The Shallows: Conspiracy and Nicotine


When last I wrote, I suggested that it’s not unreasonable to see the Internet as part of a conspiracy to reformat the human mind. I don’t believe it is part of a diabolical strategy, but its effect is pervasive and, I would suggest, most visible when examining one particular population: smokers.

My friend Bruce Williams tweeted:

The phone had replaced the cigarette in terms of many gestures

While this quote is certainly pithy and seemingly spot on, it misses what is actually happening. Historically when smokers left the building it was to disconnect from the work environment. In the lounge, turned smoking lounge, turned back alley behind the dumpster, smokers could congregate and “disconnect:” talk about the weather, talk about the cigarette, offer the new girl from accounting a light, and sometimes when no one else was out, watch the world go by.

But a phone, and especially a smart-phone, does not offer this catharsis, it does not push the clutch in on the gears of the same monkey-work one does at his desk. It offers the chance to get away from the flurry of the mentes novae, but in fact encourages you to operate in this same mode, but for your personal life.

Perhaps because I walk down San Francisco’s 3rd street in the business district I’m keenly aware of this sight: clutches of smokers smoking and with nicotine delivery device-free hand, punching into their smart phones ignoring the people immediately to their left and right. It is the height of the narcissism of our times: dancing with ourselves, talking with ourselves.