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Life with a smartphone is like having a second brain in your pocket

Where there was once soul and body, now there’s also a phone.

On the morning of 11 March 2005, a judge called Robert M Restaino was presiding over domestic violence cases in his courtroom in Niagara Falls, New York, when a piercing sound disturbed him. It was a cellphone, ringing somewhere towards the back of the room. Restaino asked the owner of the offending item to come forward, but no one did. “Every single person is going to jail in this courtroom unless I get that instrument now,” said the judge. He sent guards to find the phone but they returned empty-handed.

The stand-off ended with 46 people in jail. Though it was an appalling violation of the rights of those who were locked up (the judge was eventually removed from the bench), the incident had to it something of the reactionary fascination of Joel Schumacher’s 1993 film, Falling Down, in which an angry divorcé attacks the modern world with a baseball bat and gun. “I’m the bad guy?” he asks when confronted by police, having shot up gangsters, a fast-food joint and a white supremacist. Maybe Restaino asked the same thing when he got fired – because phones were a pain in the ass.

But that was then. Two years after Res­taino’s hissy fit, Steve Jobs launched the first iPhone for Apple at Macworld Expo in San Francisco. Within another two and a half years, smartphones had reached 40 per cent market saturation, matching television as the consumer technology with the fastest adoption rate. There are now two billion smartphone users around the world, 204 million of them in India alone. Since Apple’s entry into the industry, the company’s market value has risen to $586bn; its closest rival, Samsung, is now worth £161.6bn. Jobs promised in 2007 that the “magical device” would “revolutionise” telecommunications. Yet it did more than that: it revolutionised communication itself.

Cellphones had become “smart” long before the iPhone. The first mobile device to offer some of the features we take for granted, such as email and a touch screen, went on sale in 1994. The IBM Simon, however, was clunky and expensive (it cost $1,100)and it had no web browser, which isn’t surprising, because Tim Berners-Lee had only come up with the idea a few years earlier. So the Simon remained a curiosity, an executive toy to place next to the Newton’s cradle.

Smartphones have since fallen in price, shrunk to pocket size and become, in effect, what the Harvard anthropologist Amber Case calls “our external brains”. “We are all cyborgs now,” she said in a 2010 Ted talk, arguing that mobile technology was “helping us to be more human, helping us to connect with each other”. People now use it to look for jobs, get directions, follow breaking news, play games, check social media and watch videos, among other things – often while pretending to be equally occupied IRL (“in real life”). Descartes posited that there was a dualism of soul and body. Perhaps there is now a third self, pinging between phones and internet servers.

Much has been made of the disruptive potential of this new mode of information access. In 2011, a University of Washington report concluded that social media, most of it through phones, had “played a central role in shaping political debates in the Arab spring”. That year, I was living in east London as riots took place across England. From my window I watched kids throwing bottles at lines of police outside. Because my flat had a deep front alcove, young men would duck in off the street and hide there. I crept down the stairs and listened to them. “Where’re we going to go next?” said one. “Check BBM!” said another. Later, I looked up what BBM meant: BlackBerry Messenger. This was a cyborg rebellion.

For most people, however, smartphones have become an indispensable part of ordinary life, rather than a tool to fight the power. According to a 2015 Pew Research Centre poll, 46 per cent of Americans can’t “live without” a smartphone. A survey conducted last year by KRC Research found that 3 per cent would rather lose their wedding ring than their phone – and that 12 per cent would even sacrifice their “mojo”.

Another recent study, published in Computers in Human Behaviour, showed that 89 per cent of participants had felt “phantom vibrations”, in which they imagined that their phone was ringing when it wasn’t. In extreme cases, this can be a sign of neurotic behaviour. And according to the psychologist Kostadin Kushlev, more frequent phone interruptions make people “less attentive and more hyperactive”. So are we becoming too attached to our external brains? Researchers at Nottingham Trent University found in 2015 that the average user checks his or her phone 85 times a day. It’s worth remembering that an early nickname for the BlackBerry was “CrackBerry”.

If we can constantly access the world, the world can constantly access us. The Chartered Management Institute warned last year that, for many UK employees, time spent dealing with after-hours work emails cancels out their annual leave. There is also concern about the extent to which the security agencies can monitor our location and calls. (The Investigatory Powers Act, which extends the reach of state surveillance of phone and internet activity in Britain, was given royal assent last November; although the EU has ruled such indiscriminate collection of data unlawful, Brexit could render future objections by Europe meaningless.)

Amber Case and other evangelists for these new hyperconnected times argue that smartphones allow us to be more human, but I’m not so sure. Nietzsche encouraged “the good solitude” as a path towards the individual’s pursuit of reason. Yet this positive isolation seems ever more out of reach, ever more anachronistic – because, even when we are physically alone, our technology binds us to external concerns. Who can be fully present in his own thoughts when his attention is tugged one way and then the other by the competing appeals of emails, texts and social media alerts, all with the wearying undertow of Fomo (“fear of missing out”)? Call me a Luddite, but I’ll stick to my 15-year-old Nokia.

Yo Zushi is a contributing writer for the New Statesman. His latest album, It Never Entered My Mind, is out now on Eidola Records and is on Spotify here.

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times

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Meet the evangelical Christian persuading believers that climate change is real

Katharine Hayhoe's Canadian missionary parents told her science and God were compatible. Then she moved to Texas. 

During Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, alarm rose with each mention of climate change. Denial, dismissal and repeated chants of “hoax” left no doubt as to his position.

Now President Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement has been seen as a seminal moment in the fight against climate change - one which many fear could lose the battle ahead of humanity.

But one scientist has been fighting a war of her own on the ground, against those who typically doubt the facts about global warming more than most - the evangelical Christian population of America.

And to make matters even more unusual, Katharine Hayhoe herself is an evangelical Christian who lives in the indisputably "bible belt" of Lubbock, Texas.

The atmospheric scientist has been named one of Time magazine's 100 most influential people and one of Politico’s 50 thinkers transforming American politics. Now she is using her considerable heft to speak to those who are hardest to convince that there is a manmade problem that threatens the Earth’s future.

I meet her at the science and music festival Starmus in Trondheim, Norway, where she is to address the attendees on Thursday in a talk entitled "Climate Change: Facts and Fictions".

Hayhoe was born in Canada, to missionary parents. Her father, a former science educator, showed her that there was no conflict between the ideas of God and science. However, it was something of a surprise to her when she discovered her pastor husband, whom she married in 2000, did not feel the same about climate change. It took her two years to convince him.

What started as a conversation became an organised project when she moved to America's South in the mid 2000s. 

“Moving to Lubbock was a culture shock," she tells me. "When I moved there I wasn’t doing much outreach, but it moved me in that direction.

“Lubbock is very conservative. It’s small and isolated.

“I would say the majority of people in Lubbock are either dismissive or doubtful about climate change. I was surrounded by people - neighbours, parents of friends, people at church, colleagues down the hall in the university - who weren’t convinced.”

So Hayhoe, who works as an associate professor and director of the Climate Science Centre at Texas Tech University, set to work. She began to collect the responses she was seeing to the climate change discussion and prepare her counter-argument.

“When I talk to people who are doubtful, I try to connect with the values they already have," she says. “The greatest myth is the myth of complacency - that ‘it doesn’t really matter to me’.

"But I would say that the second most insidious myth is that you only care about this issue if you’re a certain type of person. If you’re a green person, or a liberal person, or a granola person."

The stereotypes mean that people outside that demographic feel "I can't be that kind of person because that's not who I am", as she puts it.

Hayhoe convinced her husband using data, but rather than repeating a formula, she tries to find out what will resonate with different people: "For many groups, faith is a core value that people share.”

Whether she’s speaking to city planners, water company managers, school kids or Bible believers, Hayhoe says her hook is not the facts, but the feelings.

“I recently talked to arborists," she says. "For them, trees and plants are important, so I connect with them on that, and say ‘because we care about trees, or because we care about water or what the Bible says then let me share with you from the heart why I can about these issues because it affects something that you already care about’.

“My angle is to show people that they don’t need to be a different person at all - exactly who they already are is the kind of person who can care about climate change.”

Hayhoe came to public attention in the United States after appearing in a Showtime series on climate change. She has appeared on panels with Barack Obama and Leonardo DiCaprio, and launched a web series. As well as plaudits, this level of fame has also earned her daily threats and online abuse. 

“My critics think they’re coming from a position of religion, but they aren’t," she says. "They’re actually coming from a very specific political ideology which believes that the government should not have control over people’s lives in any way shape or form - very libertarian, free market, free economy, Tea Party."

She believes that in the United States, faith and politics has been conflated to the point "people can no longer tell the difference". 

“Now it’s conservatism that informs religion," she elaborates. "If the two are in conflict - like the Bible says God has given us responsibility over everything on this earth - then people say ‘oh, we can’t affect something as big as this Earth, God will take care of it anyway’."

Around half of those who attack her on social media identify themselves as Christians, she notes, but almost all call themselves conservatives. 

As a scientist, she’s been preparing data herself - naturally - on her online attackers, with depressingly familiar results.

“As soon as you stick your head out of the trench, you get it. There have been papers published showing that white men disproportionately form up that small group of dismissives. They’re almost all men. When I track my social media comments, I would say that 99.5 per cent of them are white men.

“Out of 1,000 negative comments, I have maybe five from women.”

After the climate change argument moved up a gear - following the Paris withdrawal - Hayhoe admits that she and her fellow scientists are concerned, although she pays tribute to the businesses, cities and states from the US that have committed to following the Paris agreement themselves.

On the subject of the chief white male denier, Trump himself, Hayhoe says she has a discussion point which she feels may convince him to think carefully about his role in the fight against global warming’s impact on humanity.

“I would attempt to connect with the values that he has and show him how acting on this would be in his best interests," she says.

“One guess would be ‘what do you want your legacy to be? What do you want to be known as, the man who destroyed the world, or the man who saved it?’”

Katharine Hayhoe is speaking at Starmus on Thursday June 22. For more details, visit Starmus.

Kirstie McCrum is a freelance journalist. Follow her @kirstiemccrum.

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