We seem to be fixated on fixing things. We have become so fixated with doing so, that sometimes we fix what “ain’t broke.”
I’ll use an example to illustrate this problem.
In 1973 Martin Cooper, who was working for Motorola, built the first cell phone. Ten years later the cell phone went commercial.
What problem was Cooper trying to fix? In an interview years later, he answered that by suggesting that the “old phones with wires” trapped people: “That’s not good,” he claimed. “We thought the time was ready for personal communication, because people are just naturally mobile,” he said.
Since then, cell phone ownership and usage has sky rocketed. This year it is expected that the number of people owning a mobile phone will reach 7.26 billion. In terms of the actual numbers of cell phones this only tells part of the story. Cell phones are replaced, on average, every three years. On billion new phones are shipped every year.
This “solution” however has spawned a number of problems. Here is a brief outline of some of those problems:
Cell phone addiction. This addiction even has a name – nomophobia (no mobile phone phobia), a word that did not exist prior to 2008. Nomophobia is the fear of being without one’s mobile phone. When we realise that mobile phone users receive more than four times as many messages and notifications today than a decade ago, and that three times as many texts are sent, it is easy to suggest that an addiction is in place.
Mobile phone addiction is implicated in: sleep deprivation and insomnia (because of the amount of night-time use, especially by teenagers,) lower concentration ability, creativity blockages, increased ADD, anxiety, reduced cognition, stress, loneliness, insecurity, impaired relationships, poor grades, and psychological disorders. There is also research showing a loss of brain grey matter, similar to substance use and addiction.
Reduced social interaction. Get on a commuter bus or train almost anywhere in the world and count the number of person-to-person social interactions there are. Most commuters will be glued to their mobile phone.
Depression and suicide. Both depression and suicide have been correlated with cell phone addiction.
Cyberbullying. Greater levels of cell phone use amongst teenagers correlate with a higher likelihood of being victims of, or perpetrators of, cyberbullying.
E-waste. In 2021 an estimated 57.4 million tonnes of e-waste was generated globally, with mobile phones making up a significant proportion of this. In the U.S. alone more than 150 million cell phones are discarded and end up in landfill. With the average cell phone being replaced every three years, this problem will only get worse.
Electricity Usage. The IT and communications sector currently consumes approximately 2% of the world’s total energy. Although each individual cell phone uses little electricity, when cell phone towers, networks that connect them, and data processing centres etc are factored in, the carbon footprint of cell phones is not insignificant.
Environmental consequences. A Smartphone is made of about 40% metal (mainly copper, gold, platinum, silver, and tungsten,) 40% plastic, and 20% ceramics and trace elements. Around 80% of the carbon footprint of a cell phone is generated in the mining and manufacturing stages. Plus, gold mining in the Amazon, for instance, is responsible for deforestation and the extraction process generates mercury and cyanide waste contaminating water and drinking sources. Coltan (columbite-tantalites, and important in the production of capacitors in cell phones) is mined in the Congo where it is traded by armed groups to finance civil war.
Dumbing down. I witness this often. A group of people talking, and a question is raised. Immediately someone will turn to their cell phone for the answer. Often it is the first link that is read out. We are being dumbed down by technology. Apparently, even the presence of your cell phone nearby can reduce your cognitive capacity.1 Furthermore, as Prof Mark Williams (a neuroscientist at Macquarie University) notes, “Information learnt on a digital device does not get retained very well and is not transferred to the real world.”
So, what have all these problems left us with?
Parents, counsellors, and teachers all trying to solve the problem of teenage nomophobia, depression and thoughts of suicide.
Parents, teachers, and police trying to solve the problem of cyberbullying.
Counsellors, psychologists, and sociologists trying to solve the problem of social isolation.
Cities and municipalities trying to solve the problem of e-waste.
Environmentalists and governments trying to solve the problem of environmental destruction and increased electricity usage.
Everyone trying to solve the problem of carbon footprint.
Teachers and other educationalists trying to solve the problem of a population becoming cognitively deficient.
Just One Example
This is but one example of the problem with problems. Trying to fix them only leads to more, often worse, problems. Many times too, the original “problem” was not a problem at all. The “problem” is often nothing more than what Vanessa Machado de Oliveira cites as two of the six Cs of “ego-logical desires” of modernity – comfort and convenience.2 Surely, that is the case with cell phones. They were invented for our comfort and convenience, not because of any real problem.
Yet, this has happened time and time again. We “fix” something simply because it satisfies our ego’s desire for one or more of the six ego-logical desires.
We continue to do so. We want to fix problems. Yet, today, we are in a predicament. We cannot “fix” things.
Possibly the best we can do is to stop our fixation with fixing. Most likely we need to seriously consider our egotistical desire for the six Cs.
That is the problem we need to fix. Our own egos.
1. Ward, Duke, Greezy, Bos, Journal of the Association for Consumer Research, Vol 2, No. 2, April 2017, pp 140-1542. The other Cs are: consumption, certainty, control, and coherence. See Vanessa Machado de Oliveira, Hospicing Modernity, North Atlantic Books, Berkeley, California, 2021.
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