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

Security fatigue: problems in password paradise


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A new survey from the Pew Research Center paints a bleak picture of how Internet users feel about their online security. The report starts with bad news about passwords, the high profile tool in the toolkit: “69% of online adults say they do not worry about how secure their online passwords are.”

How does not worrying look in real life?

Consider the findings from Keeper, a vendor of password management software. It recently tallied its annual list of the world’s favorite passwords. The top 10 list opposite, taken from an analysis of 10 million sample passwords, illustrates pretty well what end-users mean by not worrying. These passwords are so terrible that the estimated crack time for the “safest” choice on the list (#6) is about 9/1000 of a second – for the others, the effective crack time is zero seconds. This preference for easy – and insecure – passwords goes hand in hand with a set of attitudes to online security that’s not easy to fathom.

To begin with, Pew notes a tension between lack of trust in institutions and reluctance to take personal action on security:

“[While] they express skepticism about whether the businesses and institutions they interact with can adequately protect their personal information, a substantial share of the public admits that they do not always incorporate cybersecurity best practices into their own digital lives.”

Internet users are right to feel skeptical. Site operators as varied as Target, Ashley Madison and Yahoo! have shown they’re not only lousy at network security, but irresponsible in disclosure and damage control. In December, Yahoo! admitted that hackers had breached its systems and stole information from one billion accounts – and had done so three years before management got around to discussing the attack publicly.

A second and more counter-intuitive finding concerns what people do in response to suffering from an actual online attack:

“Americans who have personally experienced a major data breach are generally no more likely than average to take additional means to secure their passwords (such as using password management software).”

What explains such quick dismissal of self-interest?

Despite being a part of daily life, I think most people find passwords not just difficult but, well, weird. The better they are, the worse they are, since what makes them hard to crack also makes them hard to handle. Unlike, say, car locks and safe deposit boxes, passwords work invisibly on assets that are also invisible. Even as we type them, they dissolve into rows of inscrutable little dots. Plus they’re often stored on remote servers, i.e. in the “cloud” – the perfect metaphor for a tool you can’t see or understand.

Perhaps this abstract quality is what prompts people to manage their passwords in another kind of remote cloud: their brains. Two-thirds of onliners (65%) say memorizing their passwords is their most used strategy, while 86% use memorizing as at least one approach. The way distant second? Writing passwords on a piece of paper, the most used method for only 18% of respondents.

Software developers look at this behavior and think they can put us out of our misery by selling us password management software – 1Password, Dashlane, Keeper, etc – the tools security experts recommend most highly.

The bad news, however, is that almost nobody uses them. A mere 12% of onliners say they use these applications at least sometimes, while those who say they use a password manager most often amount to a tiny minority of 3%. Pew cautions this is not niche behavior, as password software “is used relatively rarely across a wide range of demographic groups.”

There’s a useful lesson here.

People at the selling end of the consumer tech business see code as the solution to everything. If you have trouble remembering your passwords and that makes you unsafe and you’re generally miserable about it all, then you’re gonna love our software. What’s wrong with this logic is not how good the software is or how cheap or how user-friendly. The problem is that it’s software.

This mental fatigue extends far past security. It’s only part of the fallout from how mainstream consumers are taught to behave in the digital world – to expect everything we touch to be effortless, easy and user-friendly, even when it clearly isn’t. Vendors know their customers won’t take lessons, respond to scares or read the manual so they just pretend there’s nothing to learn in the first place.

Same deal with hardware. As a tech at the Apple Genius Bar once explained to me, customers come in with broken, manhandled $1500 machines they’ve never maintained or even cleaned, and leave with their repair ready for more abuse. Imagine treating a $1500 Weber gas barbecue that way.

The only way mainstream consumers are ever going to make peace with their devices – and their passwords – is by getting to know them better. Mystification is a terrible motivator, as I can attest after a decade teaching 20-somethings how their digital world works.

Getting this particular demographic to put down their phones, their ingrained habits and their fear of exploring technology (yep, you heard that right), is hard work for all. Like most people, students have been persuaded there must be an app for that – one that will allow them to learn how a data packet crosses the Internet without any effort on their part. Or while texting. Well, there isn’t and there won’t be.

I see a wholesale change in our approach to understanding digital technology as one of the most important educational missions of the next decade. I’ll be writing more about this educational challenge in the coming weeks and months.

(The Pew survey on cybersecurity is available here.)


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An uncertain future for higher ed (Pew/Elon 2016)


Last month I wrote about the Pew/Elon experts survey on the future of the Internet. I included comments on the ubiquitous use of algorithms and the costs that entails. That was one of five questions on the 2016 survey. I answered two others: one on the future of education (#2) and the other on the effects of ever-increasing connectedness (#5).

My views on the future of higher education – especially in the liberal arts – have grown more pessimistic over the last year and a half. They’ve been shaped by the research and interviews I’ve done while working on a book proposal aimed at the uses and misuses of technology in the classroom. The working title, Turned off Tech, reflects the long-ago inciting incident: confiscating student phones and all other digital devices, the better to make the classroom a place to learn again.


Students adjust nicely to the idea that paying attention is a good way to find out how digital technologies work – as opposed to staring into a screen and expecting some miracle of osmosis. These days they’re much more concerned about what happens after they leave class and graduate. Many tell me that their 4-year degree was a painful necessity that will bring nothing by itself. Continue reading

Moronic multitaskers vs digital natives: the smartphone crisis


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


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.


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