If you have 3 minutes to spare, please watch this cute but cutting video about our mobile phone addiction. (And if you don’t think you have 3 minutes to spare, why not put your phone in flight mode for the rest of the day – the average person spends 90 minutes a day on their phone, so that should free up a good chunk of time.)

The video might exaggerate our addiction issue, but not much. You think it’s unlikely that a crowd would watch a young girl jump to her death from a high building, using their smartphones to video her from the ledge to the ground before carrying right on with their day? Check out these stories:

Shoppers take photos instead of trying to help a woman who has just been knocked down by a car ploughing through the door of a drugstore.

In Singapore, people were more interested in taking photos of a man whose leg was pinned underneath a bus than in helping to free him.

In County Durham, bystanders took photos rather than helping a mother and daughter who were trapped in their car when a tree fell onto it.

In Pittsburgh, people took selfies instead of helping a woman beaten unconscious in the street.

We hear a lot about the side-effects of mobile phone addiction – not just in situations like the above, but also on road safety, on relationships, memory, brain capacity, sleep, stress, and productivity – but I’m more interested in the flipside of that addiction: what is the opportunity cost of all that time we spent glued to our phones? Or to put it another way, what did we used to do with those 90 minutes that we don’t do now?

There are worrying signs that children are reading less in favour of social media, YouTube, and playing mobile games and apps. Reading is good for children, helping them develop language, literacy, curiosity, imagination, meaning-making and brain development. Online activities, not so much.

We used to spend more time getting to know people. In this Radio 4 programme, Hussein Chalayan, a fashion designer, mentions that in the past he used to get to know his models, and to build real relationships with them as people. Now, he says, the models are very young and they’re always on their phones, so he really doesn’t get to know them.

But in my view, even more worrying that not taking time to get to know other people, is that we miss out on time to get to know ourselves. Let me explain where I’m coming from with this.

I’m continuing to study the Gene Keys. According to my profile, my Life’s Work is the 10th Gene Key, “Being”. As with all the Gene Keys, Being has three levels:

Shadow (in the Jungian sense): Self-Obsession

Gift: Naturalness

With Being itself being the Divine Gift, or the highest form of this Gene Key.

An interesting feature of Being is that you have to go through the shadow of self-obsession before you can reach the gift of naturalness. The book explains that when we start to individuate (i.e. ask ourselves “Who am I?”), we have to go through the self-obsession phase in order to find that, when we peel away all the layers of the onion, there is nothing/everything there at the core. In other words, the further we go in seeking our “self”, the clearer it becomes that we have no self at all. This is the only way to make the journey. There is no shortcut directly to Naturalness without going via Self-Obsession.

This really resonated with me, as it very much describes my experience on the Atlantic Ocean. I had hoped to have entertainment, and was looking forward to listening to music on the onboard stereo. But for the first month the weather was too overcast for my solar panels to generate enough electricity for anything other than the absolute essentials (watermaker, GPS, satellite phone), and about two days after the sun came out, the stereo stopped working. I opened it up to find out the insides were rusted.

So I was left alone with no entertainment but my own thoughts. For three and a half months. Brutal.

It was no fun at the time, but wow, I seriously fast-tracked through the shadow of self-obsession (although I still have my moments!) and emerged into naturalness.

So the way I see it, the danger of our mobile phones is twofold (excluding the obvious physical danger of driving or walking into something):

  • Often we’re using our phones for social media, which in itself promotes an unhealthy kind of self-obsession (I’m currently reading Selfie, by Will Storr, which draws disturbing conclusions about social media and suicide. And don’t even start me on the perils of Facebook.)
  • By not allowing our brains any down-time, we’re actually running away from ourselves. Rather than allow time for healthy reflection and introspection, we distract ourselves with mostly irrelevant trivia.

I can very much understand the temptation. This is not an easy world to fully engage with. Daily we are assaulted with crowds, noise, advertising, and terrifying stories about a globe gone haywire (like the death of the last male northern white rhino, or the collapse of France’s bird population). It’s not surprising that we seek solace in the reassuring glow of our mobile phone screen.

But that is not real life. That is not real living. More than ever, we need to be paying attention to reality, because it’s about to come and kick us in the backside.

Say no to distraction, and yes to engagement and action.


Other Stuff:

I’ve overdosed on speaker events this week:

Monday: Yuval Noah Harari and Thomas Friedman for How To Academy/New York Times – two brilliant minds debating pessimism vs optimism for the future

Tuesday: Adam Kay (doctor turned comedy writer, with some extremely wince-worthy anecdotes), Oliver Kamm (journalist), Mona Arshi (human rights lawyer turned poet), Tara Westover (daughter of radical survivalist Mormon parents), Wade Davis (more about him in a moment) and my friend Guin Batten (Olympian and ocean rower) for 5×15

Wednesday: Wade Davis (again) for How To Academy: anthropologist, ethnobotanist, National Geographic Explorer in Residence – fabulous slideshow and fascinating insights into the need for cultural diversity

All very well worth going to, but I’ll take a break for a while now.

Tomorrow I’m off to Finland for the weekend, to test run a new women-only retreat, occupying an entire island just west of Helsinki. We’re told the showers aren’t working yet, but worse things happen at sea. Looking forward to it!

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