Smartphones killed the fabulist


In The Wall Street Journal Nicholas Carr has a bizarre but unsurprising op-ed, How Smartphones Hijack Our Minds:
Research suggests that as the brain grows dependent on phone technology, the intellect weakens
. By the title, you can immediately pick out tells that should induce skepticism. “Research suggests” is usually indicating that the author has a hypothesis, and they went and searched the literature for research that confirmed their hypothesis. Carr actually did better than much of modern journalism. He found peer-reviewed literature, instead of quote mining, or selective elisions. Journalism, you have a story to tell, and you’ll make someone else tell it!

And to his credit, Carr cites the publications transparently, with links. Unfortunately, you see that in some cases the sample sizes are very small, and the statistical significance is marginal. In other instances, it doesn’t seem like there’s any real causality. One can’t know if there is a confound with who decides to take phones to class and who does not. It may be that those students who are very focused simply don’t take their phones. Finally, a lot of the research cited in the piece looks like it was sliced and diced to me.

This is where a little history and cognitive neuroscience would go a long way. Traditionalists have inveighed against new information technologies for the whole history of the human race. No doubt when complex syntax emerged some spoiled-sport argued that it was being abused to gossip and waste time.

Most people know that some of the ancient Greeks worried that the spread of literacy was eroding the power of memory. Less well known is that the printing press helped usher in the final decline of the art of memory.

And literacy does rewire our brains. In Reading in the Brain Stanislas Dehaene outlines just how certain regions of the brain focused on shape perception are co-opted to recognize letters effortlessly. This may not be without cost. Muhammed Ali was semi-literate, in part due to dyslexia, and a recent biographer has argued that he had better visual-spatial abilities in part because he didn’t waste his attention and focus on learning to read instinctively.

Nicholas Carr has now built a career in large part on skepticism of the internet and information technology. He knows exactly how to write viral stories which travel on the internet by criticizing the internet.

And it is certainly hard to deny the distracting effect of the internet. But that’s looking at the glass half-empty. One of the positives of the ubiquity of smartphones is that it has forced the retirement of so many bullshitters. Today people can make something up, and you can just “look it up.” Everyone is fact-checking everyone, and distracting from the fabulous bullshit stories and “facts” that a certain type of person has always specialized in.

Like free trade, it’s easy to see the downsides of the internet, and mine the social science literature to “prove” that you’re right. That’s one of the benefits of the internet, it lets you find scientific research which can confirm any assertion you make under heaven. Carr’s leveraging the literature to service his likely false arguments is one of the internet’s downsides.

Google still wants to be Apple (sort of)

Google Is Buying HTC’s Smartphone Expertise for $1.1 Billion. This, after Google has already bought and sold Motorola. Remember when Microsoft bought part of Nokia?

The problem is that Apple and Samsung are starting to create a duopoly. And though most phones run Android, iPhones are much more profitable. There’s a reason many companies develop for iOS but not Android. A friend at Google years ago bemoaned how much more profitable iPhone owners were compared to those bought Android phones.

With all that being said the Apple launch and comments on this blog have convinced me I’m not going iPhone. I don’t know if I’ll go for an HTC, Motorola or Samsung. But for me a phone is functional, not an accessory. Perhaps that explains some of the psychological reasons that iPhone owners spend so much more money on apps….

America’s age of animated emojis

A few days ago I watched the unveiling of Apple’s new iPhone(s). Honestly, I was a bit underwhelmed…and I probably will stick with a Samsung. Of course, I know that the original iPhone was panned, and it created a whole sector and a lifestyle. We’re a bit jaded.

But this focus on lifestyle in the technology sector made me reflect on Peter Thiel’s techno-pessimism in the late 2000s, which prompted him to write Zero to One. I’m glad that the best and brightest are going to Silicon Valley in the 2010s, and not Wall Street as in the 2000s. They don’t do positive harm in my opinion, while they did in the 2000s by increasing risk and volatility. But Apple and Facebook seem to be about consumption rather than production. They don’t make us more efficient, effective, they don’t change our civilization in its bones.

There are worse places to be, but then I read that China is setting targets and goals in relation to moving from fossil fuels to electric cars. The Chinese make a lot of goals, and execution is often an issue. But they have aspirations. Do we?

Until then, animated emojis….

The passing onto to better things…faster and faster

As many of you know, Apple is doing away with the iPod Shuffle. One curious thing is that I’ve noticed several people buying these devices in the last week through my Amazon referrals. At $50 the price point isn’t high, but it does seem a bit much for an obsolete technology.

Which made me reflect on how quickly technologies become obsolete now. As the few people who read this blog and know me in real life are aware, between 2007 and 2014 I went everywhere with a Shuffle. I always had a backup Shuffle. This is not because I’m an audiophile. I’m not. I listened to podcasts.

Arguably the emergence of smartphones made the Shuffle redundant, but I found that the Shuffle was more portable than a smartphone. Ultimately what made me dump the Shuffle is that I went full d-bag and started doing the bluetooth thing. All of a sudden it didn’t matter where the phone was. I still have a Shuffle, but it’s in a drawer somewhere. Perhaps I have a backup too. I don’t recall.

I probably stuck with the Shuffle longer than most. As an old(er) person I’m reflecting now how fast “ubiquitous” technologies are getting obsolete. Faster and faster.

As a child of the 1980s VCRs were part and parcel of our technological furniture. By the early 2000s VCRs were in decline, with DVD rentals surpassing VHS in 2003. Cassettes were eclipsed by CDs in the early 1990s after a two decade reign, but CDs really didn’t master the space for more than ten years (at least in the USA). DVDs had a similarly short “moment.”

How much more can change though? Some of the transition occurred because smartphones, in particular the iPhone, swallowed up whole sectors (audio and photography). Other changes are due to the utilization of high speed internet for video. We got rid of our television in 2004, and for a while there I felt “out of the loop” on a lot of water cooler conversation. But now television has come to me, as binge watching on Netflix has become common.

What will change next?