Less phones, more books

Ofcom have published research into just how far our internet and smartphone addiction has grown over the last ten years.

A decade of digital dependency
2008 was the year the smartphone took off in the UK. With the iPhone and Android fresh into the UK market, 17% of people owned a smartphone a decade ago. That has now reached 78%, and 95% among 16-24 year-olds. The smartphone is now the device people say they would miss the most, dominating many people’s lives in both positive and negative ways.

People in the UK now check their smartphones, on average, every 12 minutes of the waking day. Two in five adults (40%) first look at their phone within five minutes of waking up, climbing to 65% of those aged under 35. Similarly, 37% of adults check their phones five minutes before lights out, again rising to 60% of under-35s.

We’re not all hooked, though. Here’s an interesting look at a (dwindling) demographic.

Meet the 11% of Americans who don’t use the internet
“We bought the first family computer in 1998, and the kids would sit around all day, tinkering on the internet,” she says. “I watched them go from playing outside with friends, riding bikes, talking to each other, to being obsessed with the machine. It was like a switch flipped in their heads.”

While her children and husband became accustomed to the internet, Simpson brushed it off as an “unnecessary evil.” Aside from an unfruitful and frustrating attempt to find a local plumber using Ask Jeeves 19 years ago, she’s completely refrained from logging online.

For the majority of us, though, the internet and its devices follow us everywhere we go. To be deliberately offline — our default position not that long ago, remember — is starting to feel contrary and unnatural, even in our own homes.

IKEA have a plan for that, though.

less-phones-more-books-2

IKEA and the Man Booker Prize create reading rooms for relaxation
The initiative is designed to help alleviate stress and help make the home a haven again. Over half of workers (59%) feel they are under pressure to respond to emails even when they are home and have finished official work hours — which suggests that preventing the trials of workplace from entering our homes has never been more important. Sitting down and disappearing into a good book is a way to do just that.

IKEA ‘Reading Rooms’ to celebrate Man Booker longlist
Gaby Wood, literary director of the Booker Prize Foundation, added: “If you associate reading with holidays then you probably associate it with indulgence. And – it’s true – reading fiction can be, at its best, a form of escapism. But that doesn’t make it a guilty pleasure. It’s more like a fast route to better health. Our homes are filled with devices that allow the digital world to encroach on our private lives.”

She urged people to “reclaim your privacy, and your imagination” through reading a book.

It seems crazy that we need a furniture store to remind us that putting the phone down now and then and picking up a book is a good thing.

Problematic face furniture

Ian Bogost from the Atlantic gets to grips with Apple’s wireless ear air bud head phone pod buds. Yes, they’re technically quite remarkable, but if they are as successful and therefore as ubiquitous as expected, they may change how we relate to each other.

Apple’s Airpods are an omen
There are some consequences to this scenario, if it plays out. For one, earbuds will cease to perform any social signaling whatsoever. Today, having one’s earbuds in while talking suggests that you are on a phone call, for example. Having them in while silent is a sign of inner focus—a request for privacy. That’s why bothering someone with earbuds in is such a social faux-pas: They act as a do-not-disturb sign for the body. But if AirPods or similar devices become widespread, those cues will vanish. Everyone will exist in an ambiguous state between public engagement with a room or space and private retreat into devices or media.

In the way that we didn’t realise old style traffic lights melt the snow that falls on them until we moved to LED traffic lights that don’t, I think we’re overlooking a benefit of using your hand to speak into your phone. As well as the visual clues it provides other people, as the article above points out, having your hand to your ear helps to keep your focus inwards, as well as slightly muffling your voice to keep your conversation to yourself. We’re already losing that with people talking into the mic on their earphones, and that’s only going to get worse.

I know I sound like one of those old farts that complain about the kids oversharing on social media, but perhaps this is just an extension of that — loudly oversharing conversations.

face-furniture-2

Not sure where the ‘smart’ is anymore

Smart speakers. Smartphones. They, and the world they belong to, feel less and less smart each day.

Underpaid and exhausted: the human cost of your Kindle
In the Chinese city of Hengyang, we find a fatigued, disposable workforce assembling gadgets for Amazon, owned by the world’s richest man.

[…]

Talk in the factory is of agency workers being laid off without pay during quiet periods: 700 in April and May, and 2,700 in January and February. Yet among the workers there is no great simmering anger, no burning resentment. Few have heard of Amazon or Bezos. They aren’t expecting very much and aren’t particularly disappointed when not very much is exactly what Foxconn and Amazon give them.

One 32-year-old married man says he can earn a basic 2,000 yuan (£233) a month making Kindles, but even with overtime taking it up to around £315 it is not enough.

It’s crazy to think that they work such long hours for such low pay, without being aware of how much money these companies are making, as a result of their work.

And it’s crazy to think that not joining in with this is now seen as outlandish and controversial.

This is what it’s like to not own a smartphone In 2018
Four years ago, I wrote about having no regrets for being a “dumb phone” user. At the time I was an anomaly: 58% of Americans, according to Pew researchers, owned a smartphone; that figure was around 80% for people in my age demographic. Now, I’m a clear oddity: 77% of U.S. adults are smartphone users, as are around 90% of my peers.

But, oh well. I don’t plan on changing tack anytime soon. Here’s why. …

My life without a smartphone
The problem is, divided out like that, we are left as partially everywhere and fully nowhere. We live with a constant Fear of Missing Out; but in need to fill the moments documenting life and making sure we don’t miss an email or update, we miss out being present in life, a sentiment beautifully illustrated in the viral “I forgot my phone” short film from last year.

I forgot my phone

I wonder if those Foxconn workers have any idea what that video’s on about.

Google’s creeping us out again

But it only wants to help, it’s for our own good.

Google wants to cure our phone addiction. How about that for irony?
This is Google doing what it always does. It is trying to be the solution to every aspect of our lives. It already wants to be our librarian, our encyclopedia, our dictionary, our map, our navigator, our wallet, our postman, our calendar, our newsagent, and now it wants to be our therapist. It wants us to believe it’s on our side.

There is something suspect about deploying more technology to use less technology. And something ironic about a company that fuels our tech addiction telling us that it holds the key to weaning us off it. It doubles as good PR, and pre-empts any future criticism about corporate irresponsibility.

And then there’s this. How many times have we had cause to say, ‘just because we can, doesn’t mean we should’?

Google’s new voice bot sounds, um, maybe too real
“Google Assistant making calls pretending to be human not only without disclosing that it’s a bot, but adding ‘ummm’ and ‘aaah’ to deceive the human on the other end with the room cheering it… horrifying. Silicon Valley is ethically lost, rudderless and has not learned a thing,” tweeted Zeynep Tufekci, a professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who studies the social impacts of technology.

“As digital technologies become better at doing human things, the focus has to be on how to protect humans, how to delineate humans and machines, and how to create reliable signals of each—see 2016. This is straight up, deliberate deception. Not okay,” she added.

Well I still like my Windows Phone. Mostly.

I’m fully aware that, by being a Windows Phone user, I’ve been backing the losing horse in what’s turned out to be a two—not three—horse race, but for the most part I still enjoy having it. Yes, the lack of key apps is a nuisance sometimes, and yes, it would be nice if the OS was a little more reliable, but there were many positives to the platform. Tom Warren from The Verge outlines a few of them, as well as some of the possible consequences of this reduction in mobile phone competition.

I miss Windows Phone
Windows Phone debuted in 2010 with Microsoft’s Metro design philosophy, and a focus on glancing at your phone for information instead of digging in and out of apps. Two obvious features I miss from Windows Phone’s Metro design are the dark mode and Live Tiles. … Live Tiles were one of Windows Phone’s most unique features. They enabled apps to show information on the home screen, similar to the widgets found on Android and iOS. You could almost pin anything useful to the home screen, and Live Tiles animated beautifully to flip over and provide tiny nuggets of information that made your phone feel far more personal and alive. I’m hopeful that Apple will eventually take the Live Tiles concept, or even one that was designed for iOS 8, and bring it to the iPhone. Widgets just aren’t enough. Rumors suggest Apple is planning to refresh the iOS home screen soon, so there’s hope that iOS might move away from its static and dull home screen.

Really New Windows Phone Ad

Nudge the parents to nudge the children

Here’s an interesting idea from a school wanting to help parents better engage with their children’s experiences at school.

How nudges can help parents to get more involved in their children’s learning
After hearing Tom Middlehurst speak at an SSAT National Conference 2017 of the effectiveness of sending ‘learning prompt’ messages to parents in schools, we decided to give it a try. We used text messages to generate discussion between our students and their parents/carers, ensuring our nudges were action–focused, with a clear timescale.

[…]

Informal feedback has been very positive. From my discussions with students the day after each text I’d estimate 30% have talked about it at home. A few unintended consequences have emerged:

Parents making their child revise that evening simply because the text nudged them to think about it.

Some students reported having more learning conversations in the weeks following the texts.

Parents feel more equipped to ask follow-up questions on subjects such as the similarities between Banquo and Macbeth.

(I’ve repeated the word ‘nudge’ too many times in my head and now it doesn’t make sense anymore nudge nudge nuj nujj)

Our phones and (are?) us

If I’m reading this right, a mobile phone manufacturer is saying less than positive things about their mobile phones. (Not for the first time?)

Phones should be ‘slaves, not masters’, says Samsung UK mobile chief
… Following increasing unease from technology insiders and development experts that young and old alike are becoming increasingly addicted to smartphones, social media and the constant need for messaging, Samsung’s head of mobile in the UK says that something needs to change to stop the constant heads-down relationship we have with our devices.

“Ultimately what we want to try and do is create more of a heads-up lifestyle,” Conor Pierce, Samsung’s vice president of mobile and IT in the UK and Ireland, told the Guardian at the launch of the company’s new Galaxy S9 smartphone.

“Let’s not spend our life looking at these devices. You look around and everyone is doing it, leaning over [their] phones. Let’s make the device be the slave and we’ll be the master – let’s turn the roles completely on their head.”

And the problem of all this distracting technology can be resolved through more technology?

“What I’m really looking forward to is making sure that not only customers have the best mobile experience, but also the best connectivity experience,” said Pierce. “Through our SmartThings open alliance, we’re bringing a ubiquitous, convenient experience in which users can control their privacy, as they need to be able to do, regardless of brand, to make it all a really joyful, easy, trusted experience for real people.”

Combine that with this discussion on the ‘extended mind’ thesis:

Are ‘you’ just inside your skin or is your smartphone part of you?
After all, your smartphone is much more than just a phone. It can tell a more intimate story about you than your best friend. No other piece of hardware in history, not even your brain, contains the quality or quantity of information held on your phone: it ‘knows’ whom you speak to, when you speak to them, what you said, where you have been, your purchases, photos, biometric data, even your notes to yourself – and all this dating back years.

Start stopping

We’re into well March but there’s something new-years-resolution-y about a couple of things I’ve been reading recently — less is more / stop grasping the new / focus on what’s important…

Your old gadgets are likely good enough
The TV I watch with my wife when I’m kicking back is close to 12 years old. It pushes out pixels in 1080p. I don’t care about the fact that it doesn’t provide me with the sharpest image or that it’s not as thin as new models are. I love it because my wife and I can cuddle on the couch in front of it and share an experience together. A newer model wouldn’t do much to change that. My smartphone is two years old. It takes decent photos and lets me stay in touch with people. Sometimes I watch a movie on it. I can’t imagine myself saying anything different about this year’s handsets. Would I love an iPhone X? Probably. Do I think that it’s worth forking over $1,000 for? Not for a second. I’ll use it until the wheels fall off because it’s good enough.

Couldn’t agree more. I was prompted to resuscitate our old iPod Classic after reading this from The Verge. I’d forgotten how well designed it was.

My original iPod is a time capsule from 2002
As for me, the moment I plugged my headphones into my freshly charged iPod and listened to music that had lain dormant for the past 16 years, it was like being transported back in time. Nothing had changed. The music sounded as good as it did back then. Some tracks even sounded better on my old iPod than they do on my Google Pixel 2 XL. My iPod may be scratched and dented but it still looks cool as hell and is a joy to use, even if it is just for a short while before its ancient battery gives out. And at least it has a headphone jack.

Our iPod Classic isn’t quite that old (and I found a first generation iPod Shuffle too, which I’d completely forgotten about), but using that again, for the first time in ages, felt great. That click wheel is still a marvellous thing, much more tactile that all this featureless glass-stroking that surrounds us now.

Speaking of which:

It’s not you. Phones are designed to be addicting.
The 3 design elements that make smartphones so hard to put down, explained by Google’s former design ethicist.

If you can get past the use of the word ‘addict’ as a verb or the term ‘design ethicist’, there are some interesting points here about colour theory and user interaction.

And here’s an interview with Tristan Harris, the man behind that video:

How technology is designed to bring out the worst in us
… I say this because addiction with teens, developmentally, it’s not good for them. When you talk about regulation, or we talk about how we’re going to get out of this, the specific things you do is another question. I just want to say that we know there’s a huge public health problem here. We have got to do something, because the current thing that’s happening now is not working.

Pretty pessimistic, really. It sounds intractable. He’s persevering, though:

Center for Humane Technology
Since 2013, we’ve raised awareness of the problem within tech companies and for millions of people through broad media attention, convened top industry executives, and advised political leaders. Building on this start, we are advancing thoughtful solutions to change the system.

Just deal with it, not bothered how

I’m finding these kinds of articles about people moaning about their e-mail more and more annoying.

Unanswered emails were the bane of my life – until I spent a month in search of inbox nirvana
I renegotiate the terms of this week (with myself) and instead resolve never to check emails on my phone. This is because, as Gomes tells me, it is a “really, really stupid” thing to do. He describes a crushingly familiar scenario: you skim through emails on your phone, and half-read one that stresses you out. You can’t read it properly because it’s on a small screen which is “psychologically frustrating”, and you can’t reply because you get distracted – you so half-read it three times, growing more and more anxious, before you finally sit down at your computer, and realise it wasn’t as bad as you thought.

To prevent myself from checking my email on my iPhone’s browser, I move the Safari icon so that it is nine swipes away. It works. I feel simultaneously triumphant and riddled with self-loathing.

Yes, some people get more e-mail than others. And yes, it’s taking up more of our time than it used to. But no, it’s not an interruption from your work, dealing with e-mail is a part of your work now. And has been for, what, 20 years? There’s so much advice out there on how to work smarter with e-mail – filters and rules, labels and folders, even declaring e-mail bankruptcy now and then. Whatever works for you. Just get on with it.

The triumph of email: Why does one of the world’s most reviled technologies keep winning?
“Email has evolved into a weird medium of communication where the best thing you can do is destroy it quickly, as if every email were a rabid bat attacking your face,” Paul Ford wrote last year. “Yet even the tragically email-burdened still have a weird love for this particular rabid, face-attacking bat.

Mobile media minefield

The Guardian’s technology ‘agony aunt’ responding to a parent who has a problem with her 14-year-old son’s use of social media.

How can I control my child’s social media use?
The government recognises the risks of being online, but still hasn’t implemented roughly half the recommendations in Dr Tanya Byron’s report, Safer Children in a Digital World, released 10 years ago. And as she has just pointed out at the NSPCC, Instagram, SnapChat and WhatsApp didn’t even exist in 2008.

[…]

If you take these routes, you may be in for an extended game of Whac-A-Mole. It would be better to work towards a negotiated social solution, rather than a technological one.

It’s a minefield all right. We prefer the ‘negotiated social solution’ with our young teenagers, and we make sure as a family we’re all aware of the latest e-safety issues. We try our best to create an open atmosphere at home, rather than anything too heavy-handed, so that they can share with us any concerns they may have with anything they might see or read.

And here’s that NSPCC update from Tanya Byron.

Ten years since the Byron Review – Are children safer in the digital world?
This document reviews the 38 recommendations made in the Byron Review “Safer Children in a Digital World” and discusses how these were implemented. It also considers the influence of political change and online developments in the past decade, in order to contextualise the changes we’re trying to bring about to keep children and young people safe online in 2018.