Cell phones dominate our existence and gave us Trump and the insurrection

Imagine it’s a quiet evening and you’re watching TV with a close friend and someone starts banging on your door. You get up and open it a crack and you think you recognize the man as a distant acquaintance. He pushes open the door and starts arguing with you about politics. Even though you barely remember him, the things he’s saying are just idiotic, so you respond, and a raging political argument ensues. Finally, he storms out the door and you return to your friend and the TV show you had been watching. Your friend asks who it was, and you respond, “Some idiot I barely know. What happened on the show while was gone?” Before your friend can respond, there’s another knock at the door. You know you should ignore it, but you just can’t. Your friend gives up and goes home. You realize that in retrospect it would have been much better just to have not answered the door.

The five-year test

Of course, cell phones are the door. I’m not sure why that notification has become such an irresistible call to action. Is that unsolicited text message you just received, or the Facebook reply to a days-old comment really that time-sensitive that you must stop doing what you’re doing and respond immediately. What would happen if you finished watching the TV show with your friend before you picked up your device? Five years from now will you remember your friend or the pseudo-stranger at the door?

Media Naturalness Theory and its impact on communication

In the grand scheme of things, personal, face-to-face interactions with other people are what sustains us and makes us human. It is those corporeal interactions that started millions of years ago that shaped our brains to enable us to start developing a civilized society. It’s how we’ve evolved. It’s all wrapped up in what Ned Kock termed the Media Naturalist Theory which he describes thusly:

“The media naturalness hypothesis argues that other things being equal, a decrease in the degree of naturalness of a communication medium (or its degree of similarity to the face-to-face medium) leads to the following effects in connection with a communication interaction: (1) increased cognitive effort, (2) increased communication ambiguity, and (3) decreased physiological arousal.” [1]

Cell phones and social media are unraveling that evolutionary tapestry of civility at a pace that is beyond my comprehension. It seems there’s a Pavlovian imperative to respond to a notification on a cell phone. And equating a person in the room with you and the distant person in the text message is a false equivalency. A frivolous text message is far less consequential than in-person interactions or conversations. It’s unfortunate that the former often supplants the latter. If this is a battle between true human interactions and the superficial interchanges on mobile social media, then I fear technology has won and humanity has lost.

Is this hyperbole? I used to think it was. Sure, phubbing[2],[3] has been a destructive practice for years, but it wasn’t until the Trump rein that we saw how cell phones and social media can take society off the rails. Never forget. That little device you’re holding in your hand is far more than just a cell phone. It’s an essential element in the devolution of society. Without our interconnected mobile devices and our peculiar enslavement to them, we would never have had Trump. We would never have had the attack on the Capitol.

The eager embrace of Pyrrhic victories has become the norm

I’ve written, ad nauseam, about the pervasive and destructive impact of information cocoons and positive feedback loops, about the social amplification of risk, motivated reasoning, the amygdala versus the anterior singular cortex. I won’t go there again. Except to say it becomes more clear every day that these things, aided by our insatiable hunger for technology, coalesced to give us what we have today – a vast sprawling social media complex that superficially connects billions of people at the expense of those face-to-face social relationships our brains are better configured to handle.

Without our tablets and cell phones that can command our attention at the drop of a notification sound, there would still be problems to solve and challenges to overcome. But those issues would be approached by a society that is less fractured, less polarized, and less angry. Instead of what we have today, a tribal society that increasingly believes that it’s always “us versus them” and willing believes that every conflict is a battle and being victorious is the only thing that matters even if it is a Pyrrhic victory.

The solution? Maybe it begins by not answering the knock on the door

It’s a gloom and doom perspective, but the “big lie,” the insurrection at the capital on January 6th, and 43 senators voting to acquit a guilty demagogue make it hard to conclude anything other than society has irreversibly changed. Where did it start? It may not be directly causal but is at least an indicator – it was that stranger’s knock at the door that we couldn’t resist answering. It’s the cell phone that commands our attention for trivial matters at the cost of diluting interactions with those present. The first step toward attempting to alter the course of the mobile-social deluge would be simply to not answer the door, or at the very least, understand the impact it will have on society, writ large.


[1] “Evolution and Media Naturalness: A Look at E-Communication Through a Darwinian Theoretical Lens” (2002). ICIS 2002 Proceedings. 34. https://aisel.aisnet.org/icis2002/34/

[2] “‘Phubbing’ Is Hurting Your Relationships. Here’s What It Is” https://time.com/5216853/what-is-phubbing/

[3] “Phubbing Is the New Epidemic, And You Are Contagious” https://orge.medium.com/phubbing-is-the-new-social-epidemic-and-you-are-contagious-71ed1a451f66


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