CNET and CBS News Senior Producer Dan Patterson sat down with the Future Today Institute founder and quantitative futurist Amy Webb to discuss the potential consequences for our smartphone dependency. The following is an edited transcript of the interview.
Dan Patterson: It is not a series of accidents that a news feed or that a search algorithm performs in a way that can be perceived to be addictive. And let's not leave Apple out of the conversation or Google who create the platforms in the devices that we use. These companies also know about our behavior. In fact, Apple tried to get ahead of this trend with their new screen time. So the contact that's the context. So what I'm asking you is who is responsible for that? And is this bad, it has been portrayed as being very bad. Smartphone addiction is the next big bad trend. But is it that bad?
Amy Webb: First of all, the tech companies are certainly to blame to some extent. But again, this is a nuanced, complicated situation, we find ourselves in. I had the very first iPhone and the very first iPod. I don't remember feeling like, I constantly needed to check my phone or to constantly, I guess, look at my iPod. I don't feel like I... And in fact, I can remember I had moved back to the United States and was visiting friends in Japan who were sleeping next to their phones and using their phones as alarms. And I had an iPhone at that point and they were also checking it before they went to bed. And I remember thinking, that's really weird, right? And today, who among us doesn't have their phone next to their head when they're sleeping? Something has changed.
Again, I don't think it was anybody's intention. I think this is one of those knowable uncertainties that this was a potential outcome that we sort of chose to ignore. And everybody chose to ignore, not just the tech companies, but also us as consumers. Part of our compulsion is tethered not just to the technology, but to the 24 hour news cycle. And news, I'm putting in air quotes, because part of what we're tuning into is, which leader in Congress in the White House, in the adjacent circles is going to say, the next stupid thing next. I spent my entire morning reading, I'll give you two examples. And I don't consider myself to be addicted to my phone. And yet, I could not put it down this morning, the Department of Homeland Security released a memo about the border wall, just making the rounds. If you read that memo, which is, was it Homeland Security, no it was DHS.
If you read that memo, with the Incredible Hulk voice in your head, the memo is full of weird grammatical errors and other things. And so not only was I like, fascinated by the fact that this memo existed, and that it was an artifact of our government. But then I was fascinated by all the things that everybody was saying afterwards.
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Dan Patterson: But not everyone gets off on that. And certainly that behavior... Look at China or Japan, where they dial into what was happening in their political ecosystem. Or were there other factors that had them glued to their phone? This might be a particular factor here in the West, or here in the United States, but-
Amy Webb: I think everybody is addicted to these devices for different reasons. There's plenty of scientific research around what is causing those dopamine hits. Some of it is affirmation, some of it is just stimulus all the time. And that certainly, I think, is a problem, not because of the addictive nature of it, but because it keeps us so fixed in the present. There's no time for contemplation.
The uncertainty that we feel that we get that high off of because we don't know what's going to happen next, is very different from the actual uncertainties of life which we need to sit with, and think about and work through. And to me, that is concerning, because some of the problems that we are going to be facing that are economic in nature, political nature, technological, to some extent, are existential. We're going to have patience to slowly think these things through.
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Dan Patterson has nothing to disclose. He does not hold investments in the technology companies he covers.
Dan is a Senior Producer for CNET and CBS News.