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.

Turning Apple’s brand and products into a religion

A new book lays out how Steve Jobs transformed Apple into a religion:

Jobs’ Zen master Kobun Chino told him that he “could keep in touch with his spiritual side while running a business.” So in true Zen fashion, Jobs avoided thinking of technology and spirituality in dualistic terms. But what really set him apart was his ability to educate the public about personal computing in both practical and mythic ways.

The iconography of the Apple computer company, the advertisements, and the device screens of the Macintosh, iPod, iPhone, and iPad are visual expressions of Jobs’ imaginative marriage of spiritual science and modern technology…

Technology ads provide parables and proverbs for navigating the complexities of the new technological order. They instruct the consumer on how to live the “good life” in the technological age…

Jobs embraced elliptical thinking as a means of promoting technology objects that pose their own paradoxes. In the Apple narrative, the seemingly oppositional notions of assimilation/isolation and freedom/enslavement are resolved by Apple’s invocation of enlightened paradox.

Others have also made this argument: see this 2011 post as well as this 2012 post.  Claiming a brand is like a religion could be an analysis of a secular age (this piece suggests we traded gods for technological progress and consumerism) or it could be a slam against followers who blindly follow a brand (certain brands may inspire higher levels of devotion yet not all inspiring brands are accused of inspiring religious-like followings).

Yet, beyond Apple, wouldn’t most, if not all brands, aspire to this kind of devotion? Religion implies a devoted set of followers who are willing to participate in rituals, of which the most important is buying the new product. Evangelism, telling others about the products and brand, might also be high on this list. Another key is that brand followers and users think they are participating in a transcendent experience.

US government behind in regulating automated features for cars

As car makers pursue new technologies including driverless cars, the US government is struggling to keep up with the changes:

While truly self-driving cars are years away—if they ever arrive—consumers are seeing far more car models bearing sophisticated semi-autonomous features. These include radar assisted cruise-control, which can keep a fixed distance from the car ahead; systems that warn drivers if they veer out of their lanes; and technologies that can prevent oversteering or even apply the brakes when they detect that a crash is imminent (see “Self-Driving Tech Veers into Mid-Range Cars” and “Proceed With Caution Toward the Self-Driving Car”)…

With three states and the District of Columbia having passed legislation to allow researchers to test such prototypes on real roads, Washington is grappling with how to regulate the cars. John Capp, the director of active safety systems for General Motors, says federal regulators are “trying to understand these things and trying to figure out what role they should have.”…

Unsurprisingly, NHTSA’s statement said that fully autonomous technology isn’t ready for the general public. But the fact that the agency is calling for more study is a reminder of the glacial pace of regulation: in the case of lane-departure warnings and crash-avoidance systems, it’s studying technologies that have already been on the market for several years.

See my post last week on the NHSTA statement. More broadly, this raises interesting questions about technology and the ability of regulators to keep up. For those who want to push technology forward, how much in terms of time, convenience, and dollars is lost if the government slows down the process? At the same time, how much regulation is needed to help protect the public? There is likely some sort of sweet spot when the government has time to declare technology safe and inventors and producers can still get things to the public in a reasonable amount of time…but I suspect this could vary widely across different sectors and the politics involved could change quite a bit. Take, for example, the scandal a few years back involving Toyota and the lack of findings. It cost the company quite a bit, the government still had a duty to step in, but there was little conclusion – except that perhaps we’re all going to have black boxes in our cars  soon. Imagine a few incidents like this happening with a new widespread technology like driverless cars. How much could that set the industry back and feed perceptions that the technology really wasn’t ready?

Kenya plans new Konza Technology City dubbed “Africa’s Silicon Savannah”

Kenya is planning an ambitious new city intended to be a technology center:

Located almost 40 miles south-east of the capital Nairobi, Konza Technology City is expected to create more than 20,000 IT jobs by 2015, and around 200,000 jobs by the time it’s completed in 2030.

The 2011-hectare site will have a residential area comprising around 37,000 homes to accommodate 185,000 people…

“It is expected to spur massive trade and investment as well as create thousands of employment opportunities for young Kenyans,” said Kenya’s president Mwai Kibaki at the groundbreaking ceremony.

The project, which is part of the government’s Vision 2030 initiative to improve the Kenya’s infrastructure, is also set to include a university campus, hotels, schools, hospitals and research facilities.

Sounds impressive. See more at the city’s official website which includes this overview of the history of the project:

The idea and interest for an African Silicon Savannah in Kenya was first inspired by trends in Business Processing Outsourcing and Information Technology Enabled Services (BPO/ITES), which showed a global offshore BPO/ITES revenue estimated at US$ 110 billion in 2010 and a projected three fold growth to reach US$ 300 billion by 2015.

Currently there over 2.8 million people employed in this sub-sector world wide, however, statistics show that Africa only attracts about 1 % of the total revenues accruing from this growing industry. Only a few African countries have made effort to develop this industry; South Africa, Egypt, Morocco, Ghana and Mauritius have each launched national programs to grow BPO/ITES.

It became clear that Kenya stood a good chance to attract a sizeable chunk of the expected growth in the off shoring BPO/ITES trade revenues if the Government took lead in the development of this industry.

Now we just have to wait a while to see how it all turns out. I’m not saying it will turn out badly but what if it does – who is responsible for the costs and how might this affect the technology sector in Africa?

While the term “Silicon Savannah” sounds catchy, does having such a name help the prospects for the project? I imagine it could appeal to some with the imagery of connecting Silicon Valley and Africa but it also seems derivative and something plenty of other places have tried.

Study finds cell phone usage linked to addiction, materialism, and impulsiveness

A new study in the Journal of Behavior Addictions argues cell phone usage can be linked to other concerns:

“Cell phones are a part of our consumer culture,” said study author James Roberts, Ph.D., professor of marketing at Baylor’s Hankamer School of Business. “They are not just a consumer tool, but are used as a status symbol.”…

Roberts’ study, co-authored with Stephen Pirog III, Ph.D., at Seton Hall University, found that materialism and impulsiveness are what drive cell phone addiction.

Cell phones are used as part of the conspicuous consumption ritual and also act as a pacifier for the impulsive tendencies of the user, according to Roberts. Impulsiveness, he noted, plays an important role in both behavioral and substance addictions…

Some studies have shown that young adults send an average of 109.5 text messages a day or approximately 3,200 texts each month. Furthermore, surveys suggest that young adults receive an additional 113 text messages and check their cell 60 times in a typical day…

Data for this study come from self-report surveys of 191 business students at two U.S. universities. Cell phones are used by approximately 90 percent of college students, and said Roberts, “serve more than just a utilitarian purpose.”

New technologies tend to have the potential to allow us to do new things in new ways, often working alongside a narrative of progress, but we need to continually ask whether the use of new technologies can also lead to negative outcomes. We don’t have to be Luddites to suggest that we should evaluate the social changes that accompany technological change.

One question about addiction and mass culture: if a majority or large number of people have more addictive relationships with their cell phones, does it at some point then cease to be addiction and comes to be seen as “normal”?

A world where “the city talks back”

Taking part in a conference in Germany about megacities, sociologist Saskia Sassen makes an interesting comment linking technology and cities:

The effects of the digital revolution shape the urban space and the access of city dwellers to their environs. The focus here is on technologies that allow us, within and with the city, to communicate with buildings and objects. “The city talks back,” says the renowned sociologist Saskia Sassen, one of the most distinguished authors who has published on the sociology of urban development and shaped the term ‘global city’. Felix Petersen, who has recently triggered a trend with his opinion platform Amen, will get together with other innovators to discuss his visions of location-based services. A brief run-down of new technologies will be presented in the “Elevator Pitches” session. Raul Krauthausen provides a new kind of access to cities by way of his Wheelmap application.

I’m intrigued by the idea “the city talks back.” This could simply refer to material objects; city residents and visitors will be able to quickly see more about buildings and objects. For example, Google is working on developing maps of building interiors. Or perhaps all buildings will be equipped with Siri-like voices that can respond to basic questions. However, I wonder how much of this is really about creating another avenue for interacting with other humans in the city. Buildings don’t “talk” – even the artificial intelligence of today has to be programmed.

More broadly, this reminds me of Simmel’s early 1900s ideas about “the stranger” in the city and the general lack of intimate relationships. Through apps and new technologies, we may have more people to “talk to” or “interact with” but are these deep urban relationships or even helpful ones? Or is this just more clutter, another category of urban stimulation that leads to a more “blase” attitude (following up with Simmel)? I suspect Sassen is right that new technology will change how we see cities and the objects and people within them but I also suspect it will have a mix of positive and negative consequences.

Let’s just hope the city talks backs in forms other than advertisements…

Illustrating the issues of food, technology, and human interaction at Chipotle

Chipotle has clearly staked its place as a progressive fast food restaurant (though they would claim they are between fast food and sit-down restaurants) with no antibiotic meat and organic fillings but it too struggles with some basic issues present in today’s economy: how much should companies rely on human employees versus using cheaper technology?

Like others in similar positions, he’s got a wide palette of gee-whiz technologies at his disposal — tablets for ordering, mobile payment systems, in-store ATM-like machines for ordering that replace cashiers. Yet he eschews most of them. He’s in no rush for tech to dramatically change the Chipotle experience at its more than 1,300 stores worldwide.

He hasn’t found the perfect solution yet. And, besides, he likes the human interaction.

That said, Chipotle, based here, happens to have a wildly popular app, a free tool that shows you where the nearest location is and lets you order and pay on the iPhone, iPad or iPod Touch. Nearly 5 million customers have signed up since 2010 and use the app to go straight to the front of the line to pick up their orders…

But that’s about as far as he wants to go. A future where all orders are made digitally?

“I hope not,” Crumpacker says. “I hope the experience of coming into Chipotle and ordering on the line is substantially superior to ordering on the phone. There’s all this communication as you watch what’s being made.”…

Meanwhile, Crumpacker hopes his next in-store tech play is a mobile payment system so customers can shave a few seconds off the checkout process by paying for menu items on smartphones. He’d like to see a standard on all phones that would support his in-store system…

“Consumers go to restaurants to be served,” she says. “The human element is part of the restaurant experience.”

This is an interesting explanation of the restaurant experience: people like the human element of service (though they are clearly paying for it). I suspect this may not really be the human element that people enjoy about restaurants. How many people really enjoy interacting with the waitstaff and other employees versus the opportunity the setting provides to interact with those at the table and to be part of and observe the social scene taking place around them. This could be a big difference between the Chipotle experience and eating at an urban cafe: Chipotles are often located in suburban settings where one may be able to sit outside or look outside but the primary view is of parking lots and speeding cars. In contrast, a full service restaurant offers more of a scene, particularly if located in a more urban setting where there is a mix of activities. Perhaps we need a sociological experiment to tease this out. Such an experiment could be based on a three by two table: fully mechanical food delivery versus human preparation (Chipotle) versus full service and then placed in a more dull setting versus a more happening location.

The article makes mention of Chipotle’s dropping stock price since mid-summer and I wonder if this is what will ultimately force the chain’s hand: if they need to demonstrate higher earnings and labor costs are too high, technology might be the way to close this gap. Or what might happen if Chipotle employees start demanding higher wages and/or more benefits? At that point, perhaps human interaction simply becomes too expensive, a luxury, as consumers might miss being served but would also not like to pay higher prices.

Quick Review: Alone Together

I finally got around to reading Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together after hearing about it from another friend. Here are some thoughts about this book that explores our relationship with technology.

1. I’m generally sympathetic to Turkle’s arguments that we need to think more about what technology does to our lives. If you were to sum up her argument, it would look something like this: we need to make sure we master technology rather than letting it master us. It may offer some benefits but it also has downsides and we have a choice to make.

2. Turkle has a fascinating background in studying human interaction with robots, everything from Furbys and Tamogatchis to robots intended for care for the elderly. I think she does a strong job in her discussion about using robots to care for the elderly: do we want to be a society where fellow humans don’t want to care for people because it is more efficient to use robots? As Turkle suggests, discussions about technology shouldn’t just be about efficiency; we need to weigh the lost human component.

3. Some critiques:

a. Turkle talks about phenomena that don’t apply to everyone and then implies that it could happen to everyone. Take Second Life as an example. Turkle discusses the implications of people creating alternative personas that end up not just providing an outlet for people to try to improve themselves (say by learning to be more assertive) but become preferred alternatives to human interactions. Second Life is indeed a unique space and maybe such spaces could become more common but it has remained relatively limited. According to Wikipedia: “In November 2010, 21.3 million accounts were registered…” Compared to Facebook and other programs, this is a drop in the bucket. And it doesn’t exactly work this way in Facebook – while users clearly have and take advantage of space to present themselves in a certain light, they don’t typically create complete alter egos and their profiles still contain some truth.

b. I felt Turkle could stress the positives of technology more. It is interesting that she admits that she too has given in to these things such as using Skype to communicate with her daughter who goes abroad for a gap year. She tends to talk about what could go wrong without discussing what usually does happen. For example, she talks about what can go wrong with Facebook without discussing why people continue to use the site. Indeed, my own research shows that teenagers are well aware of the dark sides of Facebook and take some steps to minimize issues like privacy concerns or who they become friends with. Sure, users could become friends with strangers or completely misrepresent themselves in their profile but many do not.

c. I was continually struck by Turkle’s psychological and personal approach. A number of the chapters end with Turkle expressing her own misgivings about technology and asking if it has to be this way. While she hints at this throughout the book, I kept hoping she would expand her vision and talk about the bigger implications for society. What happens if we have new generations that accept all technology without questions? What happens if we care for all of our elderly with robots? How will institutions like schools or governments change because of pervasive technology? I suppose this is the sociologist in me. Also, she relies a lot on interviews and personal observations and there is little in the way of large-scale data.

d. This is tied to my comment about the big picture; Turkle suggests at the end that we all need to make individual choices about technology as we can’t stop it all. She is correct…but there are certainly larger-scale things that could be done to make sure we remain the masters of technology.

All in all, this is a thought-provoking book that left me somewhat depressed about our future with technology. At the least, we should heed Turkle’s admonition to slow down and think about the implications of technology before wholeheartedly jumping in.

Thinking about Americans losing the ability to work with their hands

A New York Times essay argues we are losing something as Americans because fewer people can work skillfully with their hands:

“In an earlier generation, we lost our connection to the land, and now we are losing our connection to the machinery we depend on,” says Michael Hout, a sociologist at the University of California, Berkeley. “People who work with their hands,” he went on, “are doing things today that we call service jobs, in restaurants and laundries, or in medical technology and the like.”

That’s one explanation for the decline in traditional craftsmanship. Lack of interest is another. The big money is in fields like finance. Starting in the 1980s, skill in finance grew in stature, and, as depicted in the news media and the movies, became a more appealing source of income…

Craft work has higher status in nations like Germany, which invests in apprenticeship programs for high school students. “Corporations in Germany realized that there was an interest to be served economically and patriotically in building up a skilled labor force at home; we never had that ethos,” says Richard Sennett, a New York University sociologist who has written about the connection of craft and culture…

As for craftsmanship itself, the issue is how to preserve it as a valued skill in the general population. Ms. Milkman, the sociologist, argues that American craftsmanship isn’t disappearing as quickly as some would argue — that it has instead shifted to immigrants. “Pride in craft, it is alive in the immigrant world,” she says.

I don’t doubt that the ability to produce craftmenship is worthwhile, particularly if one is a homeowner. But I wonder about the larger value of working with one’s hands. Why can’t using a mouse or a controller be considered “working with one’s hands”? Of course, it fits in a literal sense but there is a difference in production and skills. Yet, it still requires effort and finesse to be able to effectively utilize the newest machines. Perhaps we have swapped our traditional toolbox for a “digital toolbox.”

If the world is moving toward an information and service economy, is this necessarily bad? This reminds me of a piece in The Atlantic months ago about a contest where programmers had to try to put together a computer that could converse like a human. Working with tools is not uniquely human but thinking and reasoning might be. Does this make working with our hands less valuable compared to other possible activities?

A sociologist on the iPhone at 5: “There has been no other device that has changed social and technological life in such a short time”

The iPhone just turned five years old and a sociologist makes some big claims about the impact of the device:

“There has been no other device that has changed social and technological life in such a short time,” said Clifford Nass, a Stanford University sociologist and psychologist who studies how technology impacts society. “There has been nothing like it in the world.”

This is a bold claim. I assume this primarily about the time period: important technology today has the ability to make rapid changes. This is one of the defining features of today’s globalization: stuff happens and spreads quickly. The iPhone itself is influential but it quickly led to other changes and pushed Android and other phone makers as well. I can admit that the smartphone world has some advantages.

At the same time, I wonder if this claim is too much. Looking at the broad sweep of human history, how does the iPhone stack up? What about the printing press, the plow, the steam engine, and so on? These devices may not have had such a quick effect but these led or contributed to whole eras like the Renaissance, the Agricultural Revolution, and the Industrial Revolution. Will we look back in fifty or one hundred years and see the iPhone as a similar singular device or is it part of the computer-age process?