Posts Tagged 'smart phones'

You say entertainment, I say information

I’m not sure where I’m going with that title, but whatever. I don’t think JSC5 and I disagree much in our two posts on the topic (here and here), at least not in terms of the definition of internet content. I agree that what I’m referring to as information is actually just entertainment in (an entirely see-through) disguise, though denial of that fact certainly contributes to the problem.

I guess where JSC5 and I disagree is how to deal with the problem that we both acknowledge exists. He, like a good American, is all for the pull yourself up by the bootstraps approach, and I think that’s fine, as long as it works. He uses the analogy of a bar, that a bar is entertaining, but none of us would focus all our social life at bars because we know that that wouldn’t be a good idea. I think the analogy works really well, but on a different level. The reason alcohol doesn’t monopolize our lives, as fun as it is, is because we have a strong social infrastructure that discourages it from doing so. Compare, JSC5, drinking culture in the U.S. to drinking culture in the Vietnamese business world, where those structures are weaker. Also, there’s the added fixed cost of having to go to a bar or otherwise procure alcohol, which at the very least means you need to be wearing a shirt, which already makes it different from most of time spent on the internet.

Right now, there’s very little cost to going online. Time and money costs are minimal, as most of us are never too far from an internet connection. And social costs, for now, are also minimal. We make fun of people who are glued to their Blackberries, but it’s worlds apart from how we view alcoholics. And so death by infotainment is very easy to reach, whereas death by cirrhosis is probably pretty rare. I still think that JSC5’s recommendation for diversifying entertainment stands, but I think that might take some willpower to implement. I know for me at least, software that let me forward commit to limitations would be a big help in implementing that diversification. Think about it like a forward commitment that didn’t allow you to drink during Vietnamese business lunches – tell me that wouldn’t have been nice?

And as for your recent guzzling of smart phone Kool-Aid, I say LEAVE! LEAVE BEFORE IT’S TOO LATE! BURN THE PHONE! No, but seriously, I have nothing against smart phones per se, other than that I think the social obsession with them is representative more of how much we are entertained by useless crap than by any value added. Obviously, this is not the fault of the machine itself, but how we use it. The alcohol analogy applies again; there’s nothing inherently wrong with the substance, just certain uses of it. Think of a smart phone as a the infotainment equivalent of a flask. A flask isn’t inherently bad – I’m sure there are plenty of occasions when I’ve thought, man, a spot of whiskey would really do the trick right now (as in, you know, every time I had to discuss something with el Doctor; apologies for the inside references, loyal readers). But generally, if someone has a flask, it’s not because they’ve adequately assessed their potential needs for portable alcohol, it’s usually because they’re the sketchy older guy taking his high school girl friend to a Dave Matthews concert and brooding in the background waiting for one of her hotter friends to ask if anyone brought liquor. Obviously, smart phones are handier than flasks, and, unlike flasks, will figure in prominent and useful ways in the development of human civilization. It’s just that those ways represent just a fraction of current smart phone use.

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Death by information

The Web 2.0 age has always had its fair share of Luddites warning about the dangers of an expanding web. There have been Matrix-alluding pronouncements about the Intertubes taking over our life, social groups warning us about the demise of normal sexual relations stemming from porn that’s available faster than a cup of Ramen, and countless parents Twittering about how their kids are on their damn devices during dinner. I think most rational people tended to ignore these arguments, because apocalyptic pronouncements have probably followed every new major technology. Instant porn is here to stay; we figured we just have to get used to using in ways that are optimal. There is probably going to be a learning curve, but the only choice we have is to climb it.

Here’s what I think: whatever that curve is, we’ve proved really bad at climbing it. The anecdotal evidence is in cases like those SEC guys, high-up white collar professionals, who spent whole days downloading and burning to DVDs more pornography than they could ever consume. Increasingly though, there’s scientific research pointing to the same direction, like that discussed in this article about how being wired changes our brain. To be honest, the experiments themselves aren’t entirely convincing, and the conclusions verge on the extreme, but the basic premise is, I think, an interesting one. Basically, every time we see a new bit of information available for us, like a new e-mail or a new blog post on your favorite blog (no, really, you’re too kind), it gives us a little dopamine injection, an injection that we become accustomed to and learn to crave.

Here’s an experiment for you to do: wait until the most boring part of the day at work, like 4 pm (or 9 pm, if you’re in i-banking), and open your personal e-mail in a tab in your browser (if you don’t have it open already). Go to another tab, and go about your business. Wait for an e-mail come in, for the little (1) to appear in your Gmail tab (or, if you’re less organized, for the (564) to turn to (565)). Now see how long you can go without checking what that e-mail is. Can you go 10 minutes? 30 minutes? An hour? I usually give up after 15.

Here’s the problem with checking stuff out on the internet: it offers small, randomly placed rewards at almost no cost. When I’m bored, there’s a list of websites I’ll run through, even when I’m pretty sure there’s nothing interesting on them. Sometimes I refresh the stats page on this blog. If the number has increased, I get that small burst of dopamine (see how important you guys are?). How many of you can honestly say that you check Facebook the optimal number of times per day? If someone told you that you could only check Facebook one time a day, you might be annoyed, but would you really feel like you were getting less information than you wanted about what your friends were doing? To phrase it differently, do you feel like you’re not getting enough information today?

For me, at least, the answer is no. Assuming I’m not the only person with this answer, why are people so obsessed with smart phones and iPads? We’re breaking more and more ground in terms of being able to access information faster and from any location, and yet I don’t most people would say that they’re truly obtaining or using that information optimally. Unless you need it for work, you probably don’t need to be any more connected with the Web 2.0 world than you already are. If you’re anything like me, you probably want more structure rather than more quantity. And yet the only products we’re developing are ones that increase quantity.

I’m shocked that we haven’t come up with software that allows us to self-limit internet use. Right now, if you’re considering toning down your internet use, all you have is this Manichean choice between embracing your data-addiction and going cold turkey. In a world where people are having friends make up new passwords for their Facebook accounts so that they can’t access them anymore, is there no room for a simple bit of software that limits your ability to access to Facebook to certain specified hours? This software would be really easy to make, and yet, there’s nothing. Is anyone at Google reading this? Please?*

The basic idea of easily accessible information and social networking is great, but to make it really work it requires a level of organization and control that will take time to develop. Not to sound hokey or overly dramatic, but I bet someday we’ll look back at the current age of information gluttony like people today look back at the beginnings of the sexual revolution – a good idea that people got a little too excited about and ran off the rails. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go Google my name.

If you’re interested in the economics of being unable to self-limit ourselves, check out this paper on how higher cigarette taxes lead to greater self-reported happiness among smokers.


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This is a group blog. JSC5 currently writes from the US. JSC7 writes from behind the Great Firewall of China.

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