Technology shouldn’t take anything away from us, make us lazy or dependent on it. Instead, it should be our motivation to act and to develop good habits, says Konrad Maj, PhD, a social psychologist from the SWPS University of Social Sciences and Humanities, in conversation with Monika Redzisz

Monika Redzisz: There’s an application called “Nothing”. And it does… absolutely nothing. When you run it on your phone, a light grey screen appears with only one word in the middle: “Nothing”. That’s all. What could it possibly be useful for? Is it a gadget to help mystics in their meditation? Or maybe someone is trying to tell us that we have too many apps in our mobiles?

Konrad Maj*: It certainly gives us all much food for thought. But do we really have too many applications? You could ask the same question about books or games. Whether an app is good or not is decided by its users. Some applications get very popular, while others are quickly forgotten. Most of us use only a few of them. Applications serve many different purposes: education, assistance or entertainment. We have so many needs to satisfy! Even the applications that might seem utterly useless and worthless also have their fans.

What were the most bizarre applications you have ever seen?

There’s an application that can measure the height at which you throw your mobile phone in the air (a concept that is as absurd as it is destructive for your device). I would call it an “anti-smartphone” app, but people like it. “Binky” is a social app with no community where haters and gossipers can post their comments without being banned because nobody can read them. There’s also an app to pop virtual zits and another one that lets you milk a cow or, to be more precise, to pull its udders.

Why would anyone develop such apps? They’re costly and time-consuming.

I’m asking myself that question too. People have different dreams and needs. For example, there’s an application which can make you feel rich for a little while. It’s about counting virtual banknotes worth one million dollars. There is a certain number of apps that force us to interact with the phone in a different way. In one of them we have to melt a virtual icicle by touching the screen with your tongue. Another one uses a special accessory to allow you to send a kiss. There’s also an app that can teach you how to kiss passionately; if you’re interested, you can watch some YouTube videos with people licking their smartphone screens. Obviously, during the coronavirus pandemic all “organoleptic” apps have taken a dive.

Our grandfathers were fond of their multi-tool pocket knives and we enjoy our smartphones with applications

However, irrespective of usefulness of different applications, I’m fascinated by people’s creativity. Developers know how to identify our needs and how to find a niche. “FakeCall”, for instance, allows you to receive a fake incoming call to help you leave a boring meeting. Another app lets you light a virtual cigarette lighter during a concert. Isn’t that ingenious? I’m a judge of the global Huawei Apps Up contest for application developers and creators (see frame). I can’t wait to see what they will come up with this year.

Applications in our smartphones create a mirror image of the real world. Almost every aspect of our life has its virtual equivalent: banks, shops, healthcare centers, games, toys…

It’s our must-have. Our grandfathers were fond of their multi-tool pocket knives and we enjoy our smartphones with applications. They are often very useful programs which make our life easier. Besides, we can all be creators. Making an application is getting increasingly cheaper and easier and thanks to globalization you can earn decent money even you sell niche products like the one in which you have to milk a cow.

It’s true that some of them make our life easier but at the same time they limit our cognitive abilities. GPS has become a part of my everyday life and whenever I drive a car without it, I am ill at ease even in a city I have been living in for years.

That’s true. There have been quite a few research studies about it. Research done by the University College London team led by Hugon Spiers, who relied on magnetic resonance, has proven that the use of GPS reduces our spatial awareness and causes necrosis of some of our neurons. It prevents us from improving our ability to memorize and locate objects we come across when moving. The part of the brain responsible for memory and spatial awareness is not sufficiently stimulated. Early humans couldn’t do without such skills. Even today villagers from Amazonia can easily find their way home after covering large distances in the jungle. They know how to identify different waypoints. We’re gradually losing that skill because we have decided not to improve it. GPS is an invention of our generation. We haven’t been using it long enough to be able to predict any long-term consequences, but we can already tell that it might prove dangerous.

What should we do then? Stop using GPS devices?

Well, we’re faced with a dilemma. On the one hand we say: “It’s been a long day and I’m so tired. I think I’ll listen to music and my GPS will guide me home.”. A convenient solution, especially if you turn on the “avoid traffic” function. I’m not saying GPS should be banned but I think it’s high time we realized that sometimes we use it too often. Let your brain do some exercise, force it to make an effort and don’t use your GPS when you don’t have to.

That sounds similar to going to the gym. We should do physical exercise although we don’t need big muscles to survive.

Exactly! You have to stay fit. When you drive a car you have to use your imagination to create a map in your head. You have to spot and remember characteristic objects and perform such operations as rotating elements of reality in your head. You have to use your long-term memory. In short, you have to dig deep in your hippocampus and prefrontal cortex. The USL team led by Spiers I referred to earlier has proven that the hippocampus area in the brains of taxi drivers shunning GPS is getting bigger. And that is extremely important for other activities such as designing for example.

Today designers have computer simulations at their disposal, so imagination is not a must anymore. In the process of evolution we have lost many skills that we didn’t need. So maybe now it’s time to leave spatial awareness behind?

We need to find the golden mean. Otherwise, future generations will have problems with coming back home from a local store.

What is the golden mean? How to establish a delineation between beneficial and adverse effects of using technological prostheses?

The problem appears when we start using those prostheses too often and when we get addicted to them. If we are so excited about an app that we can’t put it away for one minute, that should be a warning sign for us. In psychology, much attention is given to working on self-control during the process of your personal development, i.e. to knowing how to resist from taking some actions and how not to let your whims and desires take over. We need to be able to control our behavior. Things get messy when the apps take over control of ourselves and of our decisions and when we realize that we can’t cope without them in our everyday life.

Nowadays we are not only busy but also bombarded with loads of information. We’ve forgotten what “being bored” means. This can be seen in particular in the case of children who are never at a loose end as they have a bunch of interesting smartphone apps that will always keep them busy. Isn’t it dangerous? How does it affect their creativity?

You are right. It may have serious consequences for children. When a kid starts getting bored, they should activate their brains and not unlock their phones for ready solutions. Last year, the Irish team from the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) led by Selina McCoy published a report from the “Growing Up in Ireland” study of 8.5 thousand local children. The authors have found that children who owned a mobile phone at the age of 9 achieved poorer results (by 4%) at standard reading comprehension and math tests taken at the age of 13. Fortunately, according to study meta-analyses, older teenagers can cope better with the digital world and risk to experience hyperactivity, lack of concentration or depression problems only if they spend too much time with their apps. Applications don’t stimulate the brain of a young person as much as sensorimotor experiences, i.e. when we are touching, constructing, drawing, painting or modeling something. That’s why in Montessori, Waldorf and other schools kids can’t bring their phones into the classroom. Instead, teachers are trying to encourage them to do sports and various movement-related activities and interactions. But young people also need the time to chill out, to stop doing anything, to reflect upon themselves and to observe the world. And you can’t concentrate on observing the world around you with a smartphone in your hand, can you? In Poland, teenagers who can’t live five minutes without touching their phone have been dubbed by their friends as those suffering from “smartiasis”.

During my holidays I saw children spending their whole time doing something on their smartphones instead of enjoying breathtaking views or building sandcastles

Is it possible to set different rules for children and adults? It’s obvious that children will always copy whatever we do.

There is no question that our parents are our role models. During my holidays I saw children spending their whole time doing something on their smartphones instead of enjoying breathtaking views or building sandcastles. What’s more, many parents believe that this is a good way for their children learn new technologies. That’s a false assumption. Technology shouldn’t take anything from us. On the contrary, it should give us something extra, make our tasks easier, provide knowledge we can process, make it possible to foster connection to other people. In short, it should contribute to our personal development. It shouldn’t make us lazy or dependent on it. It should be our motivation to act and to develop good habits.

How can we tell the difference between good and bad applications?

There’s no universal rule. Sometimes subtle aspects can decide about whether an app will guide us and help us develop the mechanism of self-control or degrade it. One thing is sure though. We should carefully choose the tools we want to use. There are many app developers that check their products in collaboration with research centers.

But a lot depends on a particular situation. Some time ago, Roy Baumeister [Editor’s note: an acclaimed American social psychologist], who does experiments on willpower, conducted a certain study. He gave deliciously scrumptious cookies to two groups of people, asking one of them not to eat them. Obviously, that group had to keep their head right. Next, everyone was asked to solve a complex problem. It turned out that those who had eaten the cookies were able to work on the problem for 20 minutes while those who had had to resist the temptation gave up after only 8 minutes. This proves that our self-control resources are limited. Why am I referring to that example in the context of applications? Because applications may be useful for people who work too much and who have to make difficult decisions on a daily basis, which costs them a lot of energy. Such persons see the applications as their salvation and as a perfect tool to save their self-control and decision-making resources for professional purposes. The problem doesn’t lie in the applications themselves but in what they are, who uses them and to what end and how often they are used.

*Konrad Maj, PhDan assistant professor in the Social Psychology Department of the Faculty of Psychology, SWPS University of Social Sciences and Humanities. He is the leader of the HumanTech Meetings as well as the initiator and the head of the HumanTech Innovation Center, an entity focused on the analysis of latest social and technological trends. His research revolves around media psychology and innovations. His classes concentrate on social psychology, psychology of social influence and social innovations.

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