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Cell phone horns 😈 + salamander on NPR about tech and bodies

 •  • by Paul Ingraham
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In 2019 there was a hilariously dumb kerfuffle — lots of headlines, lots of hand-wringing on social media — about the claim that cell phone usage causes “horns” (bone spurs) on the skull.

There is no such thing as cell phone horns — no more than there were “newspaper horns” before that. It’s safe to read your damned phone. There’s nothing to this, not even a seed of truth.

The best writing about this nonsense has already been done. If you’re interested, I highly recommend Nsikan Apkan’s antidote to the nonsense: “Science journal walks back claim that smartphones make millennials grow horns.”

Apkan’s article is ten times more detailed than anything I would have written, despite the fact that it’s exactly the kind of thing I like to write about. He really goes for it, leaves no stone unturned, and even goes on a digression about the overwhelming power of misinformation.

It’s truly great, earnest, high-road debunking.

If it has any flaw, it’s that it might be a little too much of a good thing: taking a silly topic a bit too seriously, giving it too much oxygen and attention, perhaps. There’s really only one thing 99% of people need to know about cell phones causing bone spurs on your skull: it was nonsense based solely on self-serving junk science, and the headlines it generated were clickbait crap unworthy of our attention.

But maybe Apkan really dug into the the cell phone horns “panic” because it was such an exceptional example. It was an example of the fanciful demonization of a very ordinary posture, and it was an example of the power of fear-mongering misinformation based on so-called science — which came right before a mighty explosion of much more profound examples from the pandemic!

Vintage photo, probably pre-1920, showing a lot of people reading newspapers while standing on a snowy and icy sidewalk, with a horse-drawn carriage passing by. The man in the foreground is leaning against a telephone pole as he reads, and his head is tilted well forward, about a 45˚ angle. Several other people in background have the same posture.

If there wasn’t an epidemic of “newspaper horns” in the 20th Century, then there isn’t a “cell phone horns” epidemic now. Tilting our heads down to read is as old as reading. Much older! How old is knitting? Or knapping! Knapping is as old as our species.

Related: The salamander on NPR

I will soon be heard on a new NPR series about the relationship between our technology and our bodies, “Body Electric,” hosted by Manoush Zomorodi, who is probably best known for her TED Talk about boredom and creativity.

The series started two weeks ago, and I will be appearing in episode 4, on October 24. Two episodes have been released so far, one about screens and the other about desks.

I have not heard mine yet. I had a pleasant conversation with Ms. Zomorodi, but I felt like I spent the whole interview saying “Nope, not really concerned about that either!” The show officially reached out to me because of my attitude — they asked for my posture debunking — but I got the impression that she was surprised by just how unconcerned I am. 🙂 I simply won’t endorse any hand-wringing of this kind. I have even pushed back against alarmism about excessive sitting and sedentariness.

So I have probably been cast in the role of “token skeptic” for the series. We shall see! Or hear, rather.

And then, with perfect irony, I got bitten by an uncomfortable chair during the interview, and developed a significant new nagging pain. It has been an annoyance ever since, four months and counting. Hilarious.

Photograph of part of a big new building, about six storeys tall, and strangely featureless: it looks like a giant metal box, broken only by a handful of vents, with just one column of windows at the corner. It dwarfs the small, old commercial buildings to its right.

I got to go to a recording studio for once! I was recording an interview for real radio & not just in my home office Zooming for a podcast. The imposing new building on the left is the new home of Vancouver’s notoriously foul-smelling chicken processing plant — presumably stink-insulated now. The studio is the teensy little old commercial building beside it. I was there courtesy of NPR. The last time I did real radio was in the early 2000s when I hosted a very artsy Friday night anything-goes show; I did a few gigs as an aspiring freelance audio producer for CBC Radio One. Good times! There was a lot I loved about the work & I mostly abandoned it in favour of massage therapy & writing. So it was kind of exciting to get an invite from NPR. Felt a bit overdue, frankly!