🐝 phantom buzzing: evolution's latest prank on us
technology shapes us just as much as we shape it
Let me remind you of a familiar feeling. It’s one you intimately know and will relate to. Almost like that old acquaintance whose face you can’t remember, but you immediately recognize once you see them in a picture. This feeling is one you’ve felt before and probably questioned, and then it happened again.
You know the feeling. You drop your phone face down on the counter for a minute because you want a break. Like the parent of a terrible toddler, you command your phone to face the wall. Embarrassed at how tethered and dependent you are, you seek a temporary reprieve. “No screens!”, you mutter to yourself. In a swiftly executed dance, you shove your digital appendage away from you. Almost as if you were kicking an unwanted guest away - the jilted lover showing up on the wedding day seeking a final chance. As the umbilical cord is cut and your phone finds a new home, you hear a faint cry. No you’re not having a baby, but it’s your inner self saying:
Remember me? We used to hang out all the time. We had fun together. Back when it was just us. Ever since the phone’s been in the picture, we barely speak.
You feel guilt as you’re being judged, ironically by yourself. But you breathe and you move past it.
Separated from your phone, your pillar and your priest, you instantly feel lighter. You’re unshackled. Liberated from your phone’s gravitational pull, you move with such surprising grace. You can do anything with this newfound freedom. Old limits are history. You’re going to do healthy things. Read that book. Write that journal entry. Sit in silence and rekindle your relationship with your inner self. Ha, let’s be real. You dropped your phone and now you feel lonely or bored. You wonder what you may have missed. You’re longing for something externally that will never suffice. It’s an uncomfortable feeling to admit this, be easy on yourself.
Fitted in your big boy pants, you fight the urge to pick the phone up. Not today Satan. What was that thing you read again about building healthy habits again? Something something about daily discipline. You find the strength and do a little self-affirmation. Buoyed by this solo pep talk, you dive headfirst into a book you’re been wanting to read.
You’re in the flow of things. The book is much better than you imagined. You’re engrossed in the story. The sentences seem to sway and gleefully glide to a beat. The characters are full of life in every dimension - deep, colorful, and painfully human. In awe of the author’s gift, you pause every other page to admire the transitions, the wordplay and the storytelling.
“Wow, this is fun, I should read books more often”. You smile to yourself, inner self nods and approves the sentiment. All of a sudden, you feel a buzz and hear a metallic sound. They come squarely from the direction of your phone. There’s no other device nearby so it had to be the phone. It’s a familiar sound, it tells you that something is on its way. The notification gods roll their dice and cast their lot - it could be total garbage - Instagram telling you that a silly stranger is going live. Or it could be your crush replying your DM.
In the following few seconds, you debate picking up the phone. One of your inner-yous insists that the notification is not worth it. Whatever information coming in is not urgent and will still be there when you’re done reading. Why ruin the perfect flow of zoning out and reading for a dumb notification? Another you is convinced of the opposite. “Dude, just check it! What if it’s that text you’ve been dying for?”. You cede to the latter. Call it insecurity, FOMO or “putting yourself first”, you check the damn phone.
To your surprise, there is no notification.
Hmm, that’s weird.
“But, I swear I felt it buzz…”
This is that familiar feeling I promised you about. Those moments when you were oh-so-sure that your phone vibrated, rang or buzzed when in reality, it didn’t. You effectively hallucinated - your brain fooled itself into perceiving stimuli that was not present. It anticipated a text or message that never arrived and yet, convinced you that it did. Whose brain is this again? Do you own your mind or are you renting? Unsettling? Good, this shouldn’t be comforting news.
Phantom buzzing is so real, so revealing and yet we never talk about it. We created devices so alluring and so pleasing to our minds that they effectively invent their own reality in pursuit of said pleasure. Our brains are so thirsty for faux nourishment - the sweet dopamine nectar that temporarily tingles our minds and rewards our reptilian receptors. Our FOMO has been preyed on and played with to the extent that we have real, physiological reactions when decoupled from our phones. What we used to call phones are really bionic extensions of our anatomy. We created apps so good at capturing our scarcest resource, our attention. Then, we created new apps (ScreenTime) to help us track how much time we spend on other apps. It’s a dark dystopian pattern: we create technology for our needs and wants, get too attached and addicted, then seek further technological “solutions”.
Perhaps, this is to be expected. This is the arc of technology. We create tools and the tools, in turn shape us. We form new habits and new rituals because of consumer social products like Twitter and TikTok. We shop differently because of those perilously precise Instagram ads and we date differently because of dating apps. We are the products of our products. Product engineers may as well be called agents of behaviour modification because that is their stated goal. The net effect is that you create new habits - some of which are in line with your goals for yourself, and some are not. The challenge is identifying those that you’d like to keep, and those you’d like to ditch.
Technology borrows a leaf from the Darwinian world and begins to evolve humans, even as we evolve it.
In what I can only describe as comical fashion, I felt several phantom buzzes while writing this article. The cosmos has a fitting sense of humour.