Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Our inventions are wont to be pretty toys, which distract our attention from serious things. (Henry David Thoreau)

Over the past few years, I’ve noticed something rather disturbing.  I noticed it with my 20-something sons, my wife, and even at times myself. 

People seem to be addicted to their phones and computers. I don’t mean this in a metaphorical way, but very literally.

I actually followed up these observations with my own, very informal field research. Out to get a bite to eat for lunch on the streets of my mid-size metropolis, I counted the number of single pedestrians (people tend not to do this in crowds) who were busy staring at their phones. I did this several times, and don’t recall ever getting a number under 50%. And this is people walking, on crowded city streets – and generally fairly oblivious to other walkers, cars, signals, or anything other than their phones. 

With the exception of a few (mostly older) friends, however, I’ve mostly kept these thoughts to myself . I mean, I’m in high tech. I work for an online-only bank. I do usability tests all the time on mobile phones. The people I work with are all just a little older than my kids (and are really into their mobile devices). Ergo, the last thing I’d like to be known as is a Luddite.

Recently, though, I see the tide turning, just a little. This morning, I read an article about two investors threatening to sue Apple because they made “addictive devices.”. And, just a few weeks before, former Apple exec Tony Faddell got in the news bemoaning his role in making what is basically a tech version of casinos or cigarettes or opioids.

There’s also no shortage of books out there on the subject as well. You remember those things, don’t you? It used to be that these were few and far between. Lately, though, it seems like that’s all I’ve been reading. Just looking at my reading list, I’ve got Think Before You Like, The Know-It-Alls, The Hacking of the American Mind, iDisorder, iGen, Technically Wrong … So, at least I feel like I’m not alone anymore. 

But if you think about it, this is probably a necessary, and overdue, correction. There’s really nothing surprising here. Basically, there is no shortage of examples of society rushing to adopt technical wonders – especially those that might be highly financially remunerative – focusing solely on the positives, and without really thinking about any other possible implications. 

So, what I’m saying is not that smartphones are bad necessarily, but that we really do need to realize that they might come with some costs, and that we need to be super thoughtful about how we use them.

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