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.”
The cool French kids: ditching their phones at school?
In January, I mentioned a bold move promised by French education minister Jean-Michel Blanquer: a ban on phones in the lower grades. I took exception to two planned exceptions noted by the minister:
“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.
I also pointed out France had had a similar law on the books since 2011. Fast forward to last month, with the new rules in place (an official announcement is posted on the ministry website).
The new law is aimed at school kids in “écoles” (grades 1-5) and “collèges” (grades 6-9). It’s remarkable the authorities have passed legislation to confront this crisis of inattention, which covers all networked devices. Even more so that they’ve gone way back to 1st grade, recognizing that bad habits begin early. Continue reading →
It’s no fun being a pessimist. But the leading indicators keep suggesting life online will get a lot worse before getting better. Let’s see what we can foretell from these four recent items…
Facebook’s market cap plunges 19%
Your smart-TV is spying on you
Teens are online constantly
Phones in class impair performance
1. Facebook: schadenfreude. Last Thursday Zuckerberg dropped a theoretical $19 billion from his net worth, as investors blew off $119 billion of the company’s stock-market value — the biggest one-day drop in stock-market history. Investors were annoyed about Facebook forecasting a drop in revenue and continuing rise in expenses, not about the company’s tacky treatment of its users — although the increased expenses probably have something to do with remediating said tacky treatment. Continue reading →
The Internet keeps getting busier — more people going online and spending more time once they get there. It’s also becoming a worse place to be, on almost any objective measure: mental health, privacy, safety, social cohesion, cyberwarfare, etc.
Can we love the Internet and still hate what it’s doing to us?
In two reports released in April, the Pew Research Center provides some surprising answers. The first report doesn’t bury the lead. It’s entitled “A Declining Majority of Online Adults Say the Internet Has Been Good for Society” But there’s a sharp counterpoint accompanying that finding. These respondents see good for themselves as individuals — but for society, not so much (gen-pop survey here). Continue reading →
Getting digital tech into the classroom has reached motherhood status. The latest well-intentioned effort to keep kids plugged in comes from US Senators Udall and Gardner, who’ve written a bill to ensure school buses get equipped with Wi-Fi — so the kids will ignore Instagram and dive into their homework.
Good luck with that, Buck might say, pointing to the “misuse” of tech as a good reason not to give schoolkids ubiquitous access. Misuse is what everyone wants to stamp out in class — as in content that’s “inappropriate” for our tender offspring. Misuse, sadly, is baked into the system. Kids can’t be expected to resist the addictive temptations of digital life — especially, I would add, given the poor example set by their parents.Continue reading →
“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
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.
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.
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.
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 →