A hundred years from now, students of Twenty-First Century history will learn that a major turning point in humanity’s cultural evolution came on January 9, 2007. That was the day the iPhone was introduced.
You remember what life was like before the iPhone, don’t you? Back when people in the same room would actually talk to each other? When they could eat their food without photographing it? When they could maintain eye-contact for more than a minute?
There were earlier significant dates, of course. January 7, 1977, for example: the day the first personal computer, the Commodore PET, went on sale. August 6, 1991, the day the World Wide Web went live for the very first time. But it was not until these two streams—the personal computer and the Internet—converged in a device you can hold in your hand that everything really changed.
The Smartphone Revolution
The iPhone launched the smartphone revolution, which has completely changed the way nearly everyone connects. While waiting for my lunch today, I accepted a friend request using my Samsung Android, bringing my total number of close, personal Facebook friends to 3,927. I don’t really know most of these people, of course. I may have met them, but all I really know about most of them is the version of themselves they present online. And all these “friends” know about me is what they see online, which is hardly a complete picture. Because I typically post on Facebook only while I’m traveling, some of them evidently believe I live on airplanes.
The smartphone has changed the way we communicate, the way we learn, the way we navigate. More than that, it has fundamentally altered the way we perceive the world. Just think about it. How much of your life today did you apprehend through that little window you hold in your hand? And make no mistake about it—the smartphone is a window. It is not a door. You cannot actually enter cyberspace. You can only watch it from the other side of the glass and imagine what it’s like to be in someone else’s life.
iPorn: The Warping of the Human Brain
The smartphone has also become the primary means by which most of us access pornography. That’s another big change. When I got started as a porn user back in the 1970s, pornography came primarily in print form, in glossy publications called “men’s magazines,” because porn users in those days were almost exclusively male. (Guys bought Playboy and Penthouse back then. Girls bought romance novels, or porn without the pictures.) Today, however, 40% of the visitors to sexually-oriented websites are female, and the fastest growing demographic among the sexually addicted population is female.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that among adolescents, girls and boys are rapidly approaching parity in their porn use. This trend has profound and troubling implications for our future. Thanks to advances in medical science, we now have a pretty clear picture of what happens in the brain during sexual arousal and climax. In addition to triggering an avalanche of endorphins—those “feel-good” chemicals that make the experience so pleasurable—the brain instructs the posterior pituitary gland to release oxytocin, the bonding hormone. Oxytocin is the same substance that is released in a parent and an infant during breastfeeding or skin-to-skin contact. It is oxytocin that creates the attachment we now know is absolutely vital to healthy psychological development. (You’ve probably heard about those studies of neglected kids in Romanian orphanages and the long-term effects they suffered because they were deprived of physical touch.) Without attachment, you can actually die from loneliness.
The Ancients knew something about the bonding power of sex. In its first mention of sex, for example, the Bible says that “Adam knew his wife, and she conceived and brought forth Cain.” The euphemism translated “knew” in Genesis 4:1 is the Hebrew word yada, a term laden with meaning. Yada in this context denotes something far more than mere familiarity; it describes a deep and intimate connection. Small wonder the Bible says that in marital relations, “the two become one flesh.”
Here’s what makes modern-day pornography—the crap that a heartless and highly profitable industry now happily delivers in sample form to anyone, free of charge—so very, very destructive. Today’s porn produces sensory overload. Full-motion video, complete with sound, overwhelms the frontal cortex, the part of the brain where rational thinking takes place and moral judgments are made. It stimulates the pleasure centers located deep in the nucleus accumbens, a part of the brain that cannot distinguish between virtual experience and actual experience. Today’s porn fools the brain into triggering the pleasurable chemical cascade and releasing oxytocin, even though no flesh-and-blood partner is present.
In the thrall of Internet pornography, millions of us are now bonding day after day with an endless parade of phantoms. We’ve become hooked on false intimacy, hoodwinked by images that evaporate the moment the screen goes dark. Our portable porn projectors have trivialized and commoditized sex, reducing the sacred gift of yada to nothing more than “yada, yada, yada.”
Smartphones are not evil in themselves, of course, but like any major technological innovation they carry destructive potential. Unless we are careful to protect ourselves and our children, we may one day discover that the instrument we thought would deliver us from loneliness has actually done the opposite: destroyed our very capacity for connection and left us lonelier than we ever imagined.