Putting Smartphone Zombies In Their Place

City planners are charged with designing cities for residents, from developing spaces for popular activities to balancing the needs of different constituencies. For planners in Chongqing, China, one of those constituencies are people absorbed in their smartphones, who have come into conflict with another group, often called human beings. So the city has done the obvious thing when two groups clash: you build special sidewalks to separate them from each other.

Whether funny or sad, it’s certainly a statement on where we are as a society. It’s thankfully the first of its kind, but I doubt it is the the last time we will see this urban “innovation.” Today, the smartphone-addict sidewalk is merely a space demarcated with white spray paint for bumbling humans who are so busy, they can’t find the time to look up and see where they are going.

But if we know anything about innovation, it is that it never stops at the spray-paint level of development, the urban-equivalent MVP if you will. Future iterations of this product will no doubt take the technology of its users into account and simply send notifications to let them know when they have moved too far outside the center of the sidewalk.

Much later, once all of the residents of Chongqing have purchased their gold Apple Watch Editions, they can get active haptic feedback as they walk down the sidewalk, much like the backup camera on cars gives beeps when you are about to run over someone. It’s the disruptive technology that prevents disruptions.

I have never really understood the obsession with using a smartphone every single second of every single day. I get reading news a few times a day, and maybe playing Candy Crush for a few minutes. But what does it say when we can’t take a collective break for ten minutes while walking down the street? That we are in fact so attached to our virtual worlds, the real world has to provide a special space so that we don’t slam into one another?

Here is perhaps the best evidence for the existence of a psychological disease I call Desiring Notifications Syndrome (DNS, for short). Our collective beeps, buzzes, and screen pops have reached such a cacophonous crescendo that we no longer can simply wait a few minutes in solitude without feeling serious withdrawal symptoms. I recently learned that people actually allow their games to send them push notifications. Their games! When you are being distracted from your distractions, there has to be a broader societal problem at work.

Seriously, we can’t just allow these notifications to appear in our pocket and get them 15 minutes later. What would we do if something important happens, like a new level has been released for our favorite game? We need to make sure that we are getting such valuable data ASAP, and we are willing to wear whatever devices are required, Glass or Watch as the case may be, to make that a reality.

I don’t have much faith in the argument that the internet is making us dumber and more shallow, but I do think that we are certainly choosing to be more shallow. Fundamentally, there is nothing in the design of our devices that prevents us from removing these continuous distractions. On iPhone, it took me all of five minutes in Notifications Center to remove most of the egregious apps, and I imagine Android users would find it equally easy.

Since it is so easy to change, the only remaining explanation we have left is that people actually want these notifications. The solitude that comes from a quiet and distraction-free phone is apparently almost frightening to many people. Even if we have no friends and relationships to speak of, at least the notifications algorithm remembers that we’re there and can assuage our loneliness.

But loneliness is only one facet of today’s smartphone user. You can be lonely at home with your device, which is why a smartphone sidewalk seems strange until you realize that what people actually fear is the appearance of loneliness. When you really think about what these sidewalks are, its much more about seeming important and above the crowd than it is about efficient movement of pedestrians. Much like movie stars being guided down the red carpet, we don’t have to pay attention to where we are walking on our special sidewalk. Our notifications lather us in attention, and for a little while, we can feel that the whole world thinks that we are much more important than we actually are.

I am not a big proponent of the tech stagnation hypothesis heralded by Tyler Cowen and Peter Thiel, which states that we haven’t made many gains in technology over the past few decades. But these days one has to start to wonder when we see such “innovation” as distraction sidewalks. I’m sure we’ll hear even more of this as Zero to One, Thiel’s distillation of his Stanford computer science lectures, is published this week.

I know I am harping on this sidewalk thing a lot (one might say I am as obsessed with smartphone sidewalks as much as others are obsessed with their phones!) But the part that angers me the most is that we are reaching the point where this technology-driven lifestyle is now forming the basis of our public policy.

City planners are not just supposed to make a city more efficient, but also to make it more livable as well. That means creating landscapes that allow for — dare I say it — engagement between people. The width of sidewalks is a perfect example of this. Narrower sidewalks force people to get closer to one another, slowing people down and increasing opportunities for interaction. Wider sidewalks provide each of us with a more private space, with less opportunity to meet our neighbors and fellow city dwellers.

Dedicated bike lanes are sensible, since bikers aren’t likely to strike up a conversation while riding anyway. But now we are providing people with essentially a distraction-free environment for distractions, a place where they aren’t interrupted while doing their important app business. That may make the online world more livable, but it certainly won’t have the same effect for our local community.

We are all more connected, and yet feel more lonely and empty inside. It’s a strange collective-action problem, but solving it starts by reaching out to your friends in real life, and building actual social bonds. It starts by enjoying public spaces and being more social. And it starts by walking down the sidewalk and giving your brain a break from all the notifications it is constantly bombarded with.

Human agency is a wonderful thing. We have more power today to shape our world than at any time in the past. We can choose to live lives that are more engaged, and use technology as a tool to build our friendships and seek out companionship. Or we can be distracted and notified every five minutes. The choice is now just a sidewalk away.

Cropped Image by michael davis-burchat used under a Creative Commons 2.0 license.