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

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

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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Who wants to be safe? Online protection as a black box

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Hacking that affects individuals is very widespread. The Pew Research Center reports nearly 2/3 of online Americans have experienced some form of data theft. A total of about 50% of onliners think their personal data are less secure than five years ago (see previous post for other details).

What does “data theft” look like? Pew examined seven types, and found that only two – fraudulent credit charges and stolen tax refunds – entailed direct financial loss. The others involved some less definable harm, such as an attacker getting his hands on social security numbers or login credentials for social media accounts. We call it “compromising” the data.

This amorphous concept of “compromised data” is growing into one of the chief barriers standing in the way of advances in cybersecurity for end-users. It takes what’s already invisible and annoying (see: strong passwords), and adds a hefty dose of abstraction. Exactly when can we say a piece of data has been sufficiently “compromised” to start worrying and take action? What kind of action?

WhatsApp: how secure?

Let’s look at WhatsApp to see how a popular messaging service handles security for a billion users – and how adding security can actually lead to trouble as well as safety.

Last year WhatsApp announced deployment of end-to-end encryption (E2EE) for all messages and media crossing its systems. Their FAQ assures users that everything they send is “secured from falling into the wrong hands” – right from the sender’s device all the way to the recipient’s (hence “end-to-end”). Marketing wants to be reassuring, not to mention emphatic as to why their platform is better than competing platforms. Continue reading

Moronic multitaskers vs digital natives: the smartphone crisis

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First impressions are important

“The single biggest problem facing education today is that our Digital Immigrant instructors, who speak an outdated language (that of the pre-digital age), are struggling to teach a population that speaks an entirely new language.” –Marc Prensky, 2001 (creator of the “digital natives” concept)

“Multitaskers are terrible at every aspect of multitasking.” –Clifford Nass, 2009

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Almost four years ago, I launched a radical new approach to teaching my courses. I began confiscating student phones for the duration of every class.

blank-face-2Let’s pretend her name was Kathy. I kept issuing the usual pleas to her – and everyone – to stay off their phones, as it’s hard to participate in a seminar discussion when you’re typing Facebook likes. Kathy was worse than most, so I moved her to a seat directly in front of the lab podium. But even when I was hovering, she kept typing furiously, like I was invisible. She was the last straw. Neither my ego nor my pedagogy could take it any more.

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Where phones go to facilitate the learning process (COMN 4520)

Around the time I started my full frontal phone attack, I posted the first of three items on dumb things you can do with smartphones, in September 2011. I took it for granted that thousands of other instructors faced the same problem every time they walked into a classroom. But I figured I had a particularly good reason for my phone strategy. I was teaching liberal arts undergrads how the Internet works. Continue reading

The Internet in 2025: which tech giants will dominate? (Pew 2)

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Screen grab from Pew/Elon survey questionnaire, January 2014

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The Pew survey included a question about tech firms that was set up a little differently than the others. As the screen grab above shows, participants were asked to rank the long-term success, or lack of success, among the Big 5 as listed, as well as among other firms of our choosing.

Although it’s about 10 years too early to say “I told you so,” the news over the last few days provides some support for conclusions drawn in my response. As you can see, I’m calling for Amazon and Apple to become “More important”… Facebook and Microsoft to become “Less important”… and Google to “remain the same.”

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Apple: too big to be successful any more?

A recent financial piece in the New York Times (Trying to See Apple From a Different Angle) says the stock market “doesn’t know quite what to make of Apple.” Two general reasons are adduced. One is cyclical: the company has had problems with sales of its cash cow, the iPhone. The other is structural: Apple has the largest market cap of any multinational, as well as the highest brand rating on the global Interbrand survey (all that engineering brainpower finally knocked a syrupy, dark-brown soft drink off its throne). Oh, and the $159 billion in cash it has lying around. Apple’s now so big and so successful that it’s scaring off growth investors who want to see a hit product every six months. Continue reading