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How many times have you checked your phone today?

For this year’s Crown Lecture in Ethics, Cal Newport, a computer science professor at Georgetown University and a New York Times bestselling author, delivered an eye-opening lecture about the technologies that wreak havoc on our ability to focus. He calls them “techno-distractions.”

woman, blonde hair, bright smile, standing in front of Duke arches
Sasha Gerber PPS'24

Newport’s most recent books explore the intersections of technology and society and how they negatively affect our daily lives. He hopes that once we understand the dynamics of these relationships, we will be able to address them personally and from a policy perspective.

Analyses of Gallup poll data suggest that people check their phones roughly 100 to 200 times per day. Based on this data, Newport argued that technology caused significant shifts in the way we live our lives. A decade ago, we didn’t look down at our hands several hundred times per day. We didn’t stop what we were doing to check our inboxes every six minutes. Now, we do.

Is that a bad thing?

Drawing on research from organizational psychologists, Newport suggested that there are many reasons to believe these changes are unfavorable. He expanded on three key findings about the negative aspects of email.

First, there is the issue of “cognitive overhead.” The human brain is relatively slow to shift focus from one task to another. As a result, when you stop writing your paper to check your email and then try to return to writing, your brain never gets to settle into one cognitive context. This neurological process is exhausting and part of why burnout is so common by the time 3 p.m. rolls around.

Next, Newport highlighted the insidious role of sociality. He explained that an unchecked email inbox is particularly alluring because we know it contains messages from people who need something from us. While we can reason that no one expects an immediate response, a deeply rooted part of our brain says we cannot afford to wait. We refresh our inbox.

The final problem Newport identified was linguistic ineffectiveness, or the mismatch between the email writer’s confidence that a reader will understand them and the recipient’s actual level of understanding. Often, the imbalance leads to miscommunication and frustration on both ends.

What about harm from our phones?

Newport tailored his response to his audience of Duke students. Drawing on data from the American College Health Association, Newport relayed findings that excessive smartphone use correlates with increased rates of depression and anxiety among college-aged individuals.

More broadly, increased phone use leads to more negative health outcomes because text messages and social media comments do not satisfy the social centers in our brains. When we communicate with other people, our brains expect the rich streams of input that come from in-person interactions, such as the sound of the other person’s voice or the changes in their body language. Paradoxically, reports of loneliness have increased despite the availability of constant human “connection” via phones.

Newport also explained how phone use increases anxiety by diminishing the time we spend alone with our thoughts. Processing information we learn from different encounters is critical to our human development. With phones and social media, we have access to constant, optimized distractions that prevent us from utilizing the psychological mechanisms that process the good and the bad. Without this self-reflection and processing, anxiety increases.

How did we get to a point where we check our phones a hundred times per day?

Man in front of stage
Cal Newport spoke to a standing room only crowd.

Newport called it “a crude story that starts with the like button.” At first, app developers designed the feature to distinguish the people who wanted to issue affirmation about a post from those who had something more substantial to say in a comment. Accidentally, they created a social approval indicator, an incredibly powerful tool for our social species. Because the approval is intermittent (sometimes you have more likes when you open an app, sometimes you don’t), it captures our attention and encourages us to spend more time looking at apps. This realization led to a rapid “race to the bottom of the brainstem,” where social media platforms increasingly focused on developing attention-grabbing techniques to improve their bottom lines.

What can we learn from all of this?

Minor changes to a complex system can have unpredictable outcomes. A fanciful example is the idea that a butterfly flapping its wings in one place can lead to a typhoon in another. Just as the weather is a complex dynamical system, we can view technology entering our lives as an input to our complex dynamical society. Our system radically reconfigures in ways we can’t predict. Newport offered three implications for this phenomenon.

  1. We can’t always identify and stop dangerous technologies before they come out. When phones and email were introduced, no one foresaw how much harm they could bring to our society.
  2. It’s hard to “fix” a dynamical system’s behavior by tinkering with its operation. Dynamical systems are fundamentally complex. Adjusting one part can lead to unintended consequences for the rest of the system.
  3. Sometimes, the best approach is to slow the integration of instigating input or remove it entirely. Increasing cultural tentativeness to technological innovations will lead to a more gradual adoption process, allowing us to learn how technologies interact with the different aspects of our lives before they are inextricable.

I am a digital native. Technology hasn’t changed how I live; a world with technology is all I’ve ever known. But now, after hearing Newport’s lecture, I’m left wondering: is there a way to prioritize well-being over constant connection? How much better off might we be if we learn to find balance in our technology-obsessed world?

Sasha Gerber is a senior studying public policy with a certificate in markets and management. She works as a student intern on the Sanford Communications team and is also involved with Duke Polis: Center for Politics.


More about the Crown Lecture with Cal Newport

Cal Newport, a computer science professor at Georgetown University and a prominent writer on technology's impact, spoke at Duke’s Penn Pavilion on Thursday, Oct. 5 as part of Sanford’s Crown Lecture in Ethics Series. With his signature mixture of pragmatic analysis and academic expertise, Newport delved into the concept of "techno-distraction" and its broader implications on society. His insights shed light on the unintended consequences of technology use and the need for a more nuanced understanding of its effects.

Read recap and watch the talk