This is an opinion piece to be clear. I want you to form your own thoughts about what I say.
Like many uneasy citizens of the United States, I reread 1984, by George Orwell when President Trump was elected in 2016. While that was probably an unnecessary form of self-sabotage, I have been increasingly glad the terrifying dystopian novel is fresh on my brain.
But not because of our president.
Somehow totalitarian oppression insinuates a physical leader, so since we suddenly found ourselves with a non-traditional commander-in-chief in an uncontrollably polarizing country, the recrimination was placed on the orange man with wind-swept hair. But here is something we forget: the totalitarian ruler against which society was warned in 1984 was not a single person, but a regime hidden behind a screen. Maybe the same is still true. While the steady upheaval in our country has highlighted much unpleasant political discourse to be sure, I have trouble placing the entirety of the blame on those in charge.
In 1984, the omnipresent telescreens are meant to represent how oppressive governments use technology to spread propaganda and exploit their subjects. But what if the opposite is actually true? What if technology is using the polarization of our country, along with an ever-present confusion on which sources can be trusted, to further deepen our addiction to our little handheld devices?
The biggest culprit is still as Orwell predicted - hidden not so discreetly behind the screen. But now they are not on our walls nor on billboards lining our streets, they are in our hands all the time, next to our heads while we sleep, on our desks while we are working, in constant view while we are driving, and, increasingly, wrapped around our wrists.
If you, like most of the human race with access to a Netflix password, have watched the Social Dilemma since it exploded into popularity in the last few weeks, then you can guess where I am going. But while social media is indeed a problem for every individual and society, I don’t want to stop there. I want to take it a step further.
I blame the entire smartphone itself and all it does to us while also connecting the reality of our world back to Orwell’s ominous predictions.
Part 1: Newspeak
By my paraphrased definition, Newspeak is the systematic shrinking of a language by removing words and thereby eradicating certain thoughts, actions, beliefs, etc that “the party” in Orwell’s dystopia deemed unnecessary and/or "corrupting".
It is not a new theory that language shapes the way we think. In her TED talk, Lera Boroditsky explains a few different aspects of specific languages that have major effects on the lifestyles of those native speakers. Some languages have masculine and feminine nouns which changes the way speakers of those languages describe and think about those objects and ideas. Some cultures place smaller or bigger emphasis on ideas such as culpability or intention. There have been studies done to show just how different languages change the structure of our brains. Language is a brilliant invention with massive effects on how we think and act which is fine, until we mess with it.
While one of the beautiful things about language is that it helps to shape all the different cultures in our world, it occurred to me recently that there is a new language we are all using without fully understanding the potential implications. And what if that language was being created by a handful of computer scientists on a small campus in California?
Yes, Emojis. Cue eye roll. Bear with me.
Emojis are rampant in texting and communication. We use emojis to express feelings and moods and reactions. We use them to represent objects and ideas. The fear, to me, begins when I start thinking about what those emojis are replacing. While it is hard to quantify the full amount of words used in the English language, the estimate is between 750,000 and 1 million words. While a handful of these words are not commonly used - such as the compounds on the periodic table and other uncommon, industry specific words - for English speakers our options in everyday speech are vast. In comparison, there are 117 emojis. If you include all the various skin tone options, there are 2,823. Now, if we are boiling down our vocabulary from 750,000 words to 2,823, it’s hard to believe that this is not having an effect on our brain.
We are the lucky ones, however. When we start to think about the age in which children begin using emojis to express simple and complex ideas and emotions, it is scary to imagine how this limited language is affecting their brain development and cognitive capacity for language. We know that language affects brain structure, but we have never been faced with such an inadequate language.
Not only is this new language miniscule by comparison, but it is also man-made by a very small group of individuals.
In Social Dilemma, Tristan Harris, president and co-founder of the Center for Humane Technology, expresses his anxiety about the large scale implications of a few decisions made by a couple of people, “2 billion people will have thoughts and that they didn’t intend to have because a designer at google said this is how notifications work on that screen that you wake up to every morning.” While Harris isn’t expressly speaking about emojis, the same anxieties can be applied, just like the same fear comes into play when we are faced with “suggested words” while texting on iMessage. This is possibly the most indiscreet form of controlling communication we are faced with hundreds of times a day.
Tristan Harris is not alone in those fears. In 1984, the idea of Newspeak was explained as the boiling down of language to a couple of words that will inevitably shape our thoughts, decisions and morals.
“Don't you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thought-crime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it. Every concept that can ever be needed will be expressed by exactly one word, with its meaning rigidly defined and all its subsidiary meanings rubbed out and forgotten. . . . The process will still be continuing long after you and I are dead. Every year fewer and fewer words, and the range of consciousness is always a little smaller. Even now, of course, there's no reason or excuse for committing thought-crime. It's merely a question of self-discipline, reality-control. But in the end there won't be any need even for that. . . .”
The final fear is just as Orwell predicts, there won’t be need for individual thought and creativity. The screen in front of us will do that for us. While I don’t believe that Apple and other tech giants are actively trying to manipulate us through their new language, that doesn’t mean the impact is not still upon us. Are we raising an entire generation that will not know how to express their feelings in any way other than using little yellow faces? Will that same generation lack ingenuity and creativity because of the limited language given to them?
Part 2: Two Minutes Hate
In 1984, Two Minutes Hate is a two-minute period each morning in which all citizens take part to exhaust their anger toward existential frustrations or the opposing party.
We all seem to know that social media is an issue. It is a problem for each individual. It is a problem for our society. But much like what is described in the first few pages of 1984, “The horrible thing about the Two Minutes Hate was not that one was obliged to act a part, but that it was impossible to avoid joining in.” Social media is nearly impossible to avoid. Even for those who do opt out, it still affects you.
Admittedly, it’s a bit narrow minded and aggressive to compare social media platforms and usage to “Two Minutes Hate” without acknowledging that social media does a lot of good. It gives people a platform who would never have had the opportunity. It helps spread charity work and connects people from around the world.
But at what cost? Suicide rates are rising, depression is rising. Filters are causing a young generation of girls to seek plastic surgery before the age of 18 so they can look more like the filters on their phones. These horrifying facts should stand on their own, but we are all still stuck in the grasps of it!
Part 3: Thought Police
The Thought Police is a secret police who seek out and discover thoughts and beliefs of the citizens that don’t line up with the party’s ideals. Having such thoughts is considered Thought Crime and is punishable by forced labor or death.
Cancel culture. We have given the power to individuals hiding behind their Twitter feeds to cancel, or remove from influence, people who say or do one wrong thing. There is no conversation, no defense or second chance. They are "cancelled". But instead of a regime mandated police group, this power lands with the app users. In this case, reality is more dire than the dystopian novel. We are governing ourselves and subjectively condemning one another for “crimes” as simple as stating our opinion or making a joke.
Part 4: Physical Jerks
Each morning, all citizens are forced to participate in mandatory exercise routines led by the party. The party broadcasts it on the screen and will call out individual members if they are not putting in enough effort or focus.
While our smartphones do not force us into exercise routines each morning, the goal of these devices in general is to hold our attention and figure out targeted ways to draw us back in as often as possible, maintaining our focus and minimizing our time spent not staring at our phones.
Research shows that creativity is sparked and harvested during boredom, conversation, reflection and mind-wandering. It doesn’t just appear in the moments between checking Twitter. Our phones are doing everything they can to reduce those exact moments. As soon as we’re bored, we check our phones to see if they have anything new for us. When we send a text, we see the “dot, dot, dot” feature pop up to hold our attention until we get a response. These phones provide us an “out” from the initial discomfort of a lot of feelings. However, those feelings often lead to reflection, self-reliance and new ideas.
Again, the biggest fear is for the generation growing up with this constant “entertainment.” There are YouTube channels of kids playing dolls. Little girls are watching other children play games instead of playing themselves. Instead of coloring on tablecloths at restaurants, parents can stick a phone in front of their kids’ faces to keep them distracted.
These phones, apps and entertainment systems make their money from our time spent using them. They are competing for our attention. We are letting them take it.
Part 5: Doublethink
And here is possibly the biggest obstacle facing us: we know the dangers, we have all seen the stats, and each of us have likely found ourselves scrolling through our phones without remembering how and why we got there. Yet, we still do it.
“To know and not to know, to be conscious of complete truthfulness while telling carefully constructed lies, to hold simultaneously two opinions which cancelled out, knowing them to be contradictory and believing in both of them, to use logic against logic... Even to understand the word 'doublethink' involved the use of doublethink.” - Orwell, 1984
Why do we do it? We are addicted. I am addicted, and not the fun and exciting kind of addicted used colloquially, the mindless and harmful kind.
We know it is harming us, our society and our children and we are actively accepting that fate each day when we pick up our phones for no reason other than not knowing what to do with our hands.
So what do we do?
Part 6: A Place Where There is No Darkness
A place where there is no darkness is an imagined world in the mind of the protagonist where he can dream and think safely.
At the end of the Social Dilemma, we are given a few options. We outlaw social media. Or, we tax the data that our phones are gathering to create fiscal accountability for the sheer mass of information our phones are taking from us. But more realistically and succinctly put by Alex Roetter, “You can’t put the genie back in the bottle.”
But in my opinion, that is not the issue. The issue is us.
A place where there is no darkness is like envisioning and hoping for a planet without smartphones. I don’t foresee that happening. We have them and unless serious reform comes, we will always have them in some form.
What I find very encouraging is that we can once again rely on our own individual spirit. We can create our own fate by acknowledging the harm. You may not agree with everything I say and that’s the beauty of thinking for yourself. But I’ll leave you with a few challenges:
Use your phone as a tool alone, they’re very convenient pieces of technology. Use your calculator and your weather app. Use social media to connect with friends and spread your thoughts and beliefs. But think twice when you pick it up. Ask yourself why you are giving it your attention.
Be bored. Don’t take your phone everywhere. Get used to being without it for a few hours a day. Throw it in the back of your car when you’re driving. Leave it in your bag when you’re eating or reading or writing or painting.
Finally, allow your mind to wander and let’s see what happens.
- Emily Menges