Tech Addiction Does Not Have a Tech Solution

The New York Times says the tech backlash is here.

Once uncritically hailed for their innovation and economic success, Silicon Valley companies are under fire from all sides, facing calls to take more responsibility for their role in everything from election meddling and hate speech to physical health and internet addiction.

The backlash against big tech has been growing for months. Facebook and Twitter are under scrutiny for their roles in enabling Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election and for facilitating abusive behavior. Google was hit with a record antitrust fine in Europe for improperly exploiting its market power.

Evidently, the breaking point came this week when two of Apple’s large, institutional investors began pressuring the company to study and find solutions to the addictive nature of their technology, especially among children. Their statement expresses a belief that “long-term health of its youngest customers and the health of society, our economy and the company itself are inextricably linked”. 

Ok, I understand the addictive properties of gadgets like smartphones and social media sites like Facebook and SnapChat. But is this another case of blaming technology for human problems? Of demanding technological solutions instead of the difficult job of working collectively to change the culture?

I strongly disagree with media that post clickbait headlines like “Your smartphone is making you stupid, antisocial and unhealthy.” and follow them with unsupported statements like this:

They have impaired our ability to remember. They make it more difficult to daydream and think creatively. They make us more vulnerable to anxiety. They make parents ignore their children. And they are addictive, if not in the contested clinical sense then for all intents and purposes.

No. They – those evil smartphones – just sit there doing nothing until someone picks it up. They do not impede daydreaming and creativity and, in my opinion, can actually improve the ability to recall information. On their own smartphones don’t make people more anxious. And they certainly do not “make” parents ignore their children.

Yes, companies like Apple1 should provide tools to help mitigate the “addictive nature” of their products. And Facebook should use some of that highly touted “artificial intelligence” to do a better job of screening out anti-social messaging. All of them certainly need to do a better job of educating parents and teachers on how children interact with their products.

But at this point in history, it’s not possible to compel people to use those tools and that knowledge. I wonder if it’s even possible to educate people how to be more socially responsible on social media when some of the worst examples come from people our political, business, and entertainment “leaders”.

So, the tech “backlash” is here and this debate will continue. With too much of the blame likely directed at the technology and the companies that create it. And not nearly enough of the responsibility accepted by those of us who use it.


1 And Google, which provides the operating system for far more smartphones than Apple and is often ignored in these debates. Of course, much of Android is copied from iOS so there’s that. :-)

Unsocial Media

Like 2 billion other people in the world, I have a Facebook account. Unlike most of them, I very rarely use it.

no facebook iconI know, shocking.

I do open the site once or twice a month, primarily to see new photos from friends and relatives, and to catch up on Bloom County (which includes the only civil discussion section on the internet).

Other than that, nothing. I haven’t posted anything to my timeline in several years, rarely leave comments, and certainly never click on anything – lest Facebook track me around the web.

As to why, read the words of a writer for The Guardian who explains what caused her to stop using Facebook, and why she’s very cautious about starting again after four years.

I didn’t make a conscious decision to leave Facebook. It was similar to when I stopped smoking: every other time I’d made a song and dance about quitting I had failed, but when one day I realised that it didn’t make me feel good it dawned on me that I wouldn’t be missing out.

But it’s the messiness of my home feed that reminds me why I left in the first place. I am perplexed by some of what Facebook now thinks is a good idea: inserting into my news feed all the happy birthday messages people I know have left on other people’s walls (why? what?). Much on the news feed is a cacophony of dullness and makes for a messy interface. This I haven’t missed and is why I suspect my head has felt at least a little clearer these past four years. Just one less screaming technological wail of attention to deal with.

I completely agree. The messiness of Facebook is just one factor that never made me feel good either.

Whenever I do open my account, the page seems to be overun with advertising, mixed with that “cacophony of dullness” resulting from a random stream of mostly meaningless stories. The result is that “screaming technological wail of attention”. A phrase I’ll have to remember.

Now, I’m not a technological hermit by any means. I spend a lot of time on Twitter, but I find that platform far easier to adapt to my needs, and much more useful. I regularly share my photographs on Flickr and elsewhere for anyone to view.1 And, of course, I’ve been ranting in this space for almost fourteen years, even if the potential audience is far below 2 billion people.

Not that anything in this particular rant matters anyway. With or without me, Facebook will likely keep growing, both in users and the profit from selling them to advertisers. Little ol’ me isn’t going to slow them down.

However, I’m picky. I want to have a little more control in my online life. And much less chaos.

That’s not too much to ask, is it?

3-2-1 For 10-30-16

Three readings worth your time this week.

Many parents (and other relatives) post millions of pictures of kids on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and other places online every day. The co-author of a parenting book wonders if that is an invasion of the child’s privacy. It’s a good question. At least everyone should remember that any materials posted to Facebook is fair game for them to use in ways you may not like. (about 7 minutes)

The Guardian has for you a list from the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges, 40 things you can stop doing right now. A couple of them are UK-specific, and I’m pretty sure I can never talk my wife into the one about never owning more than 10 items of clothes, but the serious entries are intriguing. (about 6 minutes)

Despite living right outside DC, I don’t pay close attention to the minutia of politics, although it’s hard not to notice during this never ending presidential election. However, New York Magazine’s inside look at the Final Days of the Trump campaign is thoughtful and very compelling. Read it, then go watch some Adult Swim to regain a little sanity. (about 16 minutes)

Two audio tracks for your commute.

For rational members of the 50% or so who believe there is “massive” voter fraud going on in the US, know that it is really, really, really hard to pull off that conspiracy. Really! Listen to this episode of Decode DC for directions on how you too can be a fraudulent voter, and why it’s not happening. (33:02)

The Smithsonian is trying it’s hand at podcasting with one called Side Door. With only two episodes, it’s promising but still a little rough around the edges. But the first episode, titled tech yourself, is worth a listen just for the discussion about how teens use their smartphones. They could have spent the whole program on that topic. (20:00)

One video to watch when you have a few minutes.

You may not think of the Blue Man Group as musicians but the folks at NPR invited them to do a Tiny Desk Concert anyway. It’s very entertaining to watch these performers up close. I want someone to try that Meditation for Winners activity at their next faculty meeting. “Your day won’t get any better than this, I guarantee it.” (13:15)

Twitter is About Today

A writer on Medium explains Why I love Twitter and barely tolerate Facebook, starting with “Twitter put simply is fun, fantastic, and all about the here and now.” while “Facebook is mired in the past.”.

There’s no memory at Twitter: everything is fleeting. Though that concept may seem daunting to some (archivists, I feel your pain), it also means the content in my feed is an endless stream of new information, either comments on what is happening right now or thoughts about the future.

Twitter is a steady stream of mostly joy and makes my life better. Facebook is filled with people I barely know, chain-emails and disaster news about the sky falling that reminds me of my own past as well as my “friends” at every turn. The Internet is here today and all about tomorrow, and I prefer my social media to reflect that, and that’s why I love Twitter.

No matter how you feel about the two services,2 the short piece is worth a read.

The Social Librarian

Last week our overly-large school district finally released our “Guidelines On the Use of Social Media and Related Electronic Communication Tools”. Fifteen pages of text that only a lawyer could love and which took around three years to finish. Although I was one of many who participated in the process, it’s very hard to spot my contributions.

Anyway, as I was preparing to leave for Educon last Friday, one of our library specialists asked if I would do a session on the guidelines at their mini-conference, one week away. I agreed2, but wrote the description with the idea of spending most of the time I had discussing how and why they should use social media, rather than relating a list of do’s and don’ts.

And the conversations at Educon gave me just the hook I need.

The theme for the Friday night and Sunday morning panels addressed the question of whether schools and educators should be open and transparent about our work (which frankly, was answered with a big yes from everyone I spoke to) and to what degree. As their roles in society rapidly change, librarians certainly need to find new and creative ways to open their spaces and connect them to their communities.

Of course, I will only have 45 minutes to make the case for the professional use of social media but in that time, at least we can get the conversation started.