TECHNOLOGY HAS ENABLED people to fill every moment of their lives with a stimulus of one sort or another. It has eliminated the boredom of solitude, replacing it with a continuous need for instant gratification. Or rather, as Tristan Harris, a former product manager at Google, puts it, it is technology companies that have made this trade for humans, designing platforms, games and apps to keep them hooked.
Worries about the warping effect of technology are nothing new. Every tremor of progress in history has been accompanied by a moral panic. The printing press allowed "evil men" to "flood the market with anything that hints of lasciviousness", warned a monk in Venice in the 1470s. Any form of entertainment is especially suspicious. Reading books, going to the theater or cinema, listening to new music, playing video games-all have been presented as threatening to undermine authority, degrade human relationships and lure people into sin.
Sherry Turkle of MIT, who has been studying the effects of technology on users' psyches for decades, believes that smartphones have made it harder for people to form connections with each other, or even to be at ease on their own. Some participants in one study, which required them to sit alone without a smartphone for 15 minutes, chose to give themselves a painful electric shock to escape the boredom.
Such findings might trigger yet more alarmist technophobia. Young people's constant interactions on Snapchat and Instagram, and their Pavlovian responses to social-media notifications, may be the new normal. Mr Harris suggests that their devices were specially designed to encourage this change in behavior. Tech companies have a responsibility, he concludes, to give users more power to turn off their screens. The availability of software that allows users to lock themselves out of the web shows that at least some people feel in need of such help.
This article appeared in T
he Economist Magazine's February 11 mass media special report, under the headline "Driven to Distraction."