October 7th, 2017 · 18 comments
At last week’s New Yorker TechFest conference, superstar Apple designer Jony Ive took the stage.
At some point during the presentation, Ive was offered a softball question about the ways the iPhone has changed the world. Ive’s response was surprising: “Like any tool, you can see there’s wonderful use and then there’s misuse.”
Asked what he meant by “misuse,” Ive responded: “perhaps, constant use.”
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October 2nd, 2017 · 24 comments
A Social Experiment
If you, like many people, use social media and generally agree that it’s an important technology, try the following experiment.
Take out a piece of paper and list your most important uses for these services — the activities that social media is well-suited to provide and that unambiguously enrich your life. This list, for example, might include items like:
- The ability to see new photos of your nephews, nieces, or grandchildren.
- The Facebook Group used to run a local organization you belong to.
- The hashtag that keeps you up to date with the latest news from an activist movement that you support.
The social media industrial complex* likes to point to lists like these to justify its importance. “It would be crazy to dismiss our technology,” they cry, “look at all these useful things people do with it!”
But here’s the second part of the experiment: estimate honestly how much time it would take per week to satisfy these important uses. In my experience, for most people, the answer is around 15 – 30 minutes.
And yet, the average American adult social media user spends two hours per day on these services, with almost half this time dedicated to Facebook products alone.
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September 24th, 2017 · 28 comments
A Lonely Binge
I recently read three books on the topic of solitude. Two were actually titled Solitude, while the third, and most recently published, was titled Lead Yourself First — which is pitched as a leadership guide, but is actually a meditation on the value of being alone with your thoughts.
This last book resonated with me in part because it was co-authored by a former Army officer and a well-respected federal appellate judge, meaning it’s written with the type of exacting logic and ontological clarity that warms my overly-technical nerd heart.
Style aside, Lead Yourself First makes many interesting points, but there were two lessons in particular that struck me as relevant to the types of things we talk about here. So I thought I would share them:
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September 18th, 2017 · 26 comments
Kevin Kelly and the Amish
Eight years after dropping out of college to wander Asia, Kevin Kelly returned home to America, bought an inexpensive bike, and made a meandering 5,000 mile journey across the country. As he recalls in his original and insightful 2010 book, What Technology Wants, the “highlight” of the bike tour was “gliding through the tidy farmland of the Amish in eastern Pennsylvania.”
Kelly ended up returning to the Amish on multiple occasions during the years that followed his first encounter, allowing him to develop a nuanced understanding of how these communities approach technology. As he reveals in Chapter 11 of his book, the common idea that the Amish reject all modern technology is a myth. The reality is not only more interesting, but it also has important implications for our current culture.
As Kelly puts it: “In any discussion about the merits of avoiding the addictive grasp of technology, the Amish stand out as offering an honorable alternative.”
Given such a strong endorsement, it seems worthwhile to briefly summarize what Kelly uncovered during these visits to rural Pennsylvania…
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September 11th, 2017 · 22 comments
Contemplating the Importance of Contemplation
Franklin Foer has a new book coming out this week. It’s titled, World Without Mind: The Existential Threat of Big Tech.
I haven’t read it yet, but this morning, on returning from a family camping trip, I read Foer’s essay in today’s Washington Post and a recent interview with The Verge (as, of course, there’s no better time to contemplate the existential threat of technology than right after a weekend in the woods).
According to the interview in The Verge, Foer writes in the book: “the tech companies are destroying the possibility of contemplation.”
This premise is one I obviously support, having written an entire book on why we should fight to retain our diminishing ability for sustained attention.
But whereas my main issue with digital distraction was limited to issues of personal satisfaction and productivity, Foer, in elaborating his contemplation quote, goes much broader in his concern:
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September 1st, 2017 · 18 comments
Not Open to Openness
Apple’s new Cupertino headquarters cost $5 billion (see above). One of its prominent features is a massive open office space in which many Apple engineers sit on benches at long shared work tables.
As Apple aficionado John Gruber revealed in a recent episode of his podcast, not everyone is happy with this decision.
“I heard that when floor plans were announced, that there was some meeting with Johny Srouji’s team,” said Gruber, before explaining that Srouji is an important senior vice president in charge of Apple’s custom silicon chips.
Srouji, to put it politely, was not pleased with the idea of moving his team to a cacophonous, distracting, cavernous open office.
As Gruber tells it:
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August 27th, 2017 · 37 comments
When Writing is More than Writing
As a professor who also happens to opine publicly about productivity, I’m often invited to stop by dissertation bootcamps — a semi-annual ritual at many universities where doctoral students gather to hear advice and work long hours on their theses in an atmosphere of communal diligence.
Something that strikes me about these events is the extensive use of the term “writing” to capture the variety of different mental efforts that go into producing a doctoral dissertation; e.g., “make sure you write every day” or “don’t get too distracted from your writing by other obligations.”
The actual act of writing words on paper, of course, is necessary to finish a thesis, but it’s far from the only part of this process. The term “writing,” in this context, is being used as a stand in for the many different cognitive efforts required to create something worthy of inclusion in the intellectual firmament of your discipline.
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August 20th, 2017 · 53 comments
The iGen Problem
Many people recently sent me the same article from the current issue of The Atlantic. It’s titled, “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?”, and it’s written by Jean Twenge, a psychology professor at San Diego State University.
The article describes Twenge’s research on iGen, her name for kids born between 1995 and 2012 — the first generation to grow up with smartphones. Here’s a short summary of her alarming conclusions:
“It’s not an exaggeration to describe iGen as being on the brink of the worst mental-health crisis in decades. Much of this deterioration can be traced to their phones.”
I won’t bother describing all of Twenge’s findings here. If you’re interested, read the original article, or her new book on the topic, which comes out this week.
The point I want to make instead is that in my position as someone who researches and writes on related topics, I’ve started to hear this same note of serious alarm from multiple different reputable sources — including the head of a well-known university’s mental health program, and a reporter currently bird-dogging the topic for a major national publication.
In other words, I don’t think this growing concern about the mental health impact of smartphones on young people is simply nostalgia-tinged, inter-generational ribbing.
Something really scary is probably going on.
My prediction is that we’re going to see a change in the next 2 – 5 years surrounding how parents think about the role of smartphones in their kids’ lives. There will be a shift from shrugging our shoulders and saying “what can we do?”, to squaring our shoulders and asking with more authority, “what are we going to do?”
(Photo by Pabak Sarkar)