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Mobile devices - do you control them, or they you?


I bet many of you have gone to church, a mall, work or whatever and realized that you have forgotten your smartphone at home. You feel uneasy, disconnected and uncomfortable the whole day. As time passes you might even start harboring some anxiety, what if you got a call from a dying family member, or a new job offer?


Listen to 006 | Mobile devices: Are they an asset or liability?


Mobile devices have become such an intimate part of our lives. It is like the clothes on your back, you won’t go anywhere without it. Many sees the brand they use, the cover they put on it, even the wallpaper they have as part of their lifestyle and an expression of their personality, style and class.



Never before has it been this simple to watch movies anywhere, take your music with you, finish level 25 of Candy Crush, all while making some business calls and answering to emails. It truly is a marvelous thing, a thing that many of us do not dare to separate with. But has it gone too far?


The smartphone manufacturers really got a lot of things right. But they had no choice. The smartphone manufacturing market is arguably the most competitive market to be in. The speed of development, new releases, new features and better cameras assures a constant release of new and ever improved devices hitting the shelves seemingly daily.


Not only are the devices and what they offer really compelling, but some users consider their devices to form part of their status, fashion and even social class. Even the brand you decide to support can be seen as a status symbol. Not many things in life have this much power over human beings. It is not that hard to see how a device having such power over its user, could become a problem.


Loaded gun


Going back a bit to the time the internet was discovered and eventually became mainstream. It started finding its way into many houses. I vividly remember as a teenager that you could never sneakily connect to the internet without the neighbor’s neighbor hearing the dial out tone our initial modems made, alerting anyone in a 1-mile radius of my attempts to connect to the internet.


See but even at this time, there was no manual, internet usage training, awareness campaigns or any regulation around the use of the internet. They internet gave us a loaded gun, hiding its potential danger as an attractive and deceptively addictive resource. Don’t get me wrong the internet is a beautiful thing, the same way a lion is a beautiful thing. When you have knowledge of lions, you’ll never dare to stroke them, yet if you’re a toddler having no knowledge of a lion’s prowess, you become lunch.



I feel that some awareness and training is required before getting into the whole internet. Imagine going out of school having learnt the art of the internet. Understanding why the password, ‘password1’ is not very strong. Understanding where to click and most importantly where NOT to click. This will be extremely helpful in later preventing being hacked, defrauded, bullied online or falling for scams. The internet is a wonderful resource, but given its overlooked and potential dangers, it can do more harm than good sometimes.



The worst drug


The wife and I visited one of our favorite restaurants the other day. It is our favorite restaurant because it has a massive kids entertainment area with good security and allowing us some one-on-one time while the kids are entertained. We enjoy watching other peoples’ behavior, habits and making up lifestyles for them. It is a little game we play since we’ve met over 10 years ago. In recent years our game has developed a bit of a new tone. See, on this day at our family restaurant, we could count the amount of tables where actual conversations were happening with our one hand. All the other tables had their faces buried in the smartphone screens, escaping this world into the digital one. Food would come and go, some ravaging a 2-utensil meal with only a fork so the other hand can scroll and tap away unhindered.



Many would agree that smart devices have become an addiction, a drug that steals so much time. Some of the newer smartphones can track your behavior on the device and show you your weekly usage patterns and statistics. It is shocking to note the number of hours spent on our devices. Even more shocking is how much of the usage is necessary like work or phone calls and how much of your usage can be attributed to mindless scrolling through social media etc.


We are all aware of this problem, but just as smokers usually admit their addiction to be a problem, they continue doing it anyways.


Algorithms


One morning while cleaning house, we prop our little 2-year-old up in her feeding chair with some toys and some kids television on YouTube. At the time she was particularly excited to watch “egg reveal” videos. These are videos where the host buys many of those plastic eggs that contain toys when opened. He then talks through and opens them all on-screen. I was always surprised at how such repetitive, mindless videos could mesmerize our little one so much. Returning from cleaning the bedroom, I walked into the television room, my daughter’s face still glued to the screen, but the expression on her face has changed from one of joy, into one of fear. I look at the screen in horror to see a black background with a evil looking demon with horns walking towards you as if to walk out of the screen into this world. I will never know if she has unseen that picture by now. I started reading up on the egg-reveal thing, and low and behold there is a lot of research proving its brainwash effect on kids.



Many of the Internet’s most popular resources like Facebook, Google, YouTube and others run algorithms. These algorithms are mostly developed to improve efficacy, usability and convenience. Yet, sometimes they tend to have an extremist approach, with each result topping the previous. You might start by looking at a video about Formula 1 and land on illegal street racing videos within the hour. In order to achieve this level of comfort - for example where your YouTube will suggest videos to you, similar to your previous searches, or Facebook showing you adds that are specifically targeted towards you - these platforms extract a lot of data from your phone. Some of this data includes location, messages, stores you visit or apps you download, some collecting over a 100 different metrics from your usage. Most people would download an app, see all the requests for access to the microphone, camera, storage and other components and simply click accept. You have no choice, as not accepting the terms means that you cannot use said application. The fine print does in fact reveal all the information collected, but I would be surprised if even Google employees knew what their Google policies state.


It would seem that the demon video found itself amongst the list of suggested videos on YouTube due to its manipulated name, description, notes and other metrics used by YouTube in order to rank and place suggested videos. This one was specifically designed to appear during kids innocently watching these mesmerizing egg-reveal videos.


Distraction


Some are so addicted to their devices that it can actually cause harm to them or others.


Driving to work one morning I noticed this driver next to me permanently scrolling and tapping on his phone. Fair enough, we are stuck in traffic and not moving very fast. Any accident would surely be low speed impact and definitely not fatal. We approached a traffic light intersection and the traffic light had changed from green to red for us. The oncoming traffic do not have traffic and are traveling at speed. The driver next to me still staring at his screen roll forward into oncoming traffic and gets struck by another car. The car flips and crashes into another few cars on the opposite side of the road. The sound of bending and shredding metal was deafening. Six cars were involved in the accident and we found out later that the driver on his phone died in hospital.



Being constantly distracted by your smartphone, its beeps, rings and vibrates, could mean that you are not really present in the real world at that time. Your kids could be nagging you to play. Your wife could be talking to you about her tough day. Your mother could be seeking your support during her struggle with cancer. People that are addicted with these smartphones are very easily distracted by them and a relationship with them will always be contested by his or her digital partner.


Let’s burn our phones then?


Well of course it is not all bad. It is not the phones’ fault for our human weaknesses in not being able to control our usage and addiction to it.


Smartphones and technological progression in general, are an extreme help to the world. The convenience of communicating anywhere, to anyone at any time is simply incredible and taken for granted, the value of which will only be discovered once removed.


The days are gone where we all have to drive to work, switch on this huge tower and get access to our email. Now you can check your email, book a flight and get the sport score, all while waiting for a coffee at Starbucks You can read a book while flying, or listen to an educational podcast while you are driving. Any app you can imagine, type it up and chances are that someone’s developed it. Many of these apps are there to solve problems, improving the usual, inconvenient way of doing things and replacing it with elegant and well-designed touch interfaces.



My wife once left home to drive to an unknown destination to fetch something. We still used a dedicated GPS back then, and we did not realize that the cable did not seem to charge up the GPS anymore. Halfway to her destination, the GPS died in the most inopportune time and in quite an unsafe area. She phoned me in a flat panic, explaining what had happened. I told her to just keep moving, following any road sign that leads to a major highway. Once on the highway and out of the crowded dangerous neighborhoods, I asked her to pullover and quickly download a navigation app to her phone. A couple of minutes later and several dollars in data charges, she was safely back on the road, navigated by a cellphone app to her destination. Stretching the imagination, the satnav app potentially saved her life that day, or at least from imminent danger. And with this and many other similar examples, I believe that smartphones are doing more good than bad, saving more lives than costing.



Used productively, a smartphone has immeasurable value.

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