Everywhere Connected, Yet Unable To Connect

“Just as we need certain things to suck in order for others to register as cool (Beavis and Butthead, 1994, MTV), so too must we experience resistance or difficulty in order to understand the nature and depth of our own desires…

…Frictionless exchange almost always involves an unseen toll. One of the most insidious features of our digital regime is the way in which it mystifies the role of labor in daily economic life…

…Few devices have done more to obscure the efforts of human labor than the smartphone. Fewer still have vacuumed out of our lives as much human interaction as has been lost to our oblong, digital assistants…

…We are everywhere connected, and yet we are unable to connect…

-Gabriel Kahane, “In Defense of Friction.” gabrielkahane.substack.com. April 26, 2022.

Strange little essay in the “you’d be happier without your smartphone” genre. Some real nuggets in it.

I’m thinking of updating my phone. Part of me wants to get a 5G phone, for more speed, presumably the Pixel 6a 5G that is likely to be announced next month. Part of me wants to get a Mudita Pure, which is basically a modern flip-phone with a long battery life. Part of me wants to get a PinePhone, a functioning Linux phone. Part of me thinks I should just keep using the old S5 with LineageOS I bought off eBay for ~$50.

The thing that this essay brings to mind for me is that there’s a lot of parts and different, conflicting wants in that paragraph above. In the end, it really doesn’t matter which phone I use. If you were to review the different devices I have used in my life, did any of them really matter? At the same time, an old S5 with LineageOS is a temperamental phone: slow, a flashing display when it is cold, and other problems.

It makes me think of that Amish story, where the question is whether a tool is both good for the individuals and the communities using it. Does having access to social media through a phone bind us closer to each other? Or, enable connections that wouldn’t happen otherwise? In some cases, it does. But, there are costs too. How many of us are taking a really close look at that ledger?

The Watchers Are Watching

“For brands, following someone’s precise movements is key to understanding the “customer journey” — every step of the process from seeing an ad to buying a product. It’s the Holy Grail of advertising, one marketer said, the complete picture that connects all of our interests and online activity with our real-world actions.

Once they have the complete customer journey, companies know a lot about what we want, what we buy and what made us buy it. Other groups have begun to find ways to use it too. Political campaigns could analyze the interests and demographics of rally attendees and use that information to shape their messages to try to manipulate particular groups. Governments around the world could have a new tool to identify protestors.”

-Stuart A. Thompson and Charlie Warzel, “Twelve Million Phones, One Dataset, Zero Privacy.” The New York Times. December 19, 2019.

What could possibly go wrong?

Under Control of Your Smart Phone

Open Question: Are smart phones primarily an information technology or a control technology?

“What the phone promises you psychologically is not content as such, but a space on the screen that is totally obedient to you. This translates into the illusion that the world, seen through the screen, will be equally obedient. I think any effort to try to understand smartphone addiction needs to grapple with the fact that it is much closer to a control technology than an information technology. Of course, it tells you useful things but what it offers you is navigation and control, the ability to make a fast-moving and confusing world obey you. One of the main contrasts in the book is between a view of the world that tries to represent it—the classically modern one of the seventeenth century for which the map would be a classic example—and a view of the world which brings it under control, which is a military ideal. Today, we often have no idea where we are going until we put a destination into our phone and follow the instructions. This navigation-based approach to the world originates from military technology and the need to bring the world under control.”

William Davies interview with Tobias Haberkorn, “Control Groups.” The Point Magazine. December 7, 2019.

Signs You Have A Bad Relationship With Your Mobile Device

“Signs you might be experiencing problematic use, Lembke says, include these:

  • Interacting with the device keeps you up late or otherwise interferes with your sleep.
  • It reduces the time you have to be with friends or family.
  • It interferes with your ability to finish work or homework.
  • It causes you to be rude, even subconsciously. “For instance,” Lembke asks, “are you in the middle of having a conversation with someone and just dropping down and scrolling through your phone?” That’s a bad sign.
  • It’s squelching your creativity. “I think that’s really what people don’t realize with their smartphone usage,” Lembke says. “It can really deprive you of a kind of seamless flow of creative thought that generates from your own brain.”

—Michealeen Doucleff and Allison Aubrey. “Smartphone Dehox: How To Power Down In A Wired World.” NPR: Morning Edition. February 12, 2018.

The solution? The Sabbath. Sometimes the oldest technologies are the best.