National / Media | BIG IN JAPAN

The little black screen we just can't take our eyes off

by Michael Hoffman

Special To The Japan Times

A great weight sits perched on us. It’s called a head. It houses our brain and presents our face to the world. It comprises roughly 10 percent of our body weight. Heavy enough at the best of times, it grows heavier as it inclines forward. Held high, it’s a 5.5-kilogram burden on the neck of a person who weighs 55 kg. Bent forward 15 degrees, the burden becomes the equivalent of 12.2 kg; 30 degrees, 18.1 kg; 45 degrees, 22.2 kg; 60 degrees, 27.2 kg.

Lately more and more people are bending farther and farther forward, peering ever more intently into a tiny screen packed solid with ever more irresistable attractions. We are speaking — or rather, the weekly magazine Spa! is speaking — of smartphones. Its package of articles, from which the above data are extracted, is titled “The tragedy of smartphone addiction.”

A slouching posture is hardly the worst of it. Smartphone abuse, we are told, rots the brain, dims the eyesight, heightens anxiety, feeds insomnia, dulls thought, trivializes communication, distorts our view of the world with an inundation of false and/or shallow information, takes up ruinous amounts of time, and makes us prey to all kinds of insidious swindles, most notably in the form of PR dressed up as fact.

Japan was relatively slow to embrace the smartphone, but initial hesitation is a fading memory, and now, here as elsewhere, the device is ubiquitous and all but inescapable. Spa! does not precisely define “addiction.” Figure, it says, three hours plus of daily use. Among the “addicts” it interviews is one who was appalled to discover — via an app that clocks use — that he spends six hours a day clicking here, clicking there, viewing this, checking that; nothing special, but it all adds up — without, in his apparently exceptional case, impairing his professional or family life.

Others sense something decidedly wrong, but momentum propels them onward — to seven hours a day in one case, 10 in another. “Ozawa-san,” the seven-hour-a-day man, is obsessed with points. Visiting certain sites, and doing certain things on them — participating in surveys, for example, or using certain search engines — earns you points. Points are convertible into cash. Ozawa, an engineer not hurting for money, finds nonetheless a satisfaction in earning points that earning a salary, routine and predictable, denies. He collects point after point; in a year they’re worth ¥600,000. He begrudges the attention his job demands: “I can’t help thinking as I work, ‘How many points could I be earning now?'”

“Tsuda-san” spends 10 hours a day gaming. “Mobile Strike” is a special favorite: “I started playing in March and got hooked.” At work he games in the toilet whenever possible. Home from the office at 8 p.m., he’s at his phone by 9 — until 3 a.m., which gives him three hours’ sleep, when he can sleep at all. He dozes at his desk. It’s not the life he’d choose. It seems to have chosen him.

Similarly, Line, the charge-free message app, seems to have chosen “Yasugawa-san.” Even at no cost, 600 messages a day seems like a lot. Unfortunately, “my idiot boss” is fixated on it, which means Yasugawa must be, too. Line etiquette does not permit replying later to messages received now. A reply is either instant, or it’s an offense. If that’s true among friends, how much the more so with your boss?

Such, Spa! sums up sardonically, are the blessings of modern civilization.

There are other, less dark — even bright — views of the smartphone. The Asahi Shimbun, in its Coming-of-Age Day editorial last week, termed the youngest members of the adult community “the smartphone generation” — the first to come of age with the device, taking it for granted as their grandparents did television, their great-grandparents radio. The editorial praised Line and other social networking services for bringing people together, promoting free expression, culture, creativity — all good things, surely; but all good things, embraced too eagerly, bite the hand that strokes them. Yasugawa seems to find Line’s togetherness more stifling than fraternal. As for free expression, one is free to express oneself and spread the truth as one sees it, and no less free to concoct, spread and believe, for example, that Pope Francis endorsed Donald Trump for president of the United States, the fact that he did no such thing being more or less beside the point. Never has it been easier to express truth or spread falsehood; never has it been more difficult to distinguish between the two. Never have so few people wanted to.

“Brain in danger,” reads a smartphone screen in one of Spa!’s illustrations. For expert testimony the magazine turns to Waseda University neurologist Yoshikuni Edagawa. He begins by discussing the “blue light problem.” All computers emit high-energy, short-wave blue light. Smartphones, held particularly close to the eye, are especially conducive to the eyestrain associated with it. Eyestrain and consequent visual deterioration are symptoms frequently noted. Less so is another effect of blue light: it inhibits the hormone melatonin, thus obstructing sleep. Insomnia affects different people differently. Some can live more or less normally with it. Others can’t, and their behavior in consequence can be less responsible than is good for themselves and society at large.

Short-term memory loss is another concern Edagawa raises. The rapid succession of facts and images bombarding the chronic smartphone user are more than the brain can absorb. Memory gives way under the avalanche. “What if it does?” Edagawa fears you might say — “my smartphone can remember anything I can’t.” “It’s not too much to say,” he sums up, “that smartphone abuse will make you stupid.”

Does even that matter? If smartphones are smart, so what if we’re not? Then there’s the much bruited “singularity” just around the corner: by 2045 or thereabouts, say some experts, computer intelligence will begin to make human intelligence in general, not just yours or mine, seem paltry and, finally, irrelevant. That, too, to paraphrase Spa! once more, is “a blessing of modern civilization.”

Michael Hoffman is the author of “In the Land of the Kami: A Journey into the Hearts of Japan” and, just out, “Other Worlds.”

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