In Fantastic Beast and Where to Find Them, the runaway niffler creates some of the best scenes in the movie. Set in the expanded universe of Harry Potter, Newt Scamander is traveling with a suitcase of magical creatures to New York City. Seventy years later, Harry studies a textbook, Fantastic Beast and Where to Find Them, by none other than Newt Scamander.
What is a niffler? In his textbook, Newt describes these creatures with chronic ADHD as:
“Fluffy, black, and long-snouted, this burrowing creature has a predilection for anything glittery.”
Newt would know.
His niffler scurries after gold coins in a bank, steals jewelry in a shop — the creature can’t stop itself when a shiny object passes by. Wherever the niffler is, if it sees something glitter, everything else fades into the background.
Us humans have a similar condition.
The red icon waits for us on Facebook. The red hearts pop up on Instagram. The red circle hovers on our mail app. Number of likes, number of comments, number of messages, number of hearts, number of new friends, number of…
Wait, my phone vibrated. One second! Let’s see, who liked my picture? Wow, 10 people liked it! Okay… uh, where was I? Something about numbers…
We may not be fluffy and long-snouted, but we sure have a “predilection” for those tempting notifications. As soon as we sense the vibration, see the notification, or hear the ping, off we go, everything else fades into the background. Burrowing deep into our screens, we must know who responded, what they said, and how many liked it.
Like a niffler.
Pavlov’s experiment using dogs has reached the level of legend, almost cliché. But isn’t there a connection to our notifications? The pixelated dots and hearts are the trigger, conditioning us to drool. Well, not drool, but definitely want whatever feeling it promises to bring us.
And it delivers. And we like it, want more of it, and fall into a winding burrow, only to reappear minutes and sometimes hours later from our screens. The smartphones we built and bought have trained us to be obedient finger-tappers no better than Pavlov’s dogs.
Pavlov nifflers, we are.
Maybe the reason behind all our “niffling” (is that even a word?) goes deeper than pings and dings. In his book, 12 Ways Your Phone Is Changing You, Tony Reinke makes an unsettling observation.
Maybe our fascination with notifications has more to do with what we’re avoiding rather than what we’re chasing. We’re trying to avoid work, conflict, relationships, people, chores, homework, dishes — life. But most of all, we’re trying to avoid the looming specter of eternity and death.
Tony Reinke writes:
“All of us find ourselves uncomfortably close to passing into the mystery of eternity, leaving this place, and being forgotten in the only home we’ve ever known. So every day we jump back into the hamster wheel of our digital conversations and muffle the reality.”
Would Newt Scamander place nifflers in the same taxonomical family as the platypus? They both have similar noses, right?
What I do know is this reveals a much more odious side to our obsession, a shrinking from an ever-present reality. Instead of confronting the transience of life and allowing it to transform how we respond and live, we return to the comforts of our digital burrows in our smartphones.
And everything else fades into the background.
I’m currently obsessed with Tony Reinke’s book, 12 Ways Your Smartphone is Changing You. If you check out his list of excellent (supplemental) content to the book, you can get a good taste of what the book is about.