Six years ago, I changed the wallpaper on my phone, and I haven’t changed it since. It’s a greyscale picture of a desert, in the hot air of which floats a single question: “Why am I in your hand?” The idea was to become more mindful of when and why I use my phone. The effect is not as strong as it once was — phone wallpapers aren’t immune to the visual blindness we develop for all things we see on a regular basis — but every now and then, it still catches me off guard and helps me find clarity.
When I pick up my phone to text my girlfriend good morning, check the weather, or scan a letter, that’s a deliberate action requiring a screen as a tool. About 20% of the time, though, I grab my phone only to immediately do something other than I intended. I’ve already neutered notifications, vibrations, and the like more than most people, but at this point, I don’t think my phone’s interruptions are any longer required: My mind has been conditioned to get distracted all on its own, and the phone itself is just the trigger for this habit.
But who am I telling this? Wasting time on our phones is a disease more widespread than coronavirus, and though it hurts to add up the hours, it is still one of the more innocuous byproducts of the technology-infused times we live in. Where it gets dicey is when screens manage to unhook us from reality altogether, if ever so briefly.
Every day, millions of people use words on Twitter they would never speak in real life. It’s easy to type “You dumbass” with your thumbs, and if you get a bunch of likes for it, it might even appear like it was a smart, commendable thing to say — but 99% of the time, it’s not.
Never mind the hurt feelings, however, if we can do real damage in numbers — literally, in CryptoKaleo’s case. Kaleo is one of the more rational and ever-positive voices on Crypto Twitter. He’s also a good trader, but in 2021, even he lost touch, and not just his own. In the span of five weeks, Kaleo grew his trading account from $30,000 to $12 million — and back down to zero. Round trip to obscurity. In a thread sharing his wins and losses as well as some reflections, he admits: “It happened so fast, I don’t think it ever felt real. I didn’t spend on much physical [items] like I should have, so I treated it more like a video game than I did real balances.”
Video game sounds about right. What Kaleo has done with millions, I have done with a few zeros less, and Sam Bankman-Fried, the notorious founder of went-down-in-flames crypto exchange FTX, has done with billions. “We sometimes find $50m of assets lying around that we lost track of; such is life,” SBF once joked with his team. When it’s all numbers on a screen, it’s hard to imagine let alone feel real-life consequences, but that doesn’t mean those consequences won’t happen eventually. What’s the difference between having a million rupees in Zelda or a million dollars in your crypto portfolio? Nothing — until you cash out the latter and pile it up on your living room floor in singles or buy a house with it.
How does what happens on our screens connect to the real world? That’s the question we must always have an answer to. There’s that saying that you should “love people and use things, not the other way around.” Unlike in an addiction to materialism, we don’t find our displays themselves gratifying to look at, but when we get so hooked on what flickers across them that we sink ever more hours into staring at them — far more hours than we spend staring at human eyes, the real world, or simply out the window — they are no different from excessive drinking, gambling, or drug use — an affliction separating us from the people we care about.
Love people, use screens — not the other way around.