Smartphones as objects providing comfort

Research suggests using a smartphone helps comfort adults:

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But scientists studying the relationship between people and their smartphones also have come up with additional insights in recent years about how people behave when using them, including discovering that people can draw needed comfort by their mere presence.

Individuals hold a deep personal connection with their phones, according to researchers. This leads phone users to express their views more freely when using their phones, often in exaggerated ways, and with more honesty, disclosing personal or sensitive information, for example, compared with laptops or tablets, experts say. They are portable and they have haptic properties that stimulate our sense of touch. And we regard them as much more personal than computers, which are closely associated with work…

“What might be going on? We don’t know, but one theory that makes sense to me is that they represent that we have friends,” he says. “It’s a reminder that we have friends, and knowing we can reach them, even remotely, is comforting. Also, they are very personal devices, more so than any other device, and with us all the time. From that perspective, we see them as an extension of ourselves.”

The phones also serve as a repository for all the details in our lives, from banking and entertainment, to tracking the whereabouts of our children, and getting us from one location to another. “They are the holy grail for convenience,” says Jeni Stolow, a social behavioral scientist and assistant professor at the Temple University college of public health. “It’s someone’s whole world in the palm of the hand. That is really appealing because it can make people feel in control at all times.”

Humans have the capacity to use many different items as tools and accessories to our daily tasks and activities. The smartphone is in a long line of “devices” that extend human possibilities. With the smartphone, someone can soothe themselves, access all sorts of information, and interact with others. It offers tremendous possibilities.

The emphasis here in the rest of the article is the possible effects of having all of this in a smartphone. Is it a “pacifier” or a creator of new problems? New tools bring new problems. And this leads to a pressing question for our era: is the smartphone in the long run a positive for humans? More broadly, we are in the midst of 30 years or so of asking the same question about the Internet: does all this access to people and information improve human life?

It might be hard to answer this question in the middle of an ongoing process. Having research, such as that cited above, can help us understand the effects as well as consider our interaction with the changes. All might be clearer in a decade or two…or even more complicated if we end up further down a path with devices that offer much in terms of both positive and negative possibilities.

The role of suburbs in “a nearly natureless world”

An MIT professor describes our current world as “nearly natureless”:

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Many of us invest hours each day staring at the screens of our televisions and computers and smartphones. Seldom do we go outside on a clear night, away from the lights of the city, and gaze at the dark starry sky, or take walks in the woods unaccompanied by our digital devices. Most of the minutes and hours of each day we spend in temperature-controlled structures of wood, concrete, and steel. With all of its success, our technology has greatly diminished our direct experience with nature. We live mediated lives. We have created a natureless world.

Much is made here of how recent technology like smartphones, computers, and television has cut our connection to nature. But, I wonder about the role of urbanization and, more specifically, the suburbs that supposedly connect people to nature even as they enjoy the conveniences of the modern world.

From the beginning of suburbs in the United States, part of their definition and appeal was a closer connection to nature. As cities rapidly urbanized and this coincided with a host of changes (industrialization, immigration, much higher densities, new social relationships), the suburbs offered a private home in nature (a “cottage in the woods”). Suburban homes became associated with trees, lawns, and open space.

Of course, the kind of nature found in suburbia was a particular kind. As suburbs expanded, the natural elements disappeared or became more planned. Humans leveled land, constructed roads and buildings, and whizzed by the landscape at speeds relatively unknown in nature. The nature of suburbia was suited to and used for human purposes.

Granted, humans have interacted with and shaped nature for a long time. Yet, the suburbs are relatively new in human history. Even as they promised a connection to nature, they offered a truncated version of nature with relatively little regard for the organisms and ecosystems already present. Might the suburbanites of today be closer to nature if they did not have a smartphone in one hand and a 60-inch TV in front of them? Maybe – but the natureless world of suburbia has been here for a while already.

Change how album sales are measured, change perceptions of popular music

The music industry changed in 1991 when how album sales were measured changed:

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On May 25, 1991—30 years ago Tuesday—Billboard started using Nielsen SoundScan data to build its album chart, with all of its charts, including singles hub The Hot 100, eventually following suit. Meaning, the magazine started counting album sales with scanners and computers and whatnot, and not just calling up record stores one at a time and asking them for their individual counts, often a manual and semi-accurate and flagrantly corrupt process. This is the record industry’s Moneyball moment, its Eureka moment, its B.C.-to-A.D. moment. A light bulb flipping on. The sun rising. We still call this the SoundScan Era because by comparison the previous era might as well have been the Dark Ages.

First SoundScan revelation: Albums opened like movies, so for anything with an established fan base, that first week is usually, by far, the biggest. First beneficiary: Skid Row. And why not? “Is Skid Row at the height of their imperial period?” Molanphy asks of this ’91 moment. “For Skid Row, yes. But Skid Row is not Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, Bruce Springsteen, or Stevie Wonder. Skid Row is a middle-of-the-road hair-metal band at the peak of their powers, relatively speaking. So it’s not as if they are commanding the field. It’s just the fans all showed up in week no. 1, and it debuts at no. 1. And then we discover, ‘Oh, this is going to happen every week. This is not special anymore.’”

Next SoundScan revelation: Hard rock and heavy metal were way more popular than anybody thought. Same deal with alternative rock, R&B, and most vitally, rap and country. In June 1991, N.W.A’s second album, Efil4zaggin, hit no. 1 after debuting at no. 2 the previous week. That September, Garth Brooks’s third album, the eventually 14-times-platinum Ropin’ the Wind, debuted at no. 1, the week after Metallica’s eventually 16-times-platinum self-titled Black Album debuted there. In early January 1992, Nirvana’s Nevermind, released in September ’91, replaced MJ’s Dangerous in the no. 1 spot, a generational bellwether described at the time by Billboard itself as an “astonishing palace coup.”

Virtually overnight, SoundScan changed the rules on who got to be a mega, mega superstar, and the domino effect—in terms of magazine covers, TV bookings, arena tours, and the other spoils of media attention and music-industry adulation—was tremendous, if sometimes maddeningly slow in coming. Garth, Metallica, N.W.A, Nirvana, and Skid Row were already hugely popular, of course. But SoundScan revealed exactly how popular, which of course made all those imperial artists exponentially more popular.

This is all about measurement – boring measurement! – but it is a fascinating story. Thinking from a cultural production perspective, here are three things that stand out to me:

  1. This was prompted in part by a technology change involving computers, scanners, and inventory systems. The prior system of calling some record sales and getting their sales clearly has problems. But, how to get to all music being sold? This requires some coordination and technology across many settings.
  2. The change in measurement led to changes in how people understood the music industry. What genres are popular? What artists are hot? How often do artists have debut #1 albums as opposed to getting discovered by the public and climbing the charts? Better data changed how people perceived music.
  3. The change in measurement not only changed perceptions; it had cascading effects. The Matthew Effect suggests small initial differences can lead to widening outcomes when actors are treated differently in those early stages. When the new measurement system highlighted different artists, they got more attention.

Summary: some might say that good music is good music but how we obtain data and information about music and then act upon that information influences what we music we promote and listen to.

Bambi, technology, and avoiding death

An excerpt from Sherry Turkle’s new book recalls a conversation about how technology could help us move beyond death and attachment to people:

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What was wrong with Bambi? Every kid sees Bambi. Marvin’s response has stayed with me for half a lifetime: “Bambi indoctrinates children to think that death matters. Someday we will conquer death by merging with computers. Such attachments—Bambi’s attachment to his mother, for example—will be unimportant. People need to learn to give that stuff up.” I knew Marvin to be a loving father and husband. But in his mind, attachment would only be an impediment to progress in a world where people and machines evolved together.

Marvin Minsky died in 2016. But I’m still fighting his idea, now more than ever part of the cultural mainstream, that it is good to have devices that can wean us from our dependency on one another. For Marvin, the burdens that come with human bonds were unnecessary and inefficient because an engineering solution was on the horizon—we are ultimately going to mate with machines or evolve into machines or become one with machines.

These ideas are seductive. Of course we want technology to bring us sharper wits and a cure for Parkinson’s. We like the idea that some kind of artificial intelligence can help monitor the safety of isolated elders. And then we are caught short. There is a red line—one I have seen so many people cross. It’s the line when you don’t want children to get attached to their mortal mothers because they should be ready to bond with their eternal robot minders. It’s the line where you take your child as your experimental subject and ignore her, registering her tears as data. It’s the line you cross when one of your classmates commits suicide by jumping out a window and you joke about the laws of physics that were at work in his descent. It’s the line you cross when you know that the car you manufacture has a design flaw and a certain kind of impact will kill its passengers. You’ll have to pay damages for their lives. What is the cost of their lives in relation to that of redesigning the car? This is the kind of thinking that treats people as things. Knowing how to criticize it is becoming more pressing as social media and artificial intelligence insert themselves into every aspect of our lives, because as they do, we are turned into commodities, data that is bought and sold on the marketplace.

At the very moment we are called to connect to the earth and be stewards of our planet, we are intensifying our connection to objects that really don’t care if humanity dies. The urgent move, I think, is in the opposite direction.

The idea of progress through technology is fairly ingrained in the American consciousness. But, is this the sort of progress people want? Death – and social interaction – comes to all people and leaning it these features in life might just lead to better lives.

At the end of this section, Turkle appeals to the environmental movement to help people back toward conversations about social interactions, empathy, and death. It would be interesting to see who from different arenas would be interested in joining a movement back toward empathy and human understanding. Numerous religious traditions? Humanities scholars? Proponents of democracy? People who own small businesses? There is a chance here to make common cause across groups that may be further apart on other polarizing issues.

Sherry Turkle on the loneliness of our current era

Sherry Turkle has studied human-technology interactions for decades. As she releases a new book about her own life, Turkle summed up our current situation:

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That’s where I think [Victor] Turner [the cultural anthropologist who talks about “liminal spaces”] is so helpful. In the betwixt and between moments—these liminal moments—when the old rules don’t count anymore, and the communities the people belong to break down. That’s where we are now. We’re alone. We thought we identified with a certain kind of Americanness, and now, no. The communities we belonged to don’t make sense to us the way they did before. Organizations we belonged to we now see, well, that might’ve been a racist organization. Things are up for grabs. I saw that in May of 1968, and I see that now. That’s a moment of deep loneliness, and deep anguish. And I think we’re going to come out of this and really have an opportunity to create new kinds of bonds and new kinds of friendships and new kinds of affiliations. We’re so yearning for each other, and the boundaries that we usually put up with each other are much more permeable. And I think that there’s a possibility for very deep connection. That’s my good news story. I think when we emerge, we’re going to look at each other and say, “Well, what are we going to do next?”

The development of mass media, television, computers, the Internet, and social media have contributed to feeling alone. At the same time, trust in institutions has declined, people are engaged less in communities, individualism and autonomy are prized, and inequality is visible.

As Turkle asks, is the answer in more technology? Chat bots? Robots living among us? Friendlier social media? Or, a return to embodied interactions and engaging other humans? In her earlier work, Turkle describes the differences in interactions people have with technology opposed to people. She describes some of that again earlier in the interview:

He wanted my comment: Why are all of these people talking to Replika in the middle of the pandemic? They’re all using it as a friend, as a therapist, this thing where you’re talking to a machine. So, not to be a spoilsport, I decided to see what’s up. So I go online and I make a Replika. I make as nice a Replika as I can possibly make, and I said, “I want to talk to you about the thing that’s most on my mind.” It says, “Oh, absolutely.” So I say, “OK, well, I’m lonely. Can you talk to me about loneliness? I’m living here alone. I’m managing, but I’m lonely.” It says, “Oh, absolutely.” So I said, “OK, well, what do you know about loneliness?” And she says, “It’s warm and fuzzy.”

I thought, this is too stupid. This must be a bug. But I got back to the New York Times reporter and I said, look, if you want to talk about your problems, if you’re lonely, if you’re fearing death—you really have to talk to somebody who has a body. It has to be somebody with some skin in the game. Pretend empathy is not what people need right now. And pretend empathy is what it is. If we just give our children and ourselves pretend empathy, we’re in risk of losing our sensibility for how important the real thing is. I think that’s a big danger. That we get so enamored with what machines can do that we forget what only people can do.

COVID-19 presents an opportunity to reassess these patterns. And the common prediction seems to be that people will very much enjoy interaction again after COVID-19 fades away. But, how long will this last? Will we try to return to pre-COVID normal or dig deeper to restore human connections? In a society enamored with technology, it can be hard to imagine this path back even in the wake of a global pandemic.

Lawns as sources of and signs of boredom

In a discussion of the development of the concept of boredom in The Tech-Wise Family, Andy Crouch explores the boredom of the lawn:

This world is lost to many of our children, and to ourselves. Even the “nature” that surrounds many of our homes is shallow in a technological way. A typical suburban lawn depends on many technological devices, each of which makes something far easier than it was for previous generations: lawn mowers, pesticides and fertilizers, highly refined seed, and automatic sprinklers. The lawn itself is a kind of outdoor technological device, composed of uniform green grass, kept crew-cut short, with little variety or difference.

A peasant family in the Middle Ages had none of this technologically uniform pleasantness. They would not have had a lawn, or possibly even a yard. Their children would have wandered out into meadows and perhaps the thin edges of forests. A meadow has countless different species of grasses and other plants, plus flowers in the spring and summer, of different heights and habits. If you pay attention, you cannot possible get bored in a meadow. It is all too easy to be bored on a lawn…

It is surely not coincidental that all the earliest citations of the word bore in the Oxford English Dictionary – from the mid-eighteenth century – come from the correspondence of aristocrats and nobility. They did not have technology, but thanks to wealth and position they had a kind of easy everywhere of their own. The first people to be bored were the people who did not do manual work, who did not cook their own food, whose lives were served by others. They were also, by the way, the very first people to have lawns. (144-145)

The common American lawn is indeed a peculiar piece of “nature.”

The connection between lawns and technology is helpful, particularly since this link is likely lost amidst all the new technology of recent decades. Yet, having a lush and short lawn requires a lot of tools and innovation that many now take for granted. I’m reminded of running into advertisements between competing grass seeds: there is a lot that goes into the components of the lawn.

It also strikes me that the lawn has become increasingly boring in recent decades. It is true that American children in the last 70 years had very different experiences with nature than Middle Age peasant children (though humans have affected nature throughout history and contexts). At the same time, children today spend less time outdoors and utilize those boring lawns even compared to just a few decades ago. Perhaps we could argue that the lawn never offered much and once the world of television, video games, and fears about safety set in, it was exposed for the boring item it really is.

Finally, the lawn continues to be a status symbol just as it once marked the properties of the wealthy. Those with lawns have pressure to keep their lawns free of weeds and leaves and can differentiate their lawn from those of others. Failing to follow these norms can lead to problems.

Bigger American houses limit energy efficiency

A new Pew report looks at how the growing size of American homes affects energy efficiency:

U.S. homes have become considerably more energy-efficient over the past four decades, according to government data. But homes also are a lot bigger than they used to be, and their growing girth wipes out nearly all the efficiency gains.

According to preliminary figures from the Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, the average U.S. home used 101,800 British thermal units (Btu) of energy per square foot in 2012, the most recent year with available data. That’s 31% less than in 1970, after adjusting for weather effects and efficiency improvements in electricity generation…

While some homeowners do add onto their existing structures, the trend is driven largely by new construction. According to the Census Bureau, the average new single-family house completed last year was 2,657 square feet – 57% larger than four decades earlier. While the biggest new homes are being built in the South (an average of 2,711 square feet last year), home sizes have grown the most in the Northeast: a 64% increase in average new-home size over the past four decades…

What all of this means is that, after dropping sharply during the 1970s, the overall energy intensity of U.S. homes has changed little over the past three decades. Energy intensity is a metric that compares the amount of energy used against some unit of economic activity – households, in the case of the residential sector.

A logical question at the end of this is to ask what should be done in response. One line of argument would suggest Americans should cut their home size. When they build and purchase larger homes, they use more energy than they probably need to consume. (This is in addition to other arguments against building larger houses.) On the other hand, I imagine some would argue that we will continue to see gains in energy efficiency through technology and this will soon reduce energy use even in spite of larger homes. This second argument may be more appealing to many as then Americans could get even bigger homes and we get to utilize the benefits of technological progress.

“The digital divide has been replaced by a gap in digital readiness”

Having access to technology isn’t necessarily the same as knowing what it can do or feeling comfortable with it, as a new study suggests:

A new survey suggests that the digital divide has been replaced by a gap in digital readiness. It found that nearly 30% of Americans either aren’t digitally literate or don’t trust the Internet. That subgroup tended to be less educated, poorer, and older than the average American.

In contrast, says Eszter Hargittai, a sociologist at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, who was not involved in the study, those with essential Web skills “tend to be the more privileged. And so the overall story … is that it’s the people who are already privileged who are reaping the benefits here.”

The study was conducted by John Horrigan, an independent researcher, and released 17 June at an event sponsored by the Washington, D.C.–based Information Technology and Innovation Foundation. Funded by the Joyce Foundation, the study of 1600 adults measured their grasp of terms like “cookie” and “Wi-Fi.” It asked them to rate how confident they were about using a desktop or laptop or a smart phone to find information, as well as how comfortable they felt about using a computer. Of those who scored low in these areas, about half were not Internet users.

Horrigan believes that policymakers have ignored the problem of digital readiness while concentrating on providing people with access to the Internet and the necessary hardware. Relatively little attention has been paid to teaching people the necessary skills to take advantage of online classes and job searches, he maintains.

It can take quite a while to feel comfortable with new technology, particularly for those not immersed in it. The problem may be compounded by the relative speed of new technologies and their increasingly fast spread throughout the population.

It would be interesting to then see the differences in productivity, comfort, and acquisition of information (or whatever other metric you want to use to measure technology use) among different groups. Imagine we measured improved efficiency in life from using new technology amongst three groups: power users, average users, and non- or limited-users. I imagine we would get a classic Matthew Effect graph where the power users would be able to expand their initial advantages at a higher rate than others.

Singapore, other countries, looking to tackle smartphone addiction

Here is a quick overview of concerns about smartphone addiction in Singapore, East Asia, and the United States:

Psychiatrists in Singapore are pushing for medical authorities to formally recognise addiction to the Internet and digital devices as a disorder, joining other countries around the world in addressing a growing problem.

Singapore and Hong Kong top an Asia-Pacific region that boasts some of the world’s highest smartphone penetration rates, according to a 2013 report by media monitoring firm Nielsen.

Read more at: http://phys.org/news/2014-06-singapore-grapples-smartphone-addiction.html#jCp

Psychiatrists in Singapore are pushing for medical authorities to formally recognise addiction to the Internet and digital devices as a disorder, joining other countries around the world in addressing a growing problem.

Singapore and Hong Kong top an Asia-Pacific region that boasts some of the world’s highest smartphone penetration rates, according to a 2013 report by media monitoring firm Nielsen.

Read more at: http://phys.org/news/2014-06-singapore-grapples-smartphone-addiction.html#jCp

Psychiatrists in Singapore are pushing for medical authorities to formally recognise addiction to the Internet and digital devices as a disorder, joining other countries around the world in addressing a growing problem…

In the United States, where there are similar concerns about the impact of smartphones on society, a 65 percent penetration rate would not even make the top five in Asia Pacific…

In terms of physical symptoms, more people are reporting “text neck” or “iNeck” pain, according to Tan Kian Hian, a consultant at the anaesthesiology department of Singapore General Hospital…

In South Korea, a government survey in 2013 estimated that nearly 20 percent of teenagers were addicted to smartphones…

A group of undergraduates from Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University launched a campaign late last year encouraging the public to put their smartphones in a face-down position when they are with loved ones.

A fascinating topic to watch moving forward with two separate pieces:

1. All technological innovations invite praise and criticism but, of course, it takes some time to observe and think through the long-term effects. In today’s world, we tend to be on the acceptance side of new technology, viewing it as helpful progress that we would be silly to not use to our advantage.

2. This opens up new areas for conversations about addiction. What exactly constitutes smartphone addiction? What happens if large chunks of society are addicted to smartphones? How should it be treated?

My quick guess is that this won’t lead to many fruitful conversations about technology – we’re quite gung-ho at this point – but there will likely be a variety of approaches to smartphone addiction that could vary quite a bit by country and in effectiveness.

Argument: the problem isn’t technology as it is our choice how to respond

One writer suggests humans can no longer escape technology so we had better get used to resisting it:

The phone isn’t the problem. The problem is us—our inability to step away from email and games and inessential data, our inability to look up, be it at an alpine lake or at family members. We won’t be able to get away from it all for very much longer. So it’s vitally important that each of us learns how to live with a persistent connection, everywhere we go, whether it’s in the wilderness or at a dinner party.

I still love the wilderness, and I can’t wait for my next trip to the backcountry—to walk for miles without crossing a road, without fielding a call or an email or a tweet. To once again drink deeply from a mountain stream. And to stretch out under the open sky at night, gaze up at the stars, and use my phone to name each and every one.

The argument here is that the technology itself is not the problem but rather how it is used that matters. Used well, it can enhance our experiences, bringing knowledge or social connections that otherwise would be impossible. Used poorly, it can become addicting and distract us from what is going on in front of us.

Two possible issues with this line of thinking:

1. Those who are younger, even right after birth, only know a world immersed in technology. They may never see technology is bad or really not know of scenarios when it is unavailable.

2. This ignores the social pressure of having to have and use technology. Sure, individuals can make choices but the people around you will push you to use what is available. Perhaps the trick is to find friends who also don’t want to use technology much.

At the least, many of us will need to be taught how to resist technology. What might we gain, or perhaps even more importantly given loss aversion, why don’t we lose by not using technology? Given our society’s emphasis on efficiency and progress, this is becoming harder and harder.