Everyone I talk to concedes smartphones are bad for us. Very few agree on exactly what the harms are — let alone what to do about them.
Experts have two main takes on where to look for digital harms. One is directed at the reader. Your digital life is a misery, here’s what to do. Author Paul Greenberg will soon publish iQuit: 50 Things to Do iNstead — and gives us a foretaste in a piece titled “In Search of Lost Screen Time.” With a forthright sub-title: “Imagine what we could do with our money, and hours, if we set our phones aside for a year.”
The other approach is to blame everything on Silicon Valley, and these days who wouldn’t. One recent example is A People’s History of Silicon Valley by Keith Spencer, with another forthright sub-title: “How the tech industry exploits workers, erodes privacy and undermines democracy.”
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.”
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 →
We’re all going to hell in an IP-enabled handbasket.
The bland-looking control panel depicted above is the heart of a smart home – automated up the wazoo, so your fingers can play master of the universe with the lighting, audio system, appliances, heating and cooling, sprinklers, pool, spa, garage door – and your alleged security system.
Alleged because smart homes, cars and all the other items you’ll be connecting to the public Internet will offer unprecedented opportunites for hackers to infiltrate your life. Most personal devices like computers are already insecure enough. But so-called “smart” devices will be far more difficult for consumers to organize, update and secure than the familiar devices we can see and hold. (If you think any object in our lives will be spared, check out the automated cat feeder adjacent, courtesy Wikipedia.) Continue reading →
“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
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.
Let’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.
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 →
Partial map of the Internet cloud. Each line joins 2 nodes representing IP addresses.
Pew setup question
The evolution of embedded and wearable devices and the Internet/Cloud of Things – As billions of devices, artifacts, and accessories are networked, will the Internet of Things have widespread and beneficial effects on the everyday lives of the public by 2025?
The visualization of the Internet you see above, while pretty dense and complicated, captures only a fraction of a certain class of networks as they existed nine years ago (i.e., less than 30% of the Class C networks reached by the Opte Project in early 2005). In the intervening time, the number of Internet-connected hosts has increased from less than 400 million to over one billion. But you ain’t seen nuthin’ yet.
This past year marked the mainstreaming – in the public consciousness if not in our actual lives – of devices that are not only a) smart so they can compute, and b) small so they can be worn or embedded, but also c) networked so they can all communicate over the Internet. Judging by press coverage, I’d say the splashiest recent entries have been Google Glass and smart watches. Continue reading →
“We live in a technological universe in which we are always communicating. And yet we have sacrificed conversation for mere connection.”
Thus begins a provocative article published recently in The New York Times by MIT psychology prof Sherry Turkle, entitled “The Flight From Conversation.” She argues that our growing obsession with technologies like texting and social networking are inflicting profound changes on who we are and how we relate socially – making us increasingly “alone together,” which happens to be the title of Turkle’s last book.
The twin claims that we’re getting lonelier while we throw away the fine art of conversation are controversial to say the least. They suggest we’re seeing the end of some Golden Age when everyone was friendlier, the streets were safer and the music was better. Then there’s the old hobgoblin of causality – the idea that our behavior, especially bad behavior, is determined by popular new technologies like computers, the Internet, and all the clever algorithms that have helped insinuate digital communications so deeply into our lives. None of which has ever slowed down the tech critics.
Yet there’s something different about the technology-bashing in the air these days: it seems to be crossing party lines. We’ve long been accustomed to established interests in business and government foretelling the end of civilization when disruptive technologies threaten to take away some of their marbles. The worldview according to which new technologies are all evil is, of course, especially popular among media fat cats. Here’s how Hollywood lobbyist and consummate drama queen Jack Valenti described the dangers of a once-pervasive consumer technology while testifying to a Congressional committee:
“I say to you that the VCR is to the American film producer and the American public as the Boston strangler is to the woman home alone.” Continue reading →