Dumb things you can do with smartphones (part 2)

“We live in a technological universe in which we are always communicating. And yet we have sacrificed conversation for mere connection.”

Thus begins a provocative article published recently in The New York Times by MIT psychology prof Sherry Turkle, entitled “The Flight From Conversation.” She argues that our growing obsession with technologies like texting and social networking are inflicting profound changes on who we are and how we relate socially – making us increasingly “alone together,” which happens to be the title of Turkle’s last book.

The twin claims that we’re getting lonelier while we throw away the fine art of conversation are controversial to say the least. They suggest we’re seeing the end of some Golden Age when everyone was friendlier, the streets were safer and the music was better. Then there’s the old hobgoblin of causality – the idea that our behavior, especially bad behavior, is determined by popular new technologies like computers, the Internet, and all the clever algorithms that have helped insinuate digital communications so deeply into our lives. None of which has ever slowed down the tech critics.

Yet there’s something different about the technology-bashing in the air these days: it seems to be crossing party lines. We’ve long been accustomed to established interests in business and government foretelling the end of civilization when disruptive technologies threaten to take away some of their marbles. The worldview according to which new technologies are all evil is, of course, especially popular among media fat cats. Here’s how Hollywood lobbyist and consummate drama queen Jack Valenti described the dangers of a once-pervasive consumer technology while testifying to a Congressional committee:

“I say to you that the VCR is to the American film producer and the American public as the Boston strangler is to the woman home alone.”

In case you missed it, that was 1982, when the major studios were in court trying to prevent Sony from ever shipping a single VCR to the American public because of the mortal threat of… piracy. Thirty years later, Valenti’s replacement as head of the MPAA, Chris Dodd, is still singing from exactly the same hymn book – except now the technologies are digital and the threats include the loss of a gazillion American jobs. (I note in passing a recent Bloomberg headline claiming that “Google Fiber in Kansas City Makes Hollywood Nervous”… as in let’s not give Americans gigabit broadband like South Korea, since that hapless nation was “decimated” by piracy thanks to promiscuous amounts of bandwidth.)

But nowadays, many outspoken technology critics have popped up from across the aisle. Indeed, it seems social liberals are becoming the real dystopians about online life:

“Social media – from Facebook to Twitter – have made us more densely networked than ever. Yet for all this connectivity, new research suggests that we have never been lonelier (or more narcissistic)—and that this loneliness is making us mentally and physically ill.”

That’s the setup for the Atlantic’s May cover feature: “Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?” The author, novelist Stephen Marche, kicked up quite a storm among online pundits. Slate published a retort by NYU sociologist Eric Klinenberg entitled pointedly: “Facebook Isn’t Making Us Lonely.” Klinenberg, who makes a strong empirical counter-argument, knows a few things about the subject, having authored Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone. Meanwhile, Forbes took the objections a step further (not necessarily more convincingly) in a piece entitled, “Is Facebook Making You Lonely? Don’t Be Stupid.”

Connectivity vs (hyper)connectedness

For months now, the trade and popular press have obsessed over what I’ll call the “regulatable” social effects of networked media. By that I mean effects that government agencies like the Federal Trade Commission have some authority to address. At the top of that list right now would have to be privacy, an issue that has ensnared the Internet’s biggest platform providers, including Apple, Google and Facebook.

In contrast we have a set of issues ostensibly related to communications technologies but that lie outside the reach of policy or regulatory intervention. All the fuss about loneliness offers a good illustration of the distinction I have in mind. Facebook will continue to hammer away at your privacy; and authorities will continue to hammer away at Facebook for what they consider to be violations of your privacy. On the other hand, we can be pretty sure Zuckerberg will never get busted for making people feel lonely.

Given the take-your-data-and-run business model that propels social media sites, it might be nice if someone would stop Zuckerberg before he signs up the entire human race. But Facebook is only the most obvious symptom of something more basic that’s been gathering steam under the hood: the technologies that collectively enable hyperconnectedness. The core of this idea is pretty simple: the ability to be online from anywhere, any time, in order to reach any person or node on the Internet at will.

What’s not so simple is the “hyper” part of hyperconnectedness, with its echoes of hypertension, hyperthyroidism and other unwanted pathologies. At a macro policy level, some argue that the technical enablers at issue here are of great social and economic value. In February 2010, for example, Harvard’s Berkman Center issued its report on next-generation broadband for the FCC.  The main theme of their research was that developed countries should do everything possible to encourage the buildout of what they call “ubiquitous, seamless connectivity.” Unsurprisingly, the Berkman economists and technical analysts had little to say in their report about the human implications of actually using next-gen communications platforms.

This division of labor is nicely captured by the differences between “connectivity” and “connectedness.” The former, a sensible policy and business goal, offers valued possibilities; the latter, a product of individual choice, offers the messy social behaviors that go with day-to-day use.

The Internet and the hyperconnected generation in 2020

Alert visitors may have noticed that last October I posted a series of three items on the Pew/Elon Internet futures survey. This project is part of a long-standing collaboration between Janna Quitney Anderson of Elon University and Lee Rainie of the Pew Internet Project, and goes by the title of “Imagining the Internet.” The survey collects predictions on the state of the Internet in 2020; it’s now in its 5th edition. I was a second-time participant last fall, along with 1,020 other folks described as technology stakeholders and critics.

Every survey topic starts with a pair of diametrically opposed predictions – aka “tension pairs.” Participants are asked to choose one. Naturally, anyone who has given much thought to the future of the Internet is likely to have all sorts of qualifiers to add. As the survey authors put it: “You may struggle with most or all of the choices offered, and some may seem impossible to decide.” Happily, participants are then invited to add an open-ended elaboration or explanation of the choice they’ve made. (For details from the source, see here; for my previous three posts on Edition V, start here).

The first topic on the survey (this edition has eight) is Generation AO – the “always on” or hyperconnected cohort often referred to as Millennials, and the likely costs and benefits (to them and others) of their frenzied networked lives. Here’s the tension pair for the Gen AO topic:

“The optimistic scenario: In 2020 the brains of multitasking teens and young adults are “wired” differently from those over age 35 and overall it yields helpful results. They do not suffer notable cognitive shortcomings as they multitask and cycle quickly through personal- and work-related tasks. Rather, they are learning more and they are more adept at finding answers to deep questions, in part because they can search effectively and access collective intelligence via the Internet. In sum, the changes in learning behavior and cognition among the young generally produce positive outcomes.

“The baleful scenario: In 2020, the brains of multitasking teens and young adults are “wired” differently from those over age 35 and overall it yields baleful results. They do not retain information; they spend most of their energy sharing short social messages, being entertained, and being distracted away from deep engagement with people and knowledge. They lack deep-thinking capabilities; they lack face-to-face social skills; they depend in unhealthy ways on the Internet and mobile devices to function. In sum, the changes in behavior and cognition among the young are generally negative outcomes.”


The envelope please…

This pick-and-choose was a no-brainer for me on several grounds. Five months later, however, when the survey team released their report on Gen AO, I was shocked to learn our side lost this one by a margin of 55% to 42% (with a 3% no-response) – i.e. in favor of the optimistic choice.

For those who’d like to read the material for themselves, the 36-pp pdf (issued February 29) is available from this Web page (which also offers a good read html-style). If you’re not familiar with the treasure trove of ideas from the participants and analysis from the survey team, there’s no substitute for the real deal. Meanwhile, here are a couple of comments to help frame the upcoming discussions on this page.

First of all, the report notes that the quantitative scores were actually much closer than first appeared. That’s because many who chose the positive view said it was more their hope than their best guess. Thus, the authors conclude, the result here is “probably more like a 50-50 outcome than the 55-42 split recorded through survey takers’ votes.” The balanced split in the numerical scores only reinforces the staggering number and diversity of points of view in the written responses.

In coming down on the negative side, I’m well aware of what one participant refers to as the widespread and compulsive “moral panic” over digital technologies – a reaction that seems to be “wired into us.” Especially the moral panic many of us feel as parents about our own millennial offspring – while we conveniently forget the moral panic our parents felt about television, the phone, rock ‘n’ roll and all the rest of that pre-Internet litany.


That said, the report editor’s headline for my response on Gen AO sums up thusly: “Contrary to popular belief, young people are not digital wizards” – a sentiment that didn’t exactly endear me to my students when it appeared… All the more so because my perspective on these issues has been shaped more than anything by the front-row seat I’ve had over the past seven years in university classrooms.

Here’s the first half of my response to the Gen AO survey options:

“The idea that Millennials have a cognitive advantage over their elders is based on myths about multitasking, the skill-sets of digital natives, and 24/7 connectedness. Far from having an edge in learning, I see Millennials as increasingly trapped by the imperatives of online socializing and the opportunities offered by their smartphones to communicate from any place, any time. I can see this in the living experiment that takes place every week in the computer lab where I teach Internet technologies to fourth-year communication studies majors. Students everywhere have become relentless in their use of mobile devices for personal messaging. Even good students delude themselves into thinking they can text friends continuously while listening to a lecture and taking notes and, in the process, retain information and participate in discussions. But good research has shown that even especially bright kids are less productive when multitasking, a finding resisted by plenty of grown-ups as well.

“Our fondness for thinking positively about multitasking, especially among the young, gets a lot of reinforcement from two other assumptions: that Millennials have a special aptitude for digital media because they’ve grown up digital; and that ubiquitous, seamless connectivity is a positive social force. The first assumption is baloney; the second is fraught with contextual problems.”

Forsaking my usual focus on policy and regulation, I’m going to follow up in the next few posts with coverage of three of the messiest and most interesting issues in online social behavior today: smartphone addiction… the myths of multitasking… and why we should reform education by throwing digital technology out of the classroom.