Do you check your cellphone before you get out of bed in the morning? That’s the first question posed in Dysconnected Isolated By Our Mobile Devices (AJKS Press). The book by Vancouver-based UBC neuropsychiatry clinical associate professor, artist and author Anton Scamvougeras combines his definitive illustrations of humans with heads designed like isolation helmets connecting them to their devices but not the outside world.
Select quotes from philosophers, pop culture stars, scientists and others are included throughout as well. It is available at dysconnected.com, amazon.com and good local bookstores in B.C. and beyond.
The resulting text is one of the more powerful, prescient and — ironically — morbidly funny books to breach the oft-debated subject of humans and high-tech. Plus, the larger format print copy makes for a fine coffee table tome as well as one of the best gifts you could give to that special someone this year that won’t involve pushing send.
Scamvougeras took time to answer some questions about his witty, wise and unique world view as expressed in his book. We’ve chosen to run the piece in length as the topic is one that is increasingly becoming tied to the health of our society and institutions.
There is a reason that “less screen time” is one of the more commonly cited New Year’s Eve resolutions and this book supports that with intellectually stimulating content.
Of all the books I’ve encountered in 2016, Dysconnected Isolated By Our Mobile Devices, is easily the one that opened up more topics to contemplate in those “gap” times when I wasn’t glued to a screen.
Question: Dysconnected is a powerful text. Was there a specific moment that inspired you to create it?
Answer: I observed what many of us have seen: smartphones are changing our behaviours, and much of this change doesn’t seem good. The actual moment of inspiration for the central Dysconnected image came to me completely non-verbally, while I was sketching — a picture emerged of a person ‘boxed-in’ and isolated by their cellphone use. Its effect was powerful. I created the series using old pen, ink and wash techniques. I think some of us have ‘seen’ this image in our mind’s eye; and many people have an ‘of course!’ response to the pictures. The passages of text are from readings, experiences and research. The book came together naturally, with interwoven images and text, each informing the other. As I say in the book, in the future, the happiest, most content and satisfied people will be those of us who learn to best manage our relationships with our devices. I hope Dysconnected helps make us wiser users of our technology.
Q: Is the dominant image throughout the book of humans with screen focused heads a peek into a possible evolution? The quote from neuroscientist Susan Greenfield on technology changing our brains suggests this.
A: If we were to study the brain function of a person who uses their phone five to six hours per day, sending or receiving 225 texts per day (if these sound like high numbers, then you’ll be surprised to hear they were the averages for a group of U.S. university students in a recent study), we would expect to find the kind of changes you’d also see in the brains of people with other compulsive behaviours — like problem gamblers, or substance addicts. It’s not a coincidence that some refer to their phones as ‘the slot-machine in my pocket.’ So, yes, intense mobile device use does change our brains.
But we haven’t had time to adapt to smartphones in an evolutionary sense. Quite soon, many people will likely be living with ‘wearable’ technology, and may even look different as a consequence. But we will still essentially be the same human animal that we have been for tens of thousands of years.
The rate of increase in information has been so rapid, and new mobile technologies are so powerful, and so seductive, that they challenge us more profoundly than earlier technological advances. And this is about to step up a big notch with the widespread availability of Virtual Reality applications.
Q: The quotes from everyone from Adele to Marcus Aurelius all appear to appeal to humans to separate from themselves and participate. Is that Dysconnected’s message?
A: Yes, it is. The message is to try to thoroughly engage with the world around you. Use your smartphone, but use it knowingly. Take pause when you find yourself reaching for it automatically for no good reason. Not so long ago, we would all regularly have brief periods in the day where nothing particular was happening — small breaks while waiting for a friend, sitting on a bus, walking from one place to another. During these periods we would daydream, or observe the world, or feel bored, or play with ideas. And these ‘gap times’ are arguably very important … it’s where we may be creative, solve dilemmas or allow important decisions to brew.
Joe Kraus, a tech sector entrepreneur said “If I let it, my phone easily takes up every gap in my day.” This often happens at a ‘pre-cognitive’ motor level, you find your hand reaching for your phone before thought has even kicked in. Smartphones are interfering with our ability to reflect quietly on our lives.
Q: Perhaps the most powerful quote of all is from the late Steve Jobs about limiting his children’s use of technology. Do you advocate that?
A: Jobs was obviously aware that his technology was a double-edged sword. Smartphones are so useful they are clearly here to stay, but, like any other tool, you can use them for good things or bad. You can use a hammer to build a barn, but you can also use it to bash yourself on the head repeatedly.
I do advocate for using mobile devices more wisely, and, for most of us, that also means less often. If we decide we want to help ourselves or our children ‘cut down,’ how do we do that? The first, and most commonly used method is through external restrictions. This entails setting rules such as ‘no cellphones in the bedroom’, or forced weekly ‘digital vacations’ (Sunday dawn to dusk?). Or limiting daily ‘screen-time’ for children.
There are even apps to limit one’s smartphone use. But humans are resourceful, and, if the urge is great enough, we find a way around rules. For instance, more than 90 per cent of Canadian children aged 11-15 use screens of some sort for more than the recommended limit of two hours per day. So, perhaps more important than using external guidelines, is for us to gain internal insight into how phone use affects our quality of life. That, I suspect, is key.
People who see what they’re doing, understand the risks, and use that insight to moderate their mobile device use, will have better lives. Extending that to children, wise parents will probably want to use external guidelines but also, simultaneously, educate children about the downside of overuse of mobile technology, and the upside of life away from too many technological intrusions.
Q: Is there an electronic version of the book?
A: Haha (that’s an old way of saying ‘LOL’). There isn’t but there could be. Dysconnected, the book, probably wouldn’t exist without the Internet. The images were initially posted to a daily blog, which determined the rhythm of their creation. Some of the text research was done on the Web. The book was designed on computer and printed with the help of lots of online communication. The ironies of all this are not lost on us!
But, no, there is no electronic version of the book. I consciously made it a relatively large format paper and ink object, and I like to imagine people taking it into a garden or a park or a quiet corner, and spending time reading it, undisturbed and undistracted. It’s ultimately designed to encourage quiet reflection on life’s priorities. The message is best suited to hard copy.
I’m reminded of Patti Smith saying: ‘Please, no matter how we advance technologically, please don’t abandon the book. There is nothing in our material world more beautiful than the book.’