Are mobile devices counterproductive?

Is being constantly connected a good thing and as a society are we too connected?

If a survey into the social impact mobile phones are having on today’s society is to be believed, 31 per cent of respondents said they would feel ‘completely lost’ and ‘isolated’ if they mislaid their mobile device, and a further 25 per cent stated that it would have a major impact on their social life and would make them feel out of touch or cut off from friends and family.

Miley Cyrus iPad Starbucks

The Oxford English Dictionary defines addiction as “…the state or condition of being dedicated or devoted to a thing, esp. an activity or occupation; adherence or attachment, esp. of an immoderate or compulsive kind”. In a study entitled “Generation M2: Media in the Lives of 8- to 18-Year-Olds” published by the Kaiser Family Foundation it is reported that the American teenager spend an average of 7 hours a day consuming entertainment media and has significantly risen due to spent using mobile devices. Ownership of iPod devices (including the iPod Touch) has dramatically increased from 18% to 76%. According to the New York Times this has lead psychologists to link the use of mobile devices to the build up of anxiety, distraction, sleep deprivation and repetitive stain injury (RSI). It isn’t just mobile phones that people are become addicted to, walk into any hipster cafe and you’ll see people tweeting away on their iPhones, playing Cut The Rope on the iPad or reading articles on their Samsung Galaxy Tab. It seems everyone is engrossed in some type of mobile device in one form or another. It’s not a new thing – the term Crackberry has been around for years, and it’s used to described those who become addicted to BlackBerry devices, those who can’t live without them. The danger here is that all mobile devices are purely intended for media consumption – you can’t sit down at an iPad and comfortably write an article, code in Ruby or record a podcast. Yes you have exceptions, Jorge Colombo is one – he drew the June 1st cover of the New Yorker with the iPhone application Brushes, but these examples and few and far between. A further disadvantage of being constantly connected through a mobile device is that people expect responses from you, whether it’s your friend asking you out to for a drink or that ‘important’ marketing document or memo being pushed to you the second it’s sent. Gigaom’s Darrell Etherington reported on a recent Nielsen survey which backs up what I’m saying “It seems that play is by far the most popular thing people use smartphone apps for. A recent Nielsen survey found that 60 percent of apps downloaded are games. Productivity apps? Way down the list, at around 26 percent. And while a quarter of all apps downloaded seems like a fairly big chunk, I have to question what types of apps fall under the blanket category of “Productivity” (Emoji Plus and Better Christmas List are close to the top in the iOS App Store bestseller list for that type of app, for example) and how often those apps actually get used once downloaded (I’ve downloaded at least six to-do list apps in the past three months, and opened them maybe a dozen times combined)”. And are the ‘real’ productivity apps like Omnigraffle and Pages on the iPad actually very productive at all? – I’m yet to meet someone who uses them as they should – not just to mess around on but to be productive. Just because they work on desktop, do they work on ‘mobile devices’ which are primarily consumption devices? A recent Nielsen survey backs up what I’m saying. It found that 60 percent of apps downloaded are games. Productivity apps? Way down the list, at around 26 percent. And while a quarter of all apps downloaded seems like a fairly big chunk, I have to question what types of apps fall under the blanket category of “Productivity” (Emoji Plus and Better Christmas List are close to the top in the iOS App Store bestseller list for that type of app, for example) and how often those apps actually get used once downloaded (I’ve downloaded at least six to-do list apps in the past three months, and opened them maybe a dozen times combined) – adding further impoetus to this, recent research conducted as part of a study by Localytics and as reported on MacLife and ReadWriteWeb exposed the reality – 26% of all mobile apps downloaded are only used once. When I asked my colleague about what he genuinely uses on a regular basis – and not just for the sake of it – on the iPhone, it came down to just Mail, SMS, Safari and the National Rail application – despite the fact that he has almost 100 apps on there. Yes, apps like DropBox rank highly in this ‘Productivity’ section – and yes the service is amazing – but is there a use for the iPhone app, or do users just check in for the sake of it? Does the mobile app even for a stellar service actually serve a real purpouse? What this all boils down to is productivity, instead of people finishing off that important report they’re trying to get all three stars on Angry Birds or respond to that last email. Unlike computers people can easily take these devices anywhere they go and with mobile data they’re connected almost all of the time. The point here isnt necessarily whether the device manufacturers or application developers need to change, its more about the culture and sociological effect that technology has had on the mindset of many people in the present day – and its up to everyone to change this themselves. The only way to be productive is self-constraint, why should it be Apple’s problem that you didn’t finish off that essay because you were too busy finishing off Cut The Rope or getting another combo on Fruit Ninja? Should HTC get a slap on the wrist because you were too busy listening to your music to notice th
at oncoming car? No, of course not. I’m not the only one putting forward these ideas, Jasmin Aline Persch of MSNBC’s Wireless Blog wrote a piece entitled “Is there such thing as being too connected?” as far back as 2008 and went on to share the experiences of two women who don’t own mobile phones because as one said “I don’t own a cell phone and I love it…” the 34-year-old said. “I don’t like the idea of anyone bothering me at any moment”. In another piece for MSNBC, Jasmin talked about how people react when their phone is lost or stolen – one overly dramatic young lady told the story of how she lost her phone “Wilson, a 22-year-old graduate student, had clipped her blue flip phone around her bikini bottom — for safekeeping. Then, she left her towel, her other belongings, to let her hair down at Pacific Beach in San Diego. But between playing sports on the beach — and drinking — Wilson’s cell phone went missing.“My whole life crashed” she said. “The only number I knew by heart was my mom’s.”. Today girls especially are ever increasingly reliant on their phones, and on being continually connected to Facebook, monitoring the feeds of the it 800 ‘friends’. Surely something is wrong with our society when this kind of thing doesn’t just play a big part in peoples lives, but takes them over – their whole day, or at the very least evening is devoted to monitoring Facebook on their mobile device (or computer). Microsoft seems to be trying to cash in too – in a recent advertising campaign for their new mobile operating system Windows Phone 7 they touched on the issues of connectedness, Steve Ballmer was quoted as saying “We’ve focused on the way real people really want to use their phones on the go. We want to let you get in, get out and back to your life and have that be as fast and as simple as humanly possible.” Of course this is complete bollocks, Microsoft wants anything but. Their deep integration with Facebook and their evidently Apple-like obsession with apps tells me as much.

Some people don’t want to check in everywhere they go on Foursquare, Facebook Places, Gowalla and a plethora of other ‘location based services’, or tweet their every move to thousands of ‘followers’ and ‘Instagram’ every cup of coffee they drink, but for others it is now a way of life. In an article for Time Magazine, Joel Stein speaks of the “…trouble with going off the grid” – of course like any journalists trying to cause a bit of sensationalism or instigate the next ‘moral panic’ he turned off all of his devices and tried to function with using them. Yes of course switching your phone off for 24 hours is a ridiculous thing to do, did no one mention to Joel that there is such a thing as moderation or self control? Speaking of moderation – over at lifehack.org Francis Wade has a great article on how to avoid those productivity sucking habits whilst keeping your smartphone. Joel Evans over at geek.com talked about how his addiction to surfing the Internet late at night on his mobile phone stopped as soon as he got rid of his iPhone “.First, I had developed a habit of bringing the iPhone to bed and surfing the web into the wee hours. This was mindless surfing and while the BlackJack II affords that same ability, it’s not as big a screen or as fluid an experience, and therefore not as immersive as the iPhone. So, instead of bringing it to bed I actually started reading a book I hadn’t picked up in a while”. And it’s not just surfing the web that’s made people addicted to their mobile devices. As reported in IGN FarmVille and similar games have been hugely popular on the iPad, now – not only do you have to respond to that annoying email from your boss – but you’d better make sure you harvest those crops! The Jamaican Gleaner had an interesting piece on the direct correlation between mobile phone penetration and productivity “Jamaica has one of the highest cellphone-penetration rates in the world at 116 per cent; higher than the United States’ rate at 89 per cent”. I like Jasmine Boussem’s article, ‘Are We Too Connected to Connect? on the Huffington Post where she describes how “…too much of the time, communication devices and the hold they have on us are becoming a convenient substitution to communication, rather than a useful addition to our communicating tools, while the illusion of being connected relieves us from the responsibility of having to actually talk to or see people in person. Now that we have Skype, Facebook and Twitter, how long will it be before we no longer need shoes?” Whilst I don’t agree with her that shoes will be going out of fashion anytime soon I do agree with her that these devices are becoming a substitute for communicating with people and that the illusion of being connected isn’t good for us. Facebook shouldn’t be a substitute for a good ‘ol chin-wag People need to learn when to switch devices off and not to whip out their iPhone as soon as you hear that bell, chime or siren indicating a new @reply on Twitter. In my case I took it a step further giving away/destroying my Nokia E72 and iPod Touch in favour of a simple, reliable, week long battery life Nokia candybar phone. Not only that but I only give out my personal details to people I trust not to bombard me with calls, texts and emails. Maybe you too should do the same if you’re serious about getting any work done in this ever increasing ‘connected’ world. Maybe going off the grid is the way to go? I haven’t found it hard to network – in fact meeting people face to face is much more valuable than harassing them with @replies and Facebook pokes. The onus is not on the providers of these services to solve this societal dilemma, its on people – everyone – and it requires willpower – nothing more, nothing less. Interestingly on the subject of technology addiction, The Observer proclaimed the addiction as an ‘illness’ as early as 2008 and as recently as last week The Guardian ran a feature on ‘How to beat technology addiction’ demonstrating that this is a real and topical issue. Journalist Lucy Tobin referred specifically to how academics are seeking to help those who’s lives have been “…taken over by their BlackBerry or iPhone”. Although more generalised towards technology, not just mobile devices which we would argue are much more intrusive, the article draws the same conclusions, and makes the same observations as we do in this article. Lucy writes “…whether it’s an iPhone or a trilling landline or a pinging email, the latest technology interrupts us all the time”. The article goes on to examine the actual effect the myriad interruptions have on your working day by drawing on research by academics at the University of Kent. Using eye-tracking experiments and a “reading laboratory” the researchers, led by Ulrich Weger, a senior lecturer in psychology at Kent, found that whilst reading a passage of text each interruption (for example, a BlackBerry alert or iPhone push notification) caused an average 17% increase in the total time it took to read the whole passage. According to The Guardian, Weger was inspired to carry out the research by his own procrastination. “I noticed how easily I was distracted when working on my computer,” he explains. “I wasted time by reading emails whenever they came into my inbox. I noticed that once I had started reading the name of the sender, I read the first line of the text. Once I mastered that, I continued reading the entire message, and once I got to that point, I felt compelled to respond because there was no point in leaving an already half-finished task. Then sometimes I needed extra information to answer the message, so had to add other tasks.” He advises turning off attention-sappers such as “automatic email notifications”. He concludes with the same general consensus, involving moderation and will power that we have in this article – “…the best way to overcome our addiction to new information is to learn to control yourself: you can do exercises to help … using thought-control exercises like concentrating on a simple imagined object for a few minutes every day”. He takes things further by referring to a concentration exercise he found in a book written by Rudolf Steiner. Breifly touching on what we describe as the use of “moderation”, Weger explains that Blackberrys and their smartphone cousins are not all bad, and have a “mixed effect”. Continuing to say that “…the upside of these devices is that you don’t have to go home to get the information you need. But the downside is that if you allow yourself to become dependent, they will haunt you. As with all things: if you can make use of something that makes your life easier while maintaining enough inner strength and freedom to avoid dependence, you are the master. If you do not cultivate this inner strength and freedom, you become the slave.” This is a genuine, widespread and pressing issue – but it’s evident from some of the cynical and condescending comments over on the The Guardian that that many don’t take the issue seriously – though it should be mentioned that one commenter Anna Bramwell raises some valid points on the article and the study as does another commenter Cyril Smith in an elaborate exchange- but without getting too theoretical and scientific about this – nobody can deny that this isn’t a real issue. In short, I think this is a case of technology addiction and like anything which is addictive it’s usually fine in moderation – but people take it to extremes. Here’s an example – it’s a pet peeve of mine, I’ll admit, but can the people who insist on chatting away on their phones when someone is trying to serve them in a shop stop it, it’s down-right rude and arrogant. Whilst on the subject of lack of self control leading to apparent arrogance, you see it at cinemas when you’re trying to enjoy the latest blockbuster – the guy next to you takes out his mobile phone and starts tapping away, not bothering to notice the incredulous looks from other cinema goers as his iPhone acts a bright beacon of light cutting through the darkness. Will this addiction to mobile devices continue to materialise, or is there going to be some other catalyst which brings about some change? What’s the solution, and how can we stop mobile devices taking over lives, or sometimes even taking them? Is legislation the only way to combat what’s turning in to something that might potentially take lives? As Forbes points out, Will Rogers famously wrote, “You can’t legislate intelligence and common sense into people, but according to a report from the Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA), pedestrian deaths rose slightly in the first six months of 2010, the first time that has happened in four years. “One of the reasons we think the trend may be turning negatively is because of distracted pedestrians,” a GHSA spokesperson told the NY Times. Perhaps the best option would be to advocate some kind of licence which is required before people are allowed to use technology, or the Internet – an idea put forward by John C Dvorak – before you dismiss this – think about how some basic education might make the world in which we increasingly rely on technology a much better place – after all the motor vehicle was invented in 1885 but driving tests weren’t introduced in the UK until 1934 by the Motor Vehicles Regulations 1935 and not in their current state until 1971. Perhaps it’s about time we issued licences for the use of computers and even mobile devices? So – Is there a problem with mass addiction to superfluous ‘apps’ and ‘services’ on mobile devices? Do mobile devices even those which proport to aid productivity merely serve as a hindrance – or are they even counter-productive?