More cures for the dumb things we do with smartphones

“The largest supercomputers in the world are inside of two companies — Google and Facebook — and we’re pointing them at people’s brains, at children.” –Tristan Harris, Center for Humane Technology

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Our culture’s dominant behavioral addiction has caught the attention of two types of experts: psychologists and engineers. The psychologists have been represented in book format by, among others, Sherry Turkle (Reclaiming Conversation, 2016); Adam Alter (Irresistible, 2017); and Jean Twenge (iGen, 2017). The engineering camp has been slower off the mark and full of surprises — not the least being a backlash against addictive devices and services by some of the very guys who invented them.

Here’s a word from the turncoat technologists and four other parties determined to make your life a better place to be.

1- Early Facebook and Google Employees Form Coalition to Fight What They Built

Eating their young. The Center for Humane Technology is a big deal for several reasons. First, it’s the brainchild of a group of Silicon Valley A-list technologists from the big firms being blamed for creating the addiction epidemic in the first place. They include the inventor of Facebook’s “like” button and a number of other engineers and VCs who played key roles at Apple and Google. Tristan Harris, former Design Ethicist at Google, is the director.

  • Second, they have serious funding, incuding $7 million from advocacy group Common Sense Media, plus another $50 million in air-time from the likes of Comcast and DirecTV.
  • Third, the group is mounting a huge outreach campaign — The Truth About Tech — that will be rolled out to 55,000 public schools to raise consciousness among educators, parents and students.
  • Fourth, they’re going to Washington to lobby for legislation that aims to curtail the power of the biggest tech companies.

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The dumb things we do with smartphones

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In the previous post, we discussed ways to mitigate the potential harms of digital life. In my responses to the Pew/Elon survey questions, I took two unvarnished truths for granted.

First, unless you’re shilling for Google or Facebook, the harms stemming from digital life are no longer “potential.” Second, we’ve barely begun to think seriously about mitigating any of the harms. That’s especially the case at the personal level: behavioral addiction is up there with cyber-terrorism when it comes to a long-term fix. 

Below are some ideas mooted recently for stemming the towering tidal wave of compulsive and anti-social behaviors sweeping our society — what you might call the Smartphone Crisis. 

1 – France Moves To Ban Students From Using Cellphones In Schools

I recently interviewed an undergrad from the University of Toronto who grew up in London but was educated in the French lycée system. She says phones were nowhere to be seen in any of her classes — part of the strict French approach to education.

So it was a little surprising to read that the French Minister of Education himself decreed recently that he’s banning phones from all primary and secondary school classrooms. That’s especially surprising since France passed such a law — seven years ago. As one high-ranking teachers’ union official put it, presumably speaking of their recalcitrant students, “It is extremely difficult to get respect.

Part of the problem may be of the minister’s own making. He seems to be carving out exceptions before he even starts: “You may need a mobile phone, for example, for educational purposes, for emergency situations…” Oops. As soon as you allow that phones have any legitimate purpose in the classroom then students, vendors and campus admins will all find ingenious wedges to beat the system. Among the biggest opponents to a ban are parents worried about being out of touch with their kids for a few hours. Continue reading

How to mitigate digital harms? First, be very patient (3)

And on to the third and last main question of the Pew/Elon survey. The tough one — ok, smart guy, you got any solutions? Or to quote the original:

“Do you think there are any actions that might successfully be taken to reduce or eradicate potential harms of digital life to individuals’ well-being?”

I’m a pessimist about the harms but an optimist about solutions:

  • Yes, there are interventions that can be made in the coming years to improve the way people are affected by their use of technology.
  • No, there are not interventions that can be made to improve the way people are affected by their use of technology

So, “yes” is the answer here. And finally…

“Please elaborate on your response below about why you do or don’t think there can be actions taken to mitigate potential harms of digital life.” Continue reading

The digital life is killing higher ed (2)

Yesterday I described the latest Pew/Elon survey on the future of the Internet. The first of three main questions for the participants asked whether the digital life will help or harm our personal well-being. Harm, says I.

The next question asks for a personal anecdote to illustrate some of the concerns being aired:

“Please share a brief personal anecdote about how digital technology has changed your daily life, your family’s life or your friends’ lives in regard to well-being – some brief observation about technology’s impact on life for you, your family or friends. Tell us how this observation or anecdote captures how hyper-connected life changes people’s well-being, compared to the way life was before digital connectivity existed.”

Another easy choice. Here’s what I wrote in my survey response: Continue reading

Are digital technologies bad for us? (1)

Of course they are. Just ask the phone addicts ditching the millions of colors on their hi-res screens in favor of boring old black and white.

This ploy to rescue some personal agency from the jaws of the phone monster is part of a much larger trend engulfing our tech-addled culture. Everyone’s worried. The worries are popping up everywhere — like the New York Times, which asks this week, Is the Answer to Phone Addiction a Worse Phone?

The NYT piece does a nice job of exposing the absurd lengths we’re going to in our digital lives. What’s unusual is that it takes the underlying problem for granted — “twitchy phone checking” — and goes right to a coping mechanism. These days we’ve agreed on a long list of digital evils, from homicidal texting behind the wheel to the end of online privacy. We’ve also agreed on a short list of culprits, with Facebook, Amazon and Google at the top of the list.  Continue reading

Net neutrality isn’t the endgame

In case you’ve been hiding under a rock, Pai did kill the neutrality rules today.

(A version of this post was published last night on the HuffPo site.)


Ajit Pai, Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, has a “fix” for the Internet that sets new records for doublespeak, hypocrisy and brazen contempt for evidence.

On Thursday, his draft order — wittily entitled “Restoring Internet Freedom” — is likely to be was blessed by the FCC’s Republican majority, in the face of massive opposition from activists, tech leaders including the Internet founders, the public at large and even some Republican lawmakers. If it does pass, Pai will has realized his heartfelt goal: eradicating the rules established by his predecessor, Democratic chairman Tom Wheeler, designed to safeguard Internet access through the protections afforded by network neutrality (known as the Open Internet Order, launched by the FCC in 2015).

The battle to challenge Pai’s order and save net neutrality is well under way. But even if the battle succeeds, that by itself won’t accomplish what we ultimately hope for: an open Internet used by everyone in the way that best suits their needs. The fundamental issues go much deeper than the current debate. Continue reading

As online threats multiply, who’s the hacker now?

March was a tough month for hackers.

First we learned from WikiLeaks that the CIA has an arsenal of code designed to break into the world’s phones, cars and TVs, not to mention old-fashioned computers. Then the US authorities announced indictments in the largest hacking case on record: the breach of half a billion Yahoo accounts in 2014. Two of the men charged are Russian spies.

The Kremlin is becoming particularly adept at blending high espionage and lowdown criminal pursuits like the online theft of other people’s data. The king of that particular castle is Evgeniy Bogachev, the guy opposite with his Bengal cat and matching pyjamas. They say he’s extremely wealthy, and once had upwards of half a million computers under his command. He’s also a criminal standout for having a $3 million FBI bounty on his close cropped head. Back home in his redoubt on the Black Sea, however, Bogachev is a popular asset among intelligence operatives.
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