allocation of time. I have several mobile devices that ensure I am ever busy on one or the other. I have a laptop, an iPad, an iPod, and two smart phones each with dual sim. So, I am sufficiently wired and connected. Therefore, as I speak to readers, I also speak to myself.

Before the advent of the GSM technology in Nigeria in 2001, telephony was a preserve of the rich. NITEL had a monopoly with a capacity of about 700,000 lines, out of which less than half of that capacity were working at any point in time. Readers who are old enough will remember the experience of chasing after NITEL technicians who moved around with ladders to fix faulty lines. The day that mother luck smiled at you and they agreed to attend to you, that may well be the only thing you would achieve for that day. Then entered the cellular phones of the 1990s. The ones that were referred to as ‘nought nine nought’ (090). Some of the handsets those days looked more like weapons of mass destruction and the handset market was dominated by Nokia and Motorola. The phones were so expensive that they were affordable only by the rich. In fact, the then Minister of Communications, who is now a Distinguished Senator, had to warn that “telephone was not meant for the poor”. 

The introduction of the GSM technology democratized the use of telephones by Nigerians. Its uniqueness was not just its ubiquity, the ‘Pay As You Go’ package made calls more affordable. The technology was soon to change the lifestyle of the people and engender a new set of behavior while moving most activities onto handheld devices. People could read books, play music and watch movies on the go. They could buy virtually everything online, do their banking transactions on their devices and communicate through different platforms, on their phones. Handheld devices became the most important possession of a lot of people, especially the youth and the young at heart. The companies providing these services, particularly those that were being properly run exploded with the returns that they were making from us. I remember an international company that made a wrong prediction of the GSM market in Nigeria in 2001. The CEO had many unkind words about the Nigerian market and decided to stay away from the country. Its closest competitor that took advantage of the opportunity was soon to leapfrog competition to become the largest telecommunications company in the continent. Ever since then, the company which declined the earlier opportunity has been making attempts to enter the GSM market in Nigeria, to no avail.

To dimension this market properly, it would not be out of place to look at a current report published by Jumia. As per the report, Nigeria has about 150m subscribers, out of which about 97.2m are internet subscribers. These show penetration rates of 81% and 53% respectively. Nigeria, therefore has the largest number of mobile and internet users in Africa which collectively has about 960m mobile subscribers and 216m internet users. We are followed by Egypt and Kenya. Our rapid adoption is traceable to cheaper and better phones, particularly in the smartphone category, whose number has now crossed the 15million mark. There is also a lot of improvement in network quality and services as driven by the regulator, the National Communications Commission, NCC, and also data saving devices that have reduced usage cost.

Today, a lot of us spend an inordinate amount of time on one handheld device or the other. Just look around you and you would notice that most people are glued to their mobile devices. The traditional function of the phone- making and receiving calls-has waned even as telephone operators’ income from calls has dropped significantly. Beyond the reduction in calls, several options now exist through which calls are made cheaply or even free of charge. These would include calling cards, internet calls, and video calls. So, what do most people do with their phones and other devices today? They spend time on what is now called, “social media”. It is not unusual to see people hitting away on their keyboards and touch pads chatting for hours. These social media platforms would include Facebook Messenger, Twitter, WhatsApp, Instagram, Wechat, Viber, iMessage, FaceTime, and loads of others that we may not be able to mention here. All these have rendered the traditional short message services (SMS), almost redundant and obsolete. One of the most active users of Twitter is the current President of the United States, Donald Trump. All through his electioneering campaign till date, he has been active on Twitter. Because of what he does in the social media space, some people have accused him of “digital provocation or bullying”. Back home, some leaders and politicians have also embraced the Twitter platform as a veritable medium to reach their audience. 

Our concern today, however, is the abuse of those phones and the distraction that they have become for a lot of people. Many users have become so addicted to their telephones that sleeping has become a luxury as they wake up to check their phones. Studies have shown that people who use smartphones check their phones every 6 minutes. If this is correct, it means that such users are on their phones about 240 times in a day. The effect on productivity and human behaviour cannot be overemphasized. As we fiddle with the phone, something must give. 

As I was concluding this column, I received an article from Dr. Tommy Weir, a CEO Coach and Author, titled “Put down That Phone”. In that article, Dr. Weir argued that even students do less learning with their phones or other mobile devices keeping them company. If you are a parent you may have had the kind of encounter I had with my children about taking notes electronically versus manually. Their argument is that they learn more with electronic than manual note-taking. The more I tried to argue otherwise, the more they reminded me that it was in my generation and that things have changed. The article in question disagrees. Hear Dr. Weir, “there’s a growing body of evidence suggesting that we learn less when using computers or tablets during lectures. Specifically, research shows that university students who use their computers or tablets in the classroom earn worse grades; laptops distract from learning, both for users and those around them”.

“In a series of experiments at Princeton University and the University of California, Los Angeles, students were randomly assigned either laptops or pens and paper for note-taking at a lecture. After the class, researchers found that those who had used laptops had substantially worse understanding of the lecture, as measured by a standardized test, than those who did not”. In addition to the fact that writing notes manually help students in following the lectures and taking better notes, there is also the issue of those devices distracting the users. Sometimes, people beat their chests about their prowess in multitasking. Yes, you may be better than your neighbour in multitasking, but you may also be more distracted than him. The same article states that the “dependence on smartphones extends beyond their functionality. The touchscreen has made it possible to constantly multi-task and escape into another world. Constant checking cannibalizes your productive time. More than 90% of people multi-task during meetings. 42% admit to reading and responding to email in the bathroom. 70% of us check e-mail while watching TV. We make more mistakes, learn less and take longer to complete tasks”.

The devices also pose challenges to our health and well-being. While not delving into the unsettled debate about the radioactivity of mobile devices, there have been a lot of recorded cases of people dying or being maimed by accidents occasioned by the distraction of mobile devices while driving.  Dr. Weir also talks about a study done in Korea which established health hazards of mobile devices. “Researchers from Korea University have found an imbalance in the brain chemistry of people addicted to smartphones. When they pried their subjects away from their smartphones long enough to study them with MRS machines to measure the brain’s chemical composition, they found a significant increase in gamma aminobutyric acid (GABA) and glutamate-glutamine (Glx). The chemical GABA is the neurotransmitter that slows down brain signals and Glx is the neurotransmitter that causes neurons to become more excited. The side effects include depression and anxiety—conditions that addicted test subjects had significantly higher scores in, along with insomnia and impulsivity”.

The major concern is that the addiction can be noticed increasingly in a lot of users. They may be in the bathroom, out for a dinner with friends, riding a bike, working out in the gym or driving and be chatting on their phones at the same time. Addicted users divide their attention between important tasks and chatting on their devices. Just imagine a dinner date that is terribly interrupted by the telephone. There are also situations where two people are in the same location, instead of engaging face to face, they choose to chat with each other on the phones. Addicts tend to shy away from face to face engagements in favour of impersonal interactions. Can we really establish love, care, and emotional connection when we don’t speak to each other?  The younger generation may answer in the affirmative. I am not sure that my generation will agree. Studies have shown that women are more vulnerable to this “cyber-attack” than men and the youths more phone-prone than the older folks. Because of phone addiction, the culture of reading is under attack. I know someone would want to interject that the reading is now on the mobile device. I know that happens but it is also subject to interference by other things happening on that device at the same time. Again proper writing skills have also been a victim of the “cyber-attack”. Most users tend to use abbreviations since some of the applications like SMS and twitter limit the space a message can take. People easily get used to such abbreviations and use them even when writing essays, sometimes involuntarily. Research has also shown that addicted users are unable to sustain fairly long conversations. This is because of the phones capacity to distract them and also because of the formed habit of talking less and chatting more. These applications also tend to encourage users to use slangs and sometimes commit grammatical and mechanical blunders. Addicts have also been known to confide in those devices rather than human beings. If you want to know what your kids are doing, just get hold of their phones. Those phones hold much more confidential information than anyone can ever hold. A friend of mine told me a story of how he fired his driver after he went through his phone. He was shocked that he was being driven by an enemy who hated him with passion. 

If you are a victim of your phone, you may not even know when you are on it. It becomes a reflex action. Even when you have convinced yourself that you are not going to touch the device for some time, you still go back to it involuntarily. So you basically lose control to your phone. A lot of couples have shared very negative experiences that their spouse’s phones have engendered. Because most things are now done on the phone, getting hold of a cheating partner’s phone is all that is required to start a fight that may eventually lead to separation or divorce.

While acknowledging the very positive sides of the mobile device and the convergence that technology has forced on us, our contention is that we must instill discipline and avoid the addiction that has come with the telephone. You really need to put down that phone, switch it off sometimes and forget it somewhere for a change or simply misplace it. Should any of these happen, you will realize that the heavens won’t come down, rather, it may just be all you need to have your life back and become less idiotic. Sadly for those of us who are in full adulthood, we are seeing our way of life disappearing and it may well be that the future belongs to the digital technology and there must invariably be the distortion in human behaviour and interaction to suit the powerful influence. One can only warn that we become fully aware of the lurking dangers and ensure that we do what we can to ameliorate the inherent challenges in the onrushing brave new digital age. 

Permit me to use this opportunity to wish my readers a merry Christmas and a fantastic 2018