Screens rule our era, devices control our brains, and social media owns our souls, and I recently met a dude whose behavior tells you why that ain't gonna change anytime soon.
An estimated 240 million people worldwide are addicted to the Internet and social media. And while most Americans say it wouldn't be hard for them to quit FacebookInstagramTwitterSnapchat, I don't believe them.
In my life, drugs are one of the very few things that engage me enough to get me to pry my eyes off my iPadPhoneTVLaptopKindle. It's one of the main reasons I like drugs. Case in point: I was at a birthday party at Crazy Mountain brewery in Denver the other day when five people got buzzed and/or lifted enough to maintain eye contact. It was glorious. I'd forgotten what shape of the human retina was.
And one dude had super relevant tattoos poking out his sleeves.
Smombies. Smartphone zombies. (Or social media zombies.)
Justin's tattoo shows two gray-skinned, undead people staggering forward, iPhones sucking up all their attention.
"Nice tattoos!" I said. "Love it!"
"Thanks," he said. "This is our life now. It's got our brains."
This guy, Justin, and his tattoos are part of the resistance against us becoming nightwalkers after being bitten by our technological overlords.
Justin's tattoos are part of a whole techno-weary trend, young and weak as it may be. It has some leaders. Jaron Lanier, a virtual reality pioneer, not long ago published "Ten Arguments For Deleting Your Social Media," which argues social media "hates your soul." A couple of Facebook's early leaders have been ripping apart the blue monster they created. A former vice president for user growth at Facebook, Chamath Palihapitiya, has said he feels “tremendous guilt” for creating "tools that are ripping apart the social fabric of how society works." And Sean Parker, an early investor, said Facebook is “exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology.”
Justin would've agreed with them. Below the smombies on his triceps, Justin's forearm captures this discomfort in tattoo form:
A dude's head is cranked open. Twitter and Facebook and various screens pour goop into his cranium. His eyes read "BRAIN WASH."
On some level, most of us know this is happening. A creeping sense that our brains are not ours as much as they once were. A worry that screens are taking over our public places.
Governments, entertainment venues and schools are starting to address the screen addiction problem. In China, a city is famously issuing fines for smombies who cross the street while looking at their phones. Comedy Works in Denver is one of dozens of clubs that require you to lock your phone in a special Yonder case only the club can open.
These kinds of things don't always work. Many schools ban phones, but some kids are so determined to stay close to their phones that they're paying nearby businesses $1 a day to hold onto them. More schools are giving up on the ban.
Justin, too, is an example of how we can all try to stay off the phones … but it's so damn hard.
"I deleted Facebook," he said. "But I still scroll through Instagram."
I double take'd. "You haven't bailed?"
He shook his head. "I tried for a while. But, you know … " he trailed off.
I couldn't help but be disappointed. I thought I'd found someone who'd broken free.
A TV station reported that 2019's "Big New Year’s Resolution is Less Screen Time." That was my resolution, too, but it occurs to me that I read that article off my Twitter feed. For every Facebook "friend" I unfollow, I end up following someone else on Twitter. Every time I manage to close my laptop lid, I open up my phone.
The hooks of the InternetSocialMediaScreens are so deep that even Justin hasn't wriggled away. The clicks have got him. The algorithms dragged him back. The contagion spread. Justin went to the trouble of inking his anti-social media feelings on his arm, and yet even he can't escape.
And that illustrates why Jaron Lanier's dream of all of us deleting our social media accounts is such a longshot.
I noticed that Justin didn't have the Instagram logo tattooed on his arm as one of the ones that brainwash you. "It's my favorite one," he shrugged. "I couldn't do it."
Yes, until the real zombie apocalypse hits, the smombies seem destined to keep plodding through the streets. Check your Facebook feed for updates.