Instant gratification and the art of daydreaming

I admit it: I am addicted. To dating apps, checking every hour whether some around me is up for a good date or something quicker. To Instagram, swiping through the stories of my international friends, so I don’t even make it to the usual newsfeed. To Facebook, to see how much likes my latest blogpost got. And I am not the only one who is addicted. But is it healthy?

We call it the age of instant gratification. Nowadays we want everything and we want it now. Whether it is a food delivery service, an album on Spotify or sex.

Party is over

But after the first couple of years of excitement about all these new possibilities, the party seems to be over. We are showing addictive behaviour, taking out our smartphones 76 times a day and touching it (including swipes and clicks) an astonishing 2,617 times per day. We are feeling guilty about seeking guilty pleasures all the time. We are increasingly having shorter attention spans. Even the thought of having a smartphone with us is already stressing us out.

Hell, even the technology companies are alarmed by now. Apple has come up with mechanisms to limit screen time. And a group of former Google engineers last year published a list of tools that can help in having a quieter, less smartphone-addicted life.

To say this is hypocrite though, not to say Facebook-level-dishonesty, is an understatement. It is like when the drug dealer sold you coke and then tells you you should take off at least one day a week. Although it is commonly known that smartphones and their apps have exactly been programmed to take advantage of human weaknesses. See this TED talk by design guro Nir Eyal, who wrote the seminal books Hooked and Indistractable about these issues.

Culture of responsible tech

This self-regulation of the tech sector, which only seems to come after a lot of societal pressure, can only be a start to solve these problems. Creating a culture of responsible tech is another major step, so we can root out the problem at its cause, which is for example the ambition of the Humane Tech organisation.

Programmers and UX designers make conscious decisions every step in the way to creating apps and smartphones. They shouldn’t only be considering criteria of technology, performance, usability and design: responsibility, accountability and transparency should be guiding principles along the way as well.

These principles should obviously not be left to the tech sector. There is a governmental job to be done here, to bake these guidelines into a regulatory framework AND to implement them in the educational system as well.

Art of daydreaming

That would go a long way towards eliminating smartphone addiction. And that’s also important, because this addictive behaviour has robbed us of the art of daydreaming.

In the old days we used to use the time in the doctor’s waiting room, or in the subway, or in the toilet break in the restaurant, to let our mind wander. Which gave us the time for our brains to come up with new connections and new ideas.

This art has been almost completely destroyed. In his latest book Farsighted, the American tech author Steven Johnson cites scientific research at the Medical College of Wisconsin from 1999, which shows that our brains are at their most active WHEN WE THINK THEY ARE RESTING AND DOING NOTHING. Exactly: the ‘time off’ is when our brains really start working. This is the time where the unique human trait of creativity gestates.

We don’t give ourselves this time anymore. There was a beautiful piece in Wired about the boredom of a several weeks long walk in Japan. There, the author rediscovered the art of daydreaming. Let’s try to limit our use of smartphone and claim that art back again, alright? At least I am trying to go for a long walk every weekend now. I only have to learn to buy paper tickets for the subway instead of electronic ones, so I don’t even need to take my smartphone with me anymore…