When Did You Last Switch Off Your Smartphone?

How often each day are you truly disconnected from the internet? If you have a smartphone then it’s probably not very often at all.

If you take a flight then it’s likely you might have to endure several hours without social network updates – though many airlines are now offering wifi access on board leading to many inane Facebook updates saying little more than “I’m on the plane…”

London commuters know that the Tube is a refuge from phone calls and Internet access, but the recent addition of wifi at station platforms means that it is possible to quickly grab a few updates from Twitter each time the train stops.

My wife told me off at a restaurant last night because I was uploading a photo of the place to Instagram. She was checking the menu and I was uploading a photo of the menu. She had a point and I laid down my phone for the rest of the meal.

I was thinking while I was out running this morning that my time pounding the streets is probably the only time I never carry my phone. But then have you tried running with an iPhone in your pocket?

I use all the major social networks and I update them regularly, but I can switch off quite easily – I still read “real” books rather than just Twitter updates. My Twitter use at the weekend is mostly just photographs or the odd news story shared for friends. I have a good reason to share what I’m up to because I live a long way from my family – it’s great being able to show them what I am up to and what Toronto looks like.

But I’ve seen what borders on addiction in some friends. Addiction to the point that they can’t stop sharing all those ‘amusing’ images on Facebook and endlessly checking to see if anyone has commented or responded – even just with a ‘like’. And addiction to the point that they are endlessly appealing for interaction – leaving angst-filled notes online about their lack of purpose or disappointment with life in general.

What addiction has this displaced? Perhaps it was the endless consumption of daytime TV? Why would anyone sit passively all day consuming trash TV when they can do they same online and be rewarded by people giving them a thumbs up?

Technology is converging and creating a perfect storm that will stunt attention spans and rob us of lazy free time to think. When was the last time you actually did nothing at all and just sat thinking about a place you want to visit, a film you could direct better than Tarantino, or a story you could write that would sell more than the Fifty Shades trilogy?

With every free moment now spread evenly between Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, how will creativity work in future? I recently heard a Stanford professor on the BBC talking about pedagogical changes in university education – how lectures are no longer seen as important when they can all be grabbed from the website as a video or podcast. And even those students attending lectures do so with an iPad constantly connected to Facebook.

The use of location-aware smartphones combined with venue services such as Facebook Places or Foursquare creates new possibilities for advertising that make recent science fiction movies look archaic. Right now a brand, such as Marks & Spencer, knows if I like their brand or not, and they know if I’m inside or near to a store. The only reason our phones are not being bombarded with location-aware advertising is because the social networks know how questions over privacy are the one thing that could derail their endless dominance over our spare time.

But I love social networks. I couldn’t stay in touch with my friends and family all over the world as easily as I do without them – my dad is always on Facebook these days and I could never have imagined that a few years ago. My company is focused on content used for blogs and social networks. I think this ability for every person to shape their Internet use is about to blossom into a new type of experience, making our present use of social networks soon look as primitive as a 1994 web browser.

But when I go out running, I run without my phone and I think about the stories I want to write, the musicians and artists I want to work with, and how proud I am that I’ve got friends doing stuff like writing movies and selling out Bafta for a premiere or planning their new album launch.

If all we ever did were update Facebook with motivational quotes, none of this wonderful creativity would ever have a life. Hopefully the teens now getting addicted to a life lived online figure out a way through the temptation. When I was a kid, the perceived danger was that we would fritter our lives away playing video games, yet that turned into an entertainment industry bigger than cinema – the kids addicted to games as teens back then are now running giant entertainment corporations.

I’m hoping the same happens again. It might appear to be quite a stretch to imagine an entertainment industry based on LOLCats, but then who could have predicted that some hacking around in a Harvard dorm would now be changing every major industry worth mentioning – the world over?