Elsewhere is the new here

In my last post, I reported on a study showing that people massively underestimate how often they use their smartphones. People consult their phones almost three times more frequently than they think they do. Yesterday, Pew came out with the results of a new survey that revealed that more than a fifth of Americans, and more than a third of young Americans, report being online “almost constantly.” Given people’s tendency to underreport gadget use, “almost constantly” means “constantly.”

One-in-five Americans – and 36% of 18- to 29-year-olds – go online ‘almost constantly’

Media seeks sovereignty over all experience, and its goal would seem to be in reach. “Ever in flux and process, reality cannot be approached directly,” wrote Siegfried Giedion in his 1948 masterpiece Mechanization Takes Command. “Reality is too vast, and direct means fail. Suitable tools are needed, as in the raising of an obelisk. In technics, as in science and art, we must create the tools with which to dominate reality.” An easier option is to use the tools others create for us.

You are your phone

The fact can no longer be avoided: You are your phone. The pattern of smartphone use is the pattern of the self. This is who you are:

Barcode of smartphone use over two weeks.Black areas indicate times where the phone was in use and Saturdays are indicated with a red dashed line. Weekday alarm clock times (and snoozing) are clearly evident.

The Wall Street Journal reports today that Silicon Valley lending startups are looking to base personal loan decisions on analyses of data from individuals’ phones. The apps running on a person’s device, entrepreneurs have found, “generate huge amounts of data — texts, emails, GPS coordinates, social-media posts, retail receipts, and so on — indicating thousands of subtle patterns of behavior that correlate with repayment or default.” How you use your phone reveals more than you think:

Even obscure variables such as how frequently a user recharges the phone’s battery, how many incoming text messages they receive, how many miles they travel in a given day or how they enter contacts into their phone — the decision to add last name correlates with creditworthiness — can bear on a decision to extend credit.

Meanwhile, the New York Times today reports on a new study published in Science that reveals how a person’s economic status can be determined through a fairly simple analysis of phone use. The researchers, working in Africa, collected details “about when calls were made and received and the length of the calls” as well as “when text messages were sent, and which cellphone towers the texts and calls were routed through.” They analyzed this metadata to “build an algorithm that predicts how wealthy or impoverished a given cellphone user is. Using the same model, the researchers were able to answer even more specific questions, like whether a household had electricity.”

I am not a number, you declare. I am more than a credit score. You may well be. But the tell-tale phone reveals more than one’s financial standing and trustworthiness. The tell-tale phone reveals all. Take a look at that chart again:

Barcode of smartphone use over two weeks.Black areas indicate times where the phone was in use and Saturdays are indicated with a red dashed line. Weekday alarm clock times (and snoozing) are clearly evident.

It shows the pattern of one person’s smartphone use over a two-week period, beginning late on a Friday afternoon. Each vertical line represents a single use of the phone, the width of the line showing how long the use extended. The chart comes from a new study on phone use, published in PLOS ONE. Four UK researchers installed a usage-tracking app on the smartphones of twenty-three students and staff members at the University of Lincoln, and then examined the data after two weeks. They discovered that “a simple measure — recording when the phone is in use — can provide a vast array of information about an individual’s daily routine.” Data on phone use, to take a simple example, provides “a non-invasive indication of sleep length.” All but one of the test subjects used their phones as an alarm clock on weekdays, and all of them without exception reported that the last thing they do before going to sleep is to check their phone. Gaps in use during the day are also good indicators of naps.

The test subjects used their phones more than five hours a day, on average. Much of that usage went on unconsciously, the researchers found. When the subjects were asked to estimate how often they checked their phone during a day, the average answer was 37 times. The tracking data revealed, however, that the subjects actually used their phones 85 times a day on average, more than twice as often as they thought. “For exploring checking behaviours,” the researchers report, “estimated number of uses show little reliability for measuring actual uses.” We see here how deeply entwined the phone has become with the self — a seamless extension of body, mind, and personality. It is so much a part of us that we are no more conscious of the device moment-to-moment than we are of, say, our hands.

If the mere tracking of phone use reveals how we spend our days, our diurnal routines, imagine what would be revealed by a deeper analysis, one that examined the apps we use, the people we connect with, the things we look at and listen to, what we say and what we write and what we like, where we go, what we search for, the photos we take. It’s all there, public self and private self. There’s no shame in admitting the fact: You are your phone.

The new search

touchscreen

Jenny Hendrix has a finely measured review of Sven Birkerts’s new book, Changing the Subject: Art and Attention in the Digital Age, in Boston Review. Toward the end, before calling for a new poetry, she writes:

The activity conducted in both church and marketplace is a kind of search, which is of course central to what this technology is for: not just Google, but GPS, dating apps, Netflix, Facebook, Amazon—all guide us toward what they think we want. The shift from cathedral to bazaar represents a shift from search as contemplation to search as a way for capitalism to extract value, exploiting information as an energy company might an oil well. … Birkerts’s response is to opt out to the extent that he can. But we might also confront these challenges by encouraging a change in the terms of the search. As I see it, the task of a new Transcendentalism would be less to actively oppose digital technology or save us from it than to, as Rilke put it, “change it into ourselves,” bringing to it the same kind of transformative, sustained attention that the Transcendentalists brought to the natural world.

“Why should we not also enjoy an original relation to the universe?” Emerson wondered in his introduction to the essay “Nature.” “Why should not we have a poetry and philosophy of insight and not of tradition?” One might put the same question to the connected world of today. Most of us will have to use these tools, like it or not; why let someone else decide our relation to them? Transcendentalism was as much about resisting imposed structures of control and interpretation as it was about resisting a mechanized world. Perhaps the role of art now, the way it can best fill the spiritual voids left by our immersion in the digital, is to create for us an “original relation” to it.

The problem with tradition, as Emerson saw it, is that it too easily turns into a vintage clothing shop. We go in and pick up cheap readymades for our minds to wear. (“Why should we … put the living generation into masquerade out of [the past’s] faded wardrobe?”) The problem with escaping tradition is that it can leave us unmoored in the present, our course determined by the whims of the current. You tear down the cathedral only to find that the bazaar is a narrower prison. Before we can establish an original relation to digital technology, it strikes me, we’re going to have to reacquaint ourselves with the past that the technology has been designed to hide.

How social media is shaping the 2016 race

kimhill

Here’s my original version of an essay on social media’s influence on politics that appeared, in a somewhat different form, in Politico Magazine earlier this month. I’ll be discussing the subject at an Institute of Politics Forum at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government on October 8 and, on November 12, at Yahoo’s Digital Democracy Conference at Drake University in Des Moines.

The 140-Character Candidate

Barack Obama killed it on social media this summer. On August 14, a Friday, he kicked off a steamy Washington weekend by releasing a pair of playlists, one for the nighttime, one for the day, through the White House’s new Spotify account. The presidential mixes were predictable but pleasant, a smooth fusion of dad rock and dad soul. In an accompanying blog post, one of the administration’s digital functionaries promised that more playlists were in the works, including “issue-specific” ones.

Two weeks later, on the evening of August 31, Obama turned himself into the country’s Instagrammer-in-Chief. While en route to Alaska to promote his climate agenda, the president took a photograph of a mountain range from a window on Air Force One and posted the shot on the popular picture-sharing network. “Hey everyone, it’s Barack,” the caption read. “I’ll be spending the next few days touring this beautiful state and meeting with Alaskans about what’s going on in their lives. Looking forward to sharing it with you.” The photo was liked by thousands.

Ever since the so-called Facebook election of 2008, Obama has been a pacesetter in using social media to connect with the public. But he has nothing on this year’s candidates. Back in June, the Hillary Clinton campaign issued its own official Spotify playlist, loaded with on-message tunes (“Brave,” “Fighters,” “Stronger,” “Believer”). Ted Cruz live-streams his appearances on Periscope. Marco Rubio broadcasts “Snapchat Stories” at stops along the trail. Rand Paul and Lindsey Graham produce goofy YouTube videos. Even grumpy old Bernie Sanders has attracted nearly two million likers on Facebook, leading the New York Times to dub him “a king of social media.”

And then there’s Donald Trump. If Sanders is a king, Trump is a god. Continue reading

Of drills and holes and Ronald Coase: the limits of sharing

drilling

“Why do people buy products?” asked Theodore Levitt, the celebrated Harvard Business School professor, at the start of his 1969 book The Marketing Mode. He suggested an answer:

Leo McGivena once said, “Last year one million quarter-inch drill bits were sold — not because people wanted quarter-inch drill bits but because they wanted quarter-inch holes.” People don’t buy products, they buy the expectation of benefits. People spend their money not for goods and services, but to get the value satisfactions they believe are bestowed by what they are buying. They buy quarter-inch holes, not quarter-inch drills. That is the marketing
view of the business process.

And so it began, this meme of drills and holes. Continue reading

Tech in schools: less is more

onetoone

Although many educators and school administrators, including those working in the U.S. Department of Education, continue to push schools to invest heavily in computer technology, the evidence of any benefit from such investments remains elusive. The biggest beneficiaries of heavy spending on school technology are technology firms. Students, meanwhile, may actually be harmed by having too much tech in the classroom, particularly when spending on hardware and software leaves less money for hiring and training teachers and improving school facilities.

The latest evidence on the effect of computer use on learning, and some of the strongest to date, comes in a large, international study released today by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Called “Students, Computers and Learning: Making the Connection,” the study “shows that the reality in our schools lags considerably behind the promise of technology,” writes the OECD’s director of education and skills, Andreas Schleicher. Computers’ “impact on student performance is mixed at best.” He sums up the study’s findings this way: Continue reading

In the kingdom of the bored, the one-armed bandit is king

interface

It still feels a little shameful to admit to the fact, but what engages us more and more is not the content but the mechanism. Kenneth Goldsmith, in a Los Angeles Review of Books essay, writes of a recent day when he felt an urge to listen to some music by the American composer Morton Feldman:

I dug into my MP3 drive, found my Feldman folder and opened it up. Amongst the various folders in the directory was one labeled “The Complete Works of Morton Feldman.” I was surprised to see it there; I didn’t remember downloading it. Curious, I looked at its date — 2009 — and realized that I must’ve grabbed it during the heyday of MP3 sharity blogs. I opened it to find 79 albums as zipped files. I unzipped three of them, listened to part of one, and closed the folder. I haven’t opened it since.

The pleasure of listening to music was not as great as he anticipated. He found more pleasure in manipulating music files.

Our role as librarians and archivists has outpaced our role as cultural consumers. Engaging with media in a traditional sense is often the last thing we do. … In the digital ecosystem, the apparatuses surrounding the artifact are more engaging than the artifact itself. Management (acquisition, distribution, archiving, filing, redundancy) is the cultural artifact’s new content. … In an unanticipated twist to John Perry Barlow’s 1994 prediction that in the digital age we’d be able to enjoy wine without the bottles, we’ve now come to prefer the bottles to the wine.

It’s as though we find ourselves, suddenly, in a vast library, an infinite library, a library of Borgesian proportions, and we discover that what’s of most interest to us is not the books on the shelves but the intricacies of the Dewey Decimal System. Continue reading