How digital fluency isolates us

When you look up from your own phone, you probably notice everyone else looking down at theirs. Plenty of people have noticed how constant attention to our phones isolates us. The real world, with its interesting sights and potential social connections, passes us by as we’re lost in a digital world. What’s less appreciated is why we get lost in these devices.

A standard explanation is that they’re designed that way. We constantly check our social media or waste time swiping through dating apps because these actions provide just enough dopamine to keep us coming back. According to this explanation, us and our phones are something akin to the rats in James Olds’ and Peter Milner’s experiments from the 1950s. These rats were given a lever wired directly to the pleasure centre of their brains. When pressed, direct current was delivered and the rats presumably felt good. These rats pressed the lever thousands of times an hour, to the exclusion of all else: food, water, sex, and their newborn pups.

Based on deeply disturbing experiments, we know that humans will respond the same way to direct electrical stimulation of the right brain areas. Based on what we know, it’s certainly reasonable to suggest that this sort of positive reinforcement is a big part of why many of us constantly fidget with our phones. Still, at best it explains why we keep looking at our devices. It doesn’t explain why looking at our devices causes us to lose touch with the world around us.

At this point you might draw on other well-known work from psychology, on what’s known as inattentional blindness. It’s not just that you’re looking down at your phone blankly. You are highly engaged and paying attention to it. In a famous experiment, Daniel Simons showed that if you ask subjects to count as people pass a basketball back and forth, many subjects will totally miss the gorilla walking through the scene. Likewise, as you attend to your phone, you miss what happens around you in the real world.

Still, a simple question shows that even this can’t be the whole story. Why do only digitally fluent users get sucked into their devices? Why are digital natives the most affected, while their less technically adept parents and grandparents spend less time fiddling with screens?

Notice that it’s not just a matter of knowing how to use the device. The contrast isn’t between native users and those who can’t even find the power button. The contrast is between native users and those who find their devices arduous. The latter have to scan the screen carefully, read all the instructions, and plan their key taps deliberately. These users can just as much direct their attention to their device. In fact, they’re often directing much more attention to their device than the fluent user.

And here we start to get to what’s really isolating about our devices. When you’re digitally fluent, you don’t have to attend to your device. In fact, you aren’t attending to your device, anymore than you’re attending to the people and things around you. Instead, your attention is locked onto what’s represented by the screen. You’re focused on your likes and retweets. You’re focused on the dance being shown in some TikTok video.

Notice that these things — the likes, retweets, or dance — aren’t in the space around you. They’re somewhere else, in the digital world. The things that are in the physical space around you, like your phone and the physical images and icons making up its screen, fall out of attention. Not only do they fall out of attention, but they fall out of experience all together.

Think of how linguistic fluency changes how speech sounds. Listening to someone speak a language you don’t understand, their voice strikes you as a continuous stream of sounds. They’re “talking fast”. As you gain fluency in the language, you stop experiencing a continuous auditory stream and instead experience discrete words. Your linguistic fluency allows you to attend to what that auditory stream represents, not the auditory stream itself. In a very real sense, you stop hearing the sounds and instead hear the words.

To borrow some ideas from two philosophers, Ruth Millikan and Gareth Evans, we can think of both your phone and the sound someone produces as they talk as a conduit through which information flows. We’re constantly faced with these sorts of information channels: Intermediary physical signs or icons that stand in for something else. Even sensory perception itself works like this. For example, your brain uses the electrochemical reactions from light stimulating the photoreceptors in your eyes as a mediating sign carrying information.

Now, the key idea is that as we gain fluency, as we learn to use and interpret an information channel, we start to experience what it represents. We don’t experience the physical intermediaries with which we’re actually engaging. You don’t see electrochemical reactions in your retina. You see the people, tables, cars, and other objects projecting light onto your retina. You see the things at the other end of the information channel, the things represented or signaled by your end of the channel. Likewise, with linguistic fluency, you don’t hear sounds, but words and their meaning. With phones and digital devices, you experience the digital content, the digital world, not the physical device itself.

When you’re a fluent user, your devices are so isolating because you experience the digital world they represent so immersively. Just as fluent users of vision — normally sighted people — lose touch with the electrochemical reactions in their retina and instead experience the world those reactions represent, fluent device users lose touch with the physical devices mediating their access to the digital world. Head down and eyes locked on our phones, we stop experiencing the physical space around us because it becomes a mere conduit to the digital world. Like any fluent user of an information channel, we lose experience of the conduit. Unfortunately for us, the “conduit” to the digital world is just the real world.

Philosopher and cognitive scientist who works on movement sonification and phenomenal consciousness.