More time online or less? Yes (1)

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Barely six months ago, some unusual critics told Apple it was making a big mistake in its iPhone design. It was doing too good a job — and making us too fond of the world’s greatest fetish object. Unusual because the critics included two of Apple’s biggest institutional investors (Jana Partners and CALSTRS: as noted in my January 31 post).

Making phones less attractive is one of the stop-gap remedies for the millions with a case of screen addiction. Along comes Apple’s recent Worldwide Developers Conference, WWDC, and babam! — we have software adjustments in the next iteration of iOS intended to appease the critics and save us from ourselves (WWDC keynote here).

iOS 12 will have two expanded controls plus a newish feature. Do Not Disturb (DND) gets auto-timing and a Do Not Disturb During Bedtime add-on. Notifications get less annnoying with Grouping and Instant Tuning. And add the new Screen Time feature, which tells you precisely how much of your life you’re wasting on your phone and where.

It’s hard to get excited about these upgrades. DND is already pretty granular, with 7 controls in iOS 11. To say nothing of needing protection from being disturbed when you’re sound asleep. Really? How about just leave it in the kitchen overnight? Screen Time is more useful and the only upgrade likely to keep you on the phone less. Or you can skip Apple’s version and download an app like Moment, which does pretty much the same thing.

The new iOS will have lots of cool features (way faster, 32 peeps on FaceTime concalls, even more emjois, etc), which creates a dilemma for Apple. The cool ones will nudge users into being on their phones more — even as Apple struggles to find ways to push us in the direction of less. Meanwhile, we already have a standout iOS function for protecting us from ourselves — Do not disturb while driving, which may have been responsible for saving some users from driving into a concrete abutment.

Priorities and our love-hate relationship

The battle to get off our devices has become more complicated in the last year or two. One factor is priorities, the other is the depth of our love-hate relationship with technology.

On the priorities side, the addiction problem has been overtaken by other problems, especially risks to privacy. Over the last few months, privacy has knocked just about every other Internet story off the front pages, with the exception of net neutrality, which died officially in Washington on Monday, June 11 (Ars Technica’s take: Ajit Pai says you’re going to love the death of net neutrality).

Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica fiasco was just one especially high-profile plot point in a story that just won’t quit. But as big a problem as Facebook’s ethics may be, our personal love-hate relationships with tech have created a much bigger barrier to digital sanity. Some recent research reflects this ambiguity. On one hand, it shows we’re using the Internet more and more — and on the other that we’re feeling less and less like the Internet is a force for social good.

More time, and people, online. Let’s start with the easy one — time spent online.









As we see from this time series covering the US, average online minutes per day have been climbing steadily over the last decade — from about 85 min/day in 2011 to 240 min/day this year, and 275 projected for 2020 (data from Zenith, reported by Recode). No one is likely to find this trend line shocking. Except perhaps for the contrast represented by the grey line, which shows TV consumption dropping below Internet use in 2020 for the first time in recorded history.

Recent US government data also shows Internet use has increased — when measured across the entire US population: 78% of Americans 3+ used the Internet as of November 2017, compared with 75% in July 2015. These numbers come from the major surveys conducted by the NTIA  (National Telecommunications and Information Administration), which released new results last week.

The NTIA highlights one piece of good news — the digital divide is giving way “as more Americans from all walks of life connect to the Internet.” Adoption has been rising mainly because traditionally disenfranchised groups have been coming online — particularly low-income families, seniors, African Americans and Hispanics.

While this is a positive social trend, it’s worth asking if these late adopters will enjoy the benefits of being on the Internet as much as earlier adopters. That question would have seemed out of place not long ago — when not being online clearly excluded millions from government services, job opportunities, homework resources, civic engagement, health information… and sure, Facebook and Netflix.

But it’s 2018 and the Internet is now faulted for a long list of familiar miseries — hacking, screen addiction, loss of privacy, mass surveillance, cyberwarfare, algorithmic regulation, the crisis of inattention in the classroom… Oh and the death of net neutrality. Are we consuming more and more of a seductive commodity that’s making us sick? Last April, Pew Research released some survey findings on this quandary. Its headline: A Declining Majority of Online Adults Say the Internet Has Been Good for Society.

(will continue in part 2)