Another downside of the information age: dealing with endless spam

People today have access to so much information, including spam:

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The average American received roughly 42 spam texts just in the month of March, according to new data from RoboKiller, an app that blocks spam calls and texts…

There were more spam calls last month than in any of the previous six months, per YouMail’s Robocall Index

Spam emails rose by 30% from 2020 to 2021, according to a January report from the Washington Post…

There was an unprecedented increase in social media scams last year, according to data from the Federal Trade Commission. Many scams were related to bogus cryptocurrency investments.

As the article notes, it keeps going in part because the spammers are successful enough. Yet, it would be worth also seeing the bigger picture: how much time and mental effort is expended fighting off spam efforts? Even if the majority of people relatively quickly discard the emails and texts or even just glance quickly at them and then ignore them, what does this all add up to?

The glut of information we all face, some positive and some negative, requires time and mental space. Just to push it aside requires a choice. We may think it does not affect us – I have heard many people say the equivalent of “advertising does not affect me” – but it does.

Could we envision a future world where we only get the firehose of information that we truly want and discard all the rest? Imagine the echo chambers or media bubbles possible today plus the technical means or financial means to only get all that we want to handle? I am not sure how advertising or alternative viewpoints might fit into all of this but I would guess there would be at least a few people willing to pay a lot to achieve this state.

Discovering the “unaccounted” time at work and then designing work spaces around that

I have considered the design of offices and work places before (here and here as two examples) but have not seen this particular issue described: when researchers found that workers had “unaccounted” time in the office, this led to changing the workplace and new problems.

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Wilkinson, who designed Google’s 500,000-square-foot Googleplex campus in Mountain View, California, says he had his first epiphany about the office in 1995. While reviewing old studies and surveys about worker habits, he came upon a study that measured how office workers spent their time between 9 am and 5 pm. He was immediately struck by just how much “unaccounted” time workers were spending away from their desks—that is, not in meetings or any other explicit work function. But Wilkinson found it hard to believe that all of these workers were taking multi-hour bathroom breaks or simply leaving the office together. They were still in the office; they were just hanging out in hallways, chatting in foyers, clustering around someone else’s desk as the occupant tells a story.

“It blew my mind,” he told us. “And it made our team realize that the planning of the office was fundamentally flawed.” His realization was straightforward: Office design had long revolved around the placement of desks and offices, with the spaces in between those areas treated as corridors and aisles. But that “overemphasis on the desk,” as Wilkinson recalled, “had worked to the detriment of working life, trapping us in this rigid formality.”

And so he set out to liberate it, shifting the focus of his designs to work that took place away from the desk. In practice, this meant designing bleachers and nooks in places that were once poorly lit corridors, and spacing out desk clusters to incentivize more movement among teams. A kinetic office environment, the idea went, could increase spontaneous encounters, which would then spark creativity. The design also allowed for private areas—many with comfy couches and plush ottomans to replicate a family room feel—to do deep work, away from the noisy bullpen of desks.

This led to tech campuses like that of Facebook, Apple, and Google. What could go wrong?

The danger Wilkinson is describing is, of course, exactly what happened. The new campus design had a profound impact on company culture. Some of that impact was undeniably positive: He created work spaces where people genuinely want to be. But that desire becomes a gravitational pull, tethering the worker to the office for longer and longer, and warping previous perceptions of social norms.

Two thoughts strike me from reading this book excerpt:

  1. The idea of “unaccounted” time. How much of human daily activity is not directly related to productivity or a particular task? How much of that unaccounted time has long-term benefits such as stronger relationships and closer community? Part of the full human experience is having unaccounted time. On the other hand, it is not a surprise that if that unaccounted time occurred on company time, corporations and organizations would want to maximize it. (See this recent post about time, space, and calendars pushed into predictable patterns.)
  2. Humans have the ability to shape buildings and other physical settings to encourage particular behaviors. Offices are not just empty receptacles into which workers are placed willy-nilly. Religious buildings shape worship and communal experiences. Land use policies encourage more private spaces or more public spaces and these choices have consequences. This is simply part of our daily lives where we shape and are shaped by the spaces we are in.

Connecting urbanization and the strong commitment to a seven day week

A historian with a new book on the creation of a seven day week suggests urbanization in the modern helped make this happen:

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If you were to single out one factor, I would say urbanization. This really is a social phenomenon: It’s about people wanting to be able to make schedules with others, especially strangers, either in a consumer context or socially. When most people lived on farms or in small villages, they didn’t need to coordinate many activities with folks whom they didn’t see regularly.

It’s become much more important to know what day of the week it is. Today, a lot varies between one day of the week and the next—entertainment schedules, violin lessons, custody arrangements, or any of the millions of things that we attach to the seven-day cycle.

This would go along with the creation of time zones which similarly attempted to standardize time for the benefit of all the people who were now interacting and traveling. I wonder if this is also related somehow to the earlier adoption of clocks in cities in the Middle Ages. With more people gathered in a single community, having a common time and calendar could be useful for organizing activity.

More broadly, the shift to cities had significant impacts beyond geography and physical locations. The change to city life, specifically big city life, prompted new ways of understanding the world plus new methods for organizing people and knowledge. How people related to each other changed. How government operated changed. Daily activities and the meaning of those changed.

This is why I often start my Urban Sociology course with highlighting how some of the first sociologists in Europe – Marx, Durkheim, Weber, and a few others – noted and commented on urban life. Could you have the capitalism described by Marx without big city life? Durkheim contrasted organic and mechanical solidarity. Weber defined cities as market centers. And so on. The big city as the center of social, economic, political, and religious life had numerous implications for society.

Reconsidering social media and Internet use after an online-filled COVID-19

The Internet and social media were critical tools for many during COVID-19 with uses ranging from connecting with family and friends to work to activism to going to school. As COVID-19 winds down, does this mean we should reconsider how much time we spend with these technologies? Here is one conclusion:

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Two years ago, I was deleting and undeleting my Instagram account, begging every expert I could find to tell me exactly how to live healthily with the internet in my pocket. In 2021, to do the same would seem a little silly. Netflix’s subscriber growth may be slowing, and Tinder videochats may soon fall out of favor, but it’s hard to imagine that a Great Offlining is really in the cards. Instead, we could be heading for a Great Rebalancing, where we reconfigure how we do our work and how we organize our time on the internet. We’ve grown more aware of how we rely on one another—online as well as off—and of the tools we have or could build for responding to a crisis. The biggest tech companies’ accrual of power remains one of the most serious problems of my lifetime, but I no longer talk about the internet itself as if it were an external and malignant force, now that I’ve lived in such intimate contact with it for so long.

I’m sure I’ll change my mind about everything I’ve just said, but sometimes you just need to time-stamp the moment. Going back through my essays from 2019, I was struck by how easily I had misremembered what the cultural conversation was about back then. Jenny Odell never argued that people should go offline completely. Rather, she told me that deleting your apps or throwing your phone in the ocean would represent a failure to recognize that “we actually really need something like social media.” The desire to go online is human, and “there’s nothing wrong with that part.” We just have to keep reminding ourselves why we’re doing it.

I think it is always a good idea to ask this question about many things with which we spend this time: how important is this to me? Is my time use what I want or did I just fall into this pattern? For better or worse, sometimes it takes a drastic change or crisis to ask this question. It is one thing to use a computer for work or browse social media, another to be on Zoom for hours because you cannot be in the office or go to school. If COVID-19 offers people the opportunity to step back and think again about what they want to do with their time, that would be good.

And I would hope that many would say they do not need social media or the Internet as much as they did in the past year. There are many worthwhile things to do, ranging from movement and exercise, reading, pursuing a non-work project or hobby, playing a game, interacting with the people around you, among other options.

More broadly, it is relatively easy to slip into particular time patterns during the day that may or may not be desired. The average American watches 4+ hours of television a day; is that planned and/or desired or does it just happen? Do people take the time they want to eat or not? Is work more time-consuming that people want? If you add up all of these hours across days, weeks, months, and years, it can be shocking to see how much is spent on certain activities. If people have priorities in what they want to do in life, it should be evident in their time use.

(On the other hand, I do not think it is that useful to micromanage your time to the level some have. I recently read about someone famous who scheduled their day in five minute increments in order to make sure things got done. There is a level of attention and time needed to do this that I would not find worthwhile.)

American men have 30 minutes of more leisure time a day and use half of it to watch TV

Sociologist Liana Sayer tracks the leisure time of Americans by gender, finds a half hour gap between men and women (5 hours and 30 minutes versus 4 hours and 59 minutes), and looks at how men spend that extra time:

What are men doing with that extra half hour? Some of it is spent socializing, exercising, and simply relaxing, among other things. But “about half of the gap is from TV,” says Liana Sayer, a sociologist at the University of Maryland and the director of the school’s Time Use Laboratory…

Sayer, in a 2016 paper, called American time use “stubbornly gendered”: On average, women continue to devote more time each day to chores and looking after children than men do. Further, the average American woman spends 28 more minutes a day than the average American man on “personal care”—a time-use category that encompasses activities such as showering, getting dressed, and applying makeup…

Sayer laid out two possible theories. The first: “The idea is that men are able to watch more television, perhaps because they enjoy it, and the reason men are able to exercise greater preference in their time use choices is because they have [more] power than women,” she has written

The second theory has to do with the ranks of men who have become more socially isolated, whether because they’re out of work, less involved in family life, or both. Women, in addition to working more than they used to, tend to have stronger networks of friends and are more likely to raise children as single parents—which together could make women more socially connected than men. Thus, as Sayer has written, “men may devote a greater share and more time to television because this type of leisure does not require social integration.”

Television continues to have an outsized pull on the leisure time of Americans. This could change over time and the options for leisure seem to have exploded in recent decades, but even younger Americans seem drawn to television, just in through different means such as watching on phones or computers. I wonder for how many Americans television is the default leisure activity when they have no other other or limited leisure options.

I’m sure others have explored this but these time use findings would be interesting to connect to what it means to be a man in the United States: you watch a certain amount of television. Does it matter more what men watch (sports, action shows, etc.) or how much they watch? What cultural expectations do they pick up regarding how much television to watch and how exactly is this passed down?

 

 

The state of reading books in America in 2016

Pew Research has recently put out several reports on book reading in America. First, the broad overview:

Yet even as the number of ways people spend their time has expanded, a Pew Research Center survey finds that the share of Americans who have read a book in the last 12 months (73%) has remained largely unchanged since 2012…

Americans read an average (mean) of 12 books per year, while the typical (median) American has read 4 books in the last 12 months.

Second, those who do read still do so in print most of the time:

Readers today can access books in several common digital formats, but print books remain substantially more popular than either e-books or audio books. Roughly two-thirds of Americans (65%) have read a print book in the last year, which is identical to the share of Americans who reported doing so in 2012 (although down slightly from the 71% who reported reading a print book in 2011).

By contrast, 28% of Americans have read an e-book – and 14% have listened to an audio book – in the last year. In addition to being less popular than print books overall, the share of Americans who read e-books or listen to audio books has remained fairly stable in recent years…

Nearly four-in-ten Americans read print books exclusively; just 6% are digital-only book readers.

Third, on why people read:

Among all American adults:

  • 84% ever read to research specific topics of interest (29% do so nearly every day).
  • 82% read to keep up with current events (47% nearly every day).
  • 80% read for pleasure (35% nearly every day).
  • 57% read for work or school (31% do so nearly every day).

Fourth, who isn’t reading:

Several demographic traits correlate with non-book reading, Pew Research Center surveys have found. For instance, adults with a high school degree or less are about three times as likely as college graduates (40% vs. 13%) to report not reading books in any format in the past year. A 2015 Pew Research Center survey shows that these less-educated adults are also the least likely to own smartphones or tablets, two devices that have seen a substantial increase in usage for reading e-books since 2011. (College-educated adults are more likely to own these devices and use them to read e-books.)

Adults with an annual household income of less than $30,000 are about twice as likely as the most affluent adults to be non-book readers (33% vs. 17%). Hispanic adults are also about twice as likely as whites (40% vs. 23%) to report not having read a book in the past 12 months.

Older Americans are a bit more likely than their younger counterparts not to have read a book. Some 29% of adults ages 50 and older have not read a book in the past year, compared with 23% of adults under 50. In addition, men are less likely than women to have read a book, as are adults in rural areas compared with those in urban areas.

Fifth, the book reading trends haven’t changed too much in recent years:

The share of Americans who report not reading any books in the past 12 months is largely unchanged since 2012, but is slightly higher than in 2011, when the Center first began conducting surveys of book-reading habits. That year, 19% of adults reported not reading any books.

While Internet use (with the included possibilities of streaming audio and video) is taking up more and more time in daily life, it may take quite a while for reading books to becoming an activity for a small minority. And how could is disappear completely from certain settings such as schools and colleges?

The biggest time-use diary archive in the world

Numerous scholars are making use of the 850,000+ person days recorded in diaries and held in a UK archive:

Today, these files are part of the biggest collection of time-use diaries in the world, kept by the Centre for Time Use Research at the University of Oxford, UK. The centre’s holdings have been gathered from nearly 30 countries, span more than 50 years and cover some 850,000 person-days in total. They offer the most detailed portrait ever created of when people work, sleep, play and socialize — and of how those patterns have changed over time. “It certainly is unique,” says Ignace Glorieux, a sociologist at the Dutch-speaking Free University of Brussels. “It started quite modest, and now it’s a huge archive.”

The collection is helping to solve a slew of scientific and societal puzzles — not least, a paradox about modern life. There is a widespread perception in Western countries that life today is much busier than it once was, thanks to the unending demands of work, family, chores, smartphones and e-mails. But the diaries tell a different story: “We do not get indicators at all that people are more frantic,” says John Robinson, a sociologist who works with time-use diaries at the University of Maryland, College Park. In fact, when paid and unpaid work are totted up, the average number of hours worked every week has not changed much since the 1980s in most countries of the developed world…

But certain groups have experienced a different trend. According to analyses by Gershuny, Sullivan and other time-use researchers, two demographic groups are, in fact, working harder. One consists of employed, single parents, who put in exceptionally long hours compared to the average; the other comprises well-educated professionals, particularly those who also have small children. People in this latter group find themselves pushed to work hard and under societal pressure to spend quality time with their kids. “The combination of those pressures has meant that there is this group for which time pressure is particularly pertinent,” Sullivan says.

Some researchers are also testing new ways to record people’s activities as they can compare the results to the diaries:

In her preliminary analyses, Harms has found that gadget diaries and paper diaries show the same sequence of events, but that the gadgets reveal details that paper diaries missed. Most researchers in the field agree that the future lies in collecting data through phones and other devices. “Maybe this will bring a new boost to time-use research,” Glorieux says. He anticipates a situation in which reams of diary data — such as location, heart rate, calories burned and even ambient noise — are collected through phones and linked-up gadgets.

Much social science research is focused on particular events or aspects of people’s lives – not just a cross-section of time but also specific information measured in variables that we think might be related to other variables or that we think are worth measuring. In contrast, time-use diaries and other methods can help get at the mundane, everyday activity and interactions that make up a majority of our lives. Much of adult life is spent in necessary activities: making and eating food, resting and sleeping, cleaning, more passive leisure activities, caring for children. We also spend a decent amount of time alone or in our own head. These activities are occasionally punctuated by big events – something exciting happens at work or home, lively social interaction occurs, an important thought is had, etc. – to which we tend to pay more attention both in our own minds and in our data collection. Our methods should probably more closely match this regular activity and time-use diaries represent one way of doing this.

US average of 3 hrs 40 min a day on mobile devices

A new report shows that Americans are spending more time on their mobile devices:

U.S. consumers spend, on average, three hours and 40 minutes each day on their mobile devices, an increase of 35% from a year ago in the second quarter of 2014. And that time spent on mobile devices continues to increase, said Simon Khalaf, senior vice president of publishing products at Yahoo.

Globally there are 280 million “mobile addicts,” who use apps more than 60 times daily. Effectively, “these folks are conducting their lives on mobile,” Khalaf said. Regular users access apps up to 16 times daily, Flurry’s research found.

Over the last six months, the average time consumers spend on their phones or devices has increased by 43 minutes, or 24%, he said. “This is the mobile revolution,” Khalaf said. “There hasn’t been a single industry that hasn’t been disrupted by mobile and its applications.”

Khalaf revealed the findings Wednesday at Yahoo’s mobile developer conference in New York. The new data, also posted on the Yahoo Developer Tumblr page, came from mobile analytics company Flurry, which he was CEO of when Yahoo acquired Flurry in July 2014, and other sources including comScore and NetMarketShare. Flurry tracks 720,000 apps across two billion mobile devices.

Two quick thoughts:

  1. If the time on mobile devices is up so much, what other activities decreased in time? Perhaps some users have shifted time from other devices – like television or computers – but this data also might be based on double counting time (watching TV and on a mobile device). More multitasking with phone in hand might be the culprit here.
  2. The phrase “mobile addicts” seems odd here. Typically when we refer to addictions, we are referencing something that negatively interferes with other areas of life. However, attendees at a mobile developer conference might see this addiction as a good thing (more customers!) and Khalaf says people “are conducting their lives on mobile.” Is this addiction (probably not) or just a new normal?

“How a time-use expert uses her time”

An interesting look at how sociologists who study time use go about their days:

As a sociologist and director of the University of Maryland’s Time Use Laboratory, Sayer explores the ways that gender and social class guide the ways that people use their time. She looks for patterns and consequences of time use and the ways that these actions influence people’s daily lives.

When she’s not in her office, Sayer lives with her mother, who depends on Sayer’s care, as well as her husband and their three cats. And her recent trip to Texas was not for pleasure but instead to visit her sick older brother and take care of family business…

For many people, this blur of activity is a symptomatic of a condition that Sayer’s colleague, University of Maryland sociologist and time-use researcher John Robinson, calls “hurry sickness.”…

She’ll cram the leftover office work somewhere in between tidying up the house, feeding the cats, making dinner, eating (usually around 8), chatting with her mom and husband, cleaning, reading the newspaper and getting to bed by 11:30.

Don’t forget the impact of the invention of clocks on the modern era. And, for a variety of reasons, Americans seem particularly caught up with the clock – even if they aren’t particularly productive all the time. Workplace productivity has increased but that extra leisure time tends to go to things like television and not necessarily towards civic life. I imagine many sociologists have ideas about what would be best for people to do with their time but it is difficult to do many of these things – such as building and maintaining social relationships – within a social system which has additional aims such as making money or pushing mass media.

 

TV watching crushes all other leisure activities

Five Thirty Eight looks at the 2014 American Time Use Survey and finds TV still rules supreme:

Americans still spend more time watching TV than all other leisure activities combined:

Americans average 5.3 hours of leisure time per day (4.8 hours on weekdays and 6.5 hours on weekends and holidays) and over half that is spent in front of the television. Socializing and communicating is the next most popular activity and is the only one to nearly double on weekends (35 minutes on weekdays, 61 minutes on weekends).

libresco-datalab-timeuse

And an interesting parenting finding:

From 2010 to 2014, parents had deliberate conversations with their children for, on average, only 3 minutes a day, and they read to their kids for 2.4 minutes per day (about one picture book’s worth). Conversation with children helps spur language development, and several states run programs for low-income families, who may have less time at home, to help them engage their children and close the word gap.

That television still must provide something that other leisure activities just can’t compete with. Perhaps it is the compelling stories – something must be okay on those hundreds of channels. Perhaps it is just the plethora of options in HD on a big screen (improved TV technology goes a long ways, particularly for live events). Or maybe it is that TV doesn’t require much energy while many of the other leisure activities require more personal investment. For those who see this as a sign of civilization’s decline, at least Americans are persistent in their love for TV…