Wednesday, March 09, 2016


People walk on a sidewalk in Chongqing featuring one lane for cellphone users and one lane for walkers not using cellphones.Zuma Press/Wall Street Journal China.

Source: societyinkorea blog
THE GENERALIST is in the minority in not owning a mobile phone let alone a smartphone. According to an valuable article by Jacob Weisberg in the New York Review of Books, which we will examine in detail, 'not carrying a smartphone indicates eccentricity, social marginalization, or old age.' Yahboo to you! 

This post examines the rise of the smartphone and the social implications of this rapid upsurge in their ownership and usage -  internet anxieties, empathy decline, app addiction, plus captology and the emergence of  'device people' or 'proto-cyborgs'.

Smart device penetration in Europe by Flurry Analytics


The map above accompanies an article by Richard Firminger posted on Wallblog (Jan 4th 2016) entitled ' More devices than people! A snapshot of smartphone and tablet use in the UK'. It reads in part:
'According to ZenithOptimedia, 2016 will see global mobile ad spend overtake newspaper ad spend, and is on course to outstrip desktop as soon as 2018. 
'New research from Yahoo’s Flurry shows how device usage and preferences can vary dramatically by region, even within Europe....The UK comes in third, with 130% penetration, behind the Netherlands (136%) and Sweden (150%); all are far ahead of fourth place Spain at 81%. These staggering rates of adoption actually mean these countries boast more smart devices than citizens, as households typically have multiple devices including tablets and phones.'
He reports that mobile devices are now the preferred channel for online browsing and that  90% of the time is spent on apps as opposed to mobile web. 
'It appears that UK consumers are prioritising staying in touch, as messaging and social apps take up 41% of our total app time – almost twice as much time as gaming, and four times as much as music, media, and entertainment apps.'
Firminger, who is VP of business development at Yahoo, says their research shows that 'smartphone users are twice as likely as other consumers not to care if the content they read is an advert, provided it’s engaging and well targeted.'

university lecture smartphone addiction

In the UK, OFCOM's 2015 Communications Market Report (August 2015) claims that smartphones have overtaken laptops as the most popular device for getting online. On average they are used for nearly two hours every day to browse the internet, access social media, bank and shop online. 

The report claims that 'smartphones have become the hub of our daily lives and are now in the pockets of two thirds (66%) of UK adults, up from 39% in 2012. The vast majority (90%) of 16-24 year olds own one; but 55-64 year olds are also joining the smartphone revolution, with ownership in this age group more than doubling since 2012, from 19% to 50%. 



Source: The Digital Divide Podcast: Smartphone Addiction

‘No-mobile-phobia’: There is a name for the feeling of anxiety caused by separation from one’s smartphone.Nomophobia—literally, “no-mobile” phobia—is the fear of losing or being without a cellphone. It’s not an official, clinical diagnosis, and you can’t find an entry for it in the most recent edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), but there is reason to believe that it is a growing problem. Source: Inside a Smartphone Addiction Treatment Center/PC World. 


Jacob Weisberg's review of a number of books on the smart phone phenomenon points out the 'unprecedented suddenness' of their arrival.  The first iPhones went on sale in June 2007 with Android phones arriving in 2008. He asks 'What does it mean to shift overnight from a society in which people walk down the street looking around to one in which people walk down the street looking at machines?'  He writes;
Smartphones went from 10 percent to 40 percent market penetration faster than any other consumer technology in history. In the United States, adoption hit 50 percent only three years ago.
'Americans spend an average of five and a half hours a day with digital media, more than half of that time on mobile devices, according to the research firm eMarketer. Among some groups, the numbers range much higher. In one recent survey, female students at Baylor University reported using their cell phones an average of ten hours a day. Three quarters of eighteen-to-twenty-four-year-olds say that they reach for their phones immediately upon waking up in the morning. Once out of bed, we check our phones 221 times a day—an average of every 4.3 minutes—according to a UK study. This number actually may be too low, since people tend to underestimate their own mobile usage. In a 2015 Gallup survey, 61 percent of people said they checked their phones less frequently than others they knew.'
So much for the statistics. Weisberg's main focus is on 'Reclaiming Conversation', a recently published book by Sherry Turkle, a psychologist and sociologist who teaches at MIT, which is about the 'troubling aspects of social and mobile media'.

'She presents a powerful case that a new communication revolution is degrading the quality of human relationships—with family and friends, as well as colleagues and romantic partners. The picture she paints is both familiar and heartbreaking: parents who are constantly distracted on the playground and at the dinner table; children who are frustrated that they can’t get their parents’ undivided attention; gatherings where friends who are present vie for attention with virtual friends; classrooms where professors gaze out at a sea of semi-engaged multitaskers; and a dating culture in which infinite choice undermines the ability to make emotional commitments.'
'Turkle finds the roots of the problem in the failure of young people absorbed in their devices to develop fully independent selves, a topic she began to explore in Alone Together (2011)... She argued that phones and texting disrupt the ability to separate from one’s parents, and raise other obstacles to adulthood. 
'In her new book, she expresses a version of those concerns that is as much philosophic as psychiatric. Because they aren’t learning how to be alone, she contends, young people are losing their ability to empathize. “It’s the capacity for solitude that allows you to reach out to others and see them as separate and independent,” Turkle writes...Continuous digital performance leaves teenagers experiencing what ought to be the satisfactions of solitude only as “disconnection anxiety.”
 Turkle cites a study that shows a 40 percent decline in empathy among college students over the past twenty years as measured by standard psychological tests. Based on hundreds of interviews she's done with the youth she concludes:

'The thing young people never do on their smartphones is actually speak to one another. Their comments about live conversation are telling: “I never really learned how to do a good job with talking in person.” “Even when I’m with my friends, I’ll go online to make a point…. I’m more at home.” 
Another excellent piece based on Turkle's book is 'Log out, switch off, join in' by Financial Times columnist Simon Kuper. He writes: 'As one young man told Turkle: "Conversation? It died in 2009". That year, smartphones went mainstream. Turkle claims most teenagers in the US send 100 texts a day.



In 'Reading the Comments'  Joseph M. Reagle Jr., a communications professor at Northeastern University in the US,  focuses on 'the way people relate to one another through the digital genre that he defines as social, reactive, short, asynchronous, and pervasive. To him, this “bottom of the Web” includes everything from Facebook sharing to bulletin board systems (BBS) to user-generated product reviews on Amazon.'

Weisberg writes: 'In the main, the Web conversation Reagle considers suffers from tendencies similar to the ones Turkle identifies: narcissism, disinhibition, and the failure to care about the feelings of others. It’s a world devoid of empathy.
Much of what we do on the Internet is, it seems, harmful to us and others but there's an even deeper aspect: we're hooked. Apparently in 1995, there was parody of an academic article going the rounds about "Internet addiction disorder". Certainly, it's habit forming.
 'The simplest habitual activities are checking for updates in one’s social streams and affirming the contributions posted by friends. You do this by tapping on various permutations of the “like” button that Facebook launched in 2009: they include +1s on Google+, pins on Pinterest, hearts on Instagram, first stars, then hearts too on Twitter. The most successful mobile apps create distinctive, repetitive hand movements, like swiping on Tinder (left to reject), double-tapping on Instagram (to indicate approval), pressing down to view imploding doodles on Snapchat, and stroking down to catapult angry birds on Angry Birds.'
'When Turkle writes that “the Net teaches us to need it,” she is speaking metaphorically. But while the Internet itself may lack intentions, those designing our interactions with it have a purpose very much like the one she describes.' 


It is disturbing to learn that some of the most successful app designers in Silicon Valley are alumni of a place called the Persuasive Technology Lab at Stanford which was founded in 1998 by B.J. Fogg. This is where it gets real creepy. Fogg not only teaches students but also runs "persuasion bootcamps" for tech companies. Weisberg writes:
'He calls the field he founded “captology,” a term derived from an acronym for “computers as persuasive technology.” It’s an apt name for the discipline of capturing people’s attention and making it hard for them to escape. Fogg’s behavior model involves building habits through the use of what he calls “hot triggers,” like the links and photos in Facebook’s newsfeed, made up largely of posts by one’s Facebook friends.'

BJ Fogg in person

One of Fogg’s students, Nir Eyal is the author of 'Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products.'
A successful app, he writes, creates a “persistent routine” or behavioral loop. The app both triggers a need and provides the momentary solution to it. “Feelings of boredom, loneliness, frustration, confusion, and indecisiveness often instigate a slight pain or irritation and prompt an almost instantaneous and often mindless action to quell the negative sensation,” he writes. “Gradually, these bonds cement into a habit as users turn to your product when experiencing certain internal triggers.”
 Eyal thinks Facebook’s trigger is FOMO, fear of missing out. Instagram is even itchier. He writes: “Instagram is an example [of the work] of an enterprising team—conversant in psychology as much as technology—that unleashed a habit-forming product on users who subsequently made it part of their daily routines.”  Its genius, in his view, is moving beyond generalized FOMO to create angst around “the fear of losing a special moment.”

Instagram was so damned addictive that Facebook had to buy it. Weisberg  writes:
'Turkle argues against using the term “addiction” because it implies that “you have to discard the addicting substance,” and we aren’t very well “going to ‘get rid’ of the Internet.” But in describing what they’re doing, many of her subjects fall naturally into the language of substance abuse, abstention, and recovery. People colloquially describe sessions online as getting a fix, or refer to disconnection from social media as detoxing or going cold turkey. The industry can’t help talking that way either, about “users” and “devices.” The toll of technology is emotional rather than physical. But the more you read about it, the more you may come to feel that we’re in the middle of a new Opium War, in which marketers have adopted addiction as an explicit commercial strategy. This time the pushers come bearing candy-colored apps.'


One person who is attempting to address these problems is Tristan Harris, a former B.J. Fogg student and until recently Product Philosopher at Google. 

Image result for Tristram harris'Harris argues that an “attention economy” is pushing us all to spend time in ways we recognize as unproductive and unsatisfying, but that we have limited capacity to control. Tech companies are engaged in “a race to the bottom of the brain stem,” in which rewards go not to those that help us spend our time wisely, but to those that keep us mindlessly pulling the lever at the casino.'

His website says that he co-founded a movement for “Time Well Spent,” to spark a whole new ecosystem of software, websites and incentives built to help people spend their time, and their lives, well – not built to maximize engagement or screen time.'

Weisberg  doesn't buy into this. He concludes: 'As long as software engineers are able to deliver free, addictive products directly to children, parents who are themselves compulsive users have little hope of asserting control. We can’t defend ourselves against the disciples of captology by asking nicely for less enticing slot machines.'

 Read the complete piece: 'We Are Hopelessly Hooked' 


Source: Pinterest

This post concludes with another related piece, this time from the science journal Nature entitled 'Time to expand the mind: Thoughtful use of ubiquitous technology can improve mental ability more than drugs and devices', say Nicholas S. Fitz and Peter B. Reiner. In a section entitled 'Perspective Shift' they write:

'It is hard to overstate the degree to which information technology has permeated today’s world. For many, reliance on technology  begins when they awaken, continues throughout the day and ends only when they drift off to sleep.
'Nearly half of the adult population worldwide owns a smartphone.But to call these devices phones is a misnomer; the functions they carry out are incredibly diverse, including storing information,sending and receiving messages, and videoconferencing. 
'Sometimes it feels as if technology is supplanting thinking, but this worry is somewhat misdirected. Rather, these devices are extending the reach of our cognitive abilities, so much so that a statement that once seemed radical is increasingly realistic: we have become proto-cyborgs.
'We are still a long way from the transhumanist fantasy of upgradingour brains with implantable computer chips. But we have entered a transitional era in which we are commingling our cognitive space with technology. In doing so, we have enlisted the assistance of what might be termed technologies of the extended mind.'

          Sweet dreams.        

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