How to reclaim your mental sovereignty from the incessant demands of your smartphone (and get back to long-term thinking)


In order that we are not possessed by the instruments of surveillance capitalism - see our blog on Shoshana Zuboff and other things - we should try to possess ourselves better (a great theme of ours also over the last two years). But what are the precise, personal and everyday steps you should take?

We found this very readable, open and personal blog by Jim Rutt, tech veteran and fellow of the Santa Fe Institute, which tells the story of his realisation of the degree of addiction he had to his all-powerful, multi-functional smart-phone - and what he did to wean himself from it.

The most visible signs of which were going to a bottom of the range “flip-phone”; keeping his major interactions (email and research) to his desktop terminal at the beginning and end of the day; and using an unnetworked Kindle to read his ebooks.

But how Jim got there was through some new personal practices, and some witnessed experiences, which made him treasure his “cognitive sovereignty” - meaning more time to think, ruminate, plan and remember, than just react to the notifications of his shiny device.

Take his story of moving to a swimcercise regime:

I took up “water walking” at my local YMCA swimming pool. Water walking is a really good form of exercise for my somewhat arthritic self. I get two or three times the resistance from walking in chest deep water, and the buoyancy from the water really spares my creaky joints — a double win.

That’s when I encountered a most interesting “found experiment.” Naturally, I couldn’t take my smartphone into the pool. Almost immediately, I found that while I was getting my exercise, I was regularly using my pool time for deep thought on a wide range of topics. More than once I became so lost in deep thought that I went several minutes beyond my 30-minute water-walking goal.

It soon dawned upon me that because of the way I’d gotten used to using my smartphone — walk to the elevator, check the news; go to the bathroom, check email; stand in a supermarket line, tend to my social media groups, etc. — I had lost the habit of continuously thinking for many minutes in a row.

Perhaps you remember, during “The Time Warp” in the Rocky Horror Picture Show, when Columbia sings, “Well I was walking down the street, just a having a think, when a snake of a guy, gave me an evil wink”? Well, if you can’t stay focused on a train of thought on just one thing for several minutes in a row — which means, among other things, not checking your phone whenever you possibly can — then “having a think” becomes much less likely, perhaps impossible.

During my water walks, I solved computer programming problems. I crafted rough drafts of essays in my head. I pondered where we should go for vacation this winter. I practiced my joke routine for an upcoming dinner club performance. I planned my day. And I luxuriated in random long-form daydreams.

Once I realized that I was doing this every time I went to the pool, I began to consider how to reclaim this ability out of the pool. I wanted more of the many-minutes-at-a-time interior flow state that I was experiencing: a nicely balanced dynamic between my mind’s conscious and nonconscious elements, the place where my real thinking and problem solving occurs.

The key to maintaining that state long enough to do something useful or fun is to not be interrupted.

It was quickly obvious to me that the absence of my smartphone in the pool was the essential factor enabling me to do the kind of thinking I wasn’t doing outside the pool. Pondering on it, I realized that my smartphone was always with me, with its siren call of an infinite universe of immediately available information and interaction. And I started to think seriously about what it was doing to me as a thinker and as a person. I concluded that it was the number one cause of not doing the long-form thinking I used to regularly practice.

At that point I decided something major had to change about my relationship with my smartphone.


The next section of the essay is a clear but very authoritative account of recent psychology and neuroscience around the addiction tactics - what Douglas Rushkoff the other week called “captology” - deployed by smartphone and social media designers (see Jim’s working model to the left). As he summarises:

We reach for our phones the instant the plane lands — or when we have 15 seconds of downtime in the grocery checkout line — not because our lives are so insanely fast that something actually needs our ATTENTION RIGHT NOW, but because we have been nonconsciously programmed to experience a neuromodulator reward whenever we take out our phone and get an inbound update, text message, email, or like. The same thing happens when we gain a false sense of “having found something useful” by scanning the news for what’s happening right this very minute with the dramatic political absurdities gripping our country.

In short, the instincts of our social hunter-gatherer brains — to seek social interaction and be constantly scanning the environment for food and sources of danger — have been co-opted to instead hook us on yet another like or incoming text message about something that is usually trivial, or is otherwise consciously designed (with the help of cutting-edge cognitive science) to manipulate us.

Armed with his experiences and realisations, Jim goes through his own disaggregation of the functions of his iPhoneX, until he reclaims his “cognitive sovereignty”:

As I was hoping that it would, my switch to a flip phone freed me from my smartphone’s constant nonconscious tug for attention, to which I far too often succumbed. I am once again able to easily and regularly engage in long-form thinking and musing. My family reports that I am more “present.” I’m spending more time focused on things near at hand versus far. And I am being unquestionably more productive on my many projects.

This is a huge result. It’s the largest and most positive change in my state of being in many years. I can honestly say that I feel that I have regained a large part of my cognitive sovereignty. I am much more “the me that I want to be.”

Yes, smartphones are astounding engineering artifacts that bring amazing functionality right into our hands. But as I hope this essay has demonstrated, the smartphone and its apps have co-evolved with the human cognitive reward system — driven by corporate monetization, real-time data, and insights from cognitive science — to the point where the harm caused by the high-frequency capture of our attention may well outweigh the benefits brought by these devices. This is especially true given that there are readily available alternatives for much of the functionality that smartphones bring.

If this essay has resonated with you, I would strongly suggest that you inventory the most valuable functionality your smartphone provides and then see whether you can find reasonable substitutes. These won’t be perfect, but if they are good enough, you should ditch your smartphone and reclaim your cognitive sovereignty.

I am very glad that I did, and I strongly suspect that you will be as well.

More here. See also this piece by futurist Gerd Leonhard which elaborates on his concept of “abdication” as one of our modern pathologies. He shows a video about the human-assistant-simulating Google Assistant (embedded below) and asks the following questions:

  • Can 3rd parties buy a ‘preferred mention’ here – like they do in Google Search?

  • How easy would it be to use this technology as a surveillance tool?

  • Will we end up putting convenience over consciousness, once again (think Facebook)?

  • If this becomes the new normal, would we still want to be free to make decisions that are not based on machine logic or super-smart algorithms?

  • Would we still know how to do these things ourselves if our smart assistant takes care of it all the time?

  • Will we still be allowed to do those stupidly human things such as drive too fast, drink too much, or eat the wrong food?

The video incites awe and excitement, sure – but there is also an element of revulsion. Some would call this ‘heavenly convenience’, and we understand that. But we tend to think of this as an ‘abdication engine’, a handy tool to train us to sleepwalk through digital life.

Abdication is one of the 5A’s in Gerd’s book Technology vs Humanity, chapter 4, entitled “Automating Society: Automation, Assentation, Abdication, Aggravation, and Abomination.”

Beware machine thinking and reductionism!