It was not until I fractured my elbow that I became aware of the extent to which people are glued to their smartphones. To paraphrase Dr Johnson, when a man knows he is about to be ploughed into, and have his arm further damaged, by someone staring downwards instead of forwards, it concentrates the mind wonderfully. So many people seem to find what's on their phone more interesting than their surroundings or even their own safety; it's quite astonishing.
I've already written about the ways in which I felt that using a smartphone intensively was affecting me, but from reading Offline I seem to have got off lightly. The authors delve into a whole range of effects, grouped into the categories of physical, psychological and social. They have coined a phrase to describe the overall effects: DEFRAG, or Digital Fragmentation. Although many of these effects will not be a surprise to many of us, the strength of this book lies in the way it explains how popular applications like Facebook use addictive design to cajole us into decking constantly for updates, by giving us "dopamine hits" You might say that addictive design uses the body's natural mechanisms against itself. It leads to a predilection for short, quick "fixes" of information in preference to more difficult and involved activities.
The distinctions between the different kinds of confirmation bias are interesting, as are the different forms that allowing yourself to be drawn in can take. These may be statements of the obvious, but by stating them clearly the authors are showing how to recognise the situations in which they occur, so you can more easily break the habit. Indeed, there is a chapter devoted to helping you "kick the habit", which involves, amongst other things, keeping a diary. However, keeping a diary of any sort has never held much appeal to me, and the only part of this section I found useful was the suggestion of turning off notifications, which I kept forgetting to do.
This section also suggests ways of managing your kids' smartphone use. One of the chief ways, of course, is to lead by example. On the subject of youngsters, conflicting views are presented about the long term consequences for teenagers of smartphone and social media use. As one quoted researcher says, we will soon be in the position of having difficulty in finding having enough people for a control group in future studies. Mind you, this does assume that nearly every youngster will have a smartphone and use social media in the near future, and I'm not convinced that that will be the case.
As good as the book is, there are a couple of things I found irritating. One is the inclusion of Wikipedia articles in the copious notes and references at the end of chapters. At the risk of coming across as a latter-day Luddite, I remain unconvinced of the trustworthiness of Wikipedia for serious study, despite dubious comparisons with the error rate of Encyclopaedia Britannica articles.
The second irritation is the use of what I would call "spurious comparison". Apparently, online services enable companies like Apple and Amazon to make around $500 billion a year, or a stack of hundred-dollar bills about 500 kilometres high. Can you envisage what that looks like? Me neither. What's the point of a visual image that is impossible to visualise?
The authors rightly point out that what many studies they cite demonstrate is correlation, not necessarily causation. However, this book leaves one with the distinct impression that something is rotten in the state of social media, and that it's up to each of us to get a grip and control our use of smartphones, For many people, it seems that their smartphone is controlling them.
Please note that this book was sent to me for review. However, that has not influenced this review. You can purchase the book on Amazon via this affiliate link: Offline