The smartphone hypnotizes us into screen glaring addicts.
We have zero control of our attention and it makes us feel like we’re losing our mind. Writes Farhad Manjoo in his piece We Have Reached Peek Screen:
Screens are insatiable. At a cognitive level, they are voracious vampires for your attention, and as soon as you look at one, you are basically toast.
There are studies that bear this out. One, by a team led by Adrian Ward, a marketing professor at the University of Texas’ business school, found that the mere presence of a smartphone within glancing distance can significantly reduce your cognitive capacity. Your phone is so irresistible that when you can see it, you cannot help but spend a lot of otherwise valuable mental energy trying to not look at it.
The companies Apple and Google who got us hooked in the first place are now trying to reduce screen time by outsourcing things like to-do’s to voice assistants like Siri.
If Apple could only improve Siri, its own voice assistant, the Watch and AirPods could combine to make something new: a mobile computer that is not tied to a huge screen, that lets you get stuff done on the go without the danger of being sucked in. Imagine if, instead of tapping endlessly on apps, you could just tell your AirPods, “Make me dinner reservations at 7” or “Check with my wife’s calendar to see when we can have a date night this week.”
That candy-colored rectangular glow is too seductive, a trap that leads into a ludic loop of distraction. It’s about time the tech heads, like car companies did with seat belts, are doing something to preserve our neurological safety.
“There is a sense that words have slipped the leash. We think we’re expressing ourselves, but actually we’re just leaving a data imprint for someone else to make use of. Whether we write an email, a Facebook message, store content on a Google drive, or type out a text, all of what we write is sucked into a semantic web.”
“But you can push away from the photo of yourself: it was a younger you, you look different now. Words are different. They feel ever-present, always as if you’ve just said them. It’s harder to disentangle yourself. ‘You will pay for those words’ goes the banal phrase – no one ever says ‘you will pay for that photo’.”
If we are accountable for what we say, why write anything at all if it comes back to bite you? The durability of the written words appears to be riskier than ever.
Facebook can’t pin the blame on the machine-optimizing algorithms. It’s humans who are responsible for managing the equations and policing validity. A recent study also proved that it is humans, not bots, that spread fake news.
Data is the new oil
Even worse, says Tufecki, the precedent sets the stage for those in power to leverage data to their own advantage:
We’re building this infrastructure of surveillance authoritarianism merely to get people to click on ads. And this won’t be Orwell’s authoritarianism. This isn’t “1984.” Now, if authoritarianism is using overt fear to terrorize us, we’ll all be scared, but we’ll know it, we’ll hate it and we’ll resist it.
But if the people in power are using these algorithms to quietly watch us, to judge us and to nudge us, to predict and identify the troublemakers and the rebels, to deploy persuasion architectures at scale and to manipulate individuals one by one using their personal, individual weaknesses and vulnerabilities, and if they’re doing it at scale through our private screens so that we don’t even know what our fellow citizens and neighbors are seeing, that authoritarianism will envelop us like a spider’s web and we may not even know we’re in it.
Tufecki paints the picture of a haunting dystopia at our doorstep. And it’s the social networks, which started off so benign that may be opening the maw of hell.
Screens are contagious. If we see one person look at their phone, we emulate them like we do catching someone yawn.
But the addiction is not totally our fault. With the vibrant colors of apps, the dopamine of Facebook likes and news alerts, on top of serving as a consolidated utility of our camera, wallet, and communications device, our phones are designed to hook us.
It’s amazing that in this post-internet world of surfeit information and 24/7 conversation we can even concentrate at all. We’ve numbed our thumbs from excessive use.
We’ve lost the signal to those little gaps of solitude and doing nothing where we reaped the benefits of a wandering imagination.
Can we get our bored minds back?
There are plenty of options other than riding the Facebook or Google monopoly on our attention. For as many tricks these companies play us, there as many tips to get away from them: turning our screen gray, just sitting and staring outside the window, and at the most extreme: throwing our phone into the ocean.
We can only harvest quality attention if we can escape the torment of distraction and external stimuli fighting for the inside of our heads. The world around us already creates a theater inside our head. We see the world once, with an intrinsic pair of eyes, with no need to record the outside world with a third eye.
“Attention is a form of prayer,” wrote French philosopher Simone Weil. We should insist on slowing down if we’re to restrengthen the human will.
If you’re looking for the best photo-backup service, look no further than Google Photos. Not only does it free up phone space, it creates gifs, adds filters, and stitches images together for you using the magic of artificial intelligence. In the age of image surfeit, Google Photos has been a blessing in disguise, helping people decide what to post or share with friends and family. But today’s news is by far my favorite.
Using its human face identification technology, Google can now detect individual cats and dogs instead of bunching all the animals together. It can even narrow results down to a specific breed. You can also search by or emojis.
It’s about time pets got some recognition. See what I did there 😉
“Reality is an activity of the most august imagination,” said poet Wallace Stevens.
What we call reality emerged from human ingenuity. So if we can take today’s tools and use them for good we’ll naturally have a better future.
Instead, we are building technology that paints a future dystopia. Hackers hijacked Facebook, Google, and Twitter and filled them with fake news during the 2016 election. What did we think was going to happen with free-flowing information? “The art of debugging a computer program is to figure out what you really told the computer to do instead of what you thought you told it to do,” quipped Andrew Singer, director of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Illinois. Meanwhile, Amazon is replacing its workers with bots.
While we can expect software manipulation to continue, there are still reasons to be hopeful. As Tim O’Reilly points out, we should be looking at ways to work with artificial intelligence to fuel productivity and innovation.
We have to make it new. That’s a wonderful line from Ezra Pound that’s always stuck in my brain: “Make it new.” It’s not just true in literature and in art, it’s in our social conscience, in our politics. We have look at the world as it is and the challenges that are facing us, and we have to throw away the old stuck policies where this idea over here is somehow inescapably attached to this other idea. Just break it all apart and put it together in new ways, with fresh ideas and fresh approaches.
We have a choice: we can deny optimism and permit darkness or we can build a brighter future. For every time Google chooses to be evil, or Facebook invades our privacy in an attempt to make stockholders happy, there’s another rocket Elon Musk is building that takes us from New York to Shanghai in 39 minutes.
There’s a lot to be hopeful for, as experiments should continue to be encouraged. The real question is how can we create a society for both rapid technological advancement and reflexive sociopolitical change. How do ‘we make it new’ without throwing out the stuff that made it good in the first place?
One of my favorite features on Google Photos is ‘Rediscover This Day.’ It’ll crawl through your image library and collate a series of images from the same day years ago.
The feature isn’t new; Timehop popularized the retrospective social media feature years ago. However, Facebook and Google Photos were able to scale it.
So what does this have to do with the astronaut?
I snapped this image two years ago but forgot about it. Remember what Om Malik said: “We take too many photos and little time looking at them.” Two years in the smartphone era is like a decade!
What I enjoy about this picture other than the rarity of seeing an astronaut in Grand Central Station is the black and white contrast which makes the spaceman the center of attention. The crowd is noticeable but almost out of focus. The original color version doesn’t have the same noticeable impact.
If you use Google Maps, you’ll notice that the latest version shows ‘areas of interest’ in orange. These are places, according to Google, “where there’s a lot of activities and things to do.”
Why orange? I’m not entirely sure, perhaps because green, blue, gray, and white are already taken — reserved for representations of water, grass, housing, and roads respectively. The patches also seem to indicate a real-life geographic divide between commercial and poorer neighborhoods as seen in the image below.
In any case, all this went through my head as I captured the image above just outside the Farragut West stop on the orange line in DC. But unlike Google maps, there appeared to be nothing to see or do (at least at that moment) in this orange space.
The use of colors, as it’s used in visualizations online and off, appear arbitrary but may contain subtle intention. After all, the map is not the territory; not to mention, orange paint was once more popular than the color blue.
The software and hardware companies like Apple, Google, and Facebook want us to trust them. The theory is that our information is better kept stored with them in a private cloud rather than with the government. Outside America, however, the NSA can collect our information without a search warrant.
The internet companies are not only American-based, their manifest destiny makes them look like hegemonic colonizers.
“This is a dilemma of the feudal internet. We seek protection from these companies because they can offer us security,” says Maciej Cegłowski. “But their business model is to make us more vulnerable, by getting us to surrender more of the details of our lives to their servers, and to put more faith in the algorithms they train on our observed behavior.”
We are all citizens of tech companies, trading privacy for free communication. But the users are the ads and coders are the kings; the latter which convert our interests and attention into ad revenue.
Technology platforms appear to be doing more harm than the good. Most recently, they’ve facilitated fake news and ushered in FOMO-hitting mental health issues.
The internet is as indispensable as water but it’s also a perceivable threat when the few that run the show are creating new problems while hesitating to solve them.
Before Google archived the web and made everything searchable there was the 3″ x 5″ index card used to classify “every known animal, plant, and mineral in the world.” By the 19th century, libraries used index cards as the standard way to store books.
“It’s amazing how much the information revolution we’re still living in can be traced back to a simple 3″ x 5″ piece of card stock.”
If you can find joy in the ordinary and not just the extraordinary moments, you’ll live a much happier life.
When you’re young, it’s the big moments like our first car or getting our first kiss that shapes our lives. As we age, the small things matter — a sip of warm coffee or lunch with a friend.
Joy all comes down to the art of noticing. Says Google’s former mindfulness guru Chade-Meng Tan:
“Noticing sounds trivial, but it is an important meditative practice in its own right. Noticing is the prerequisite of seeing. What we do not notice, we cannot see.”
The practice of noticing everyday moments leads to Meng Tan calls “thin slices of joy,” quite the opposite of “thin slices of anxiety.” Life happens in the moments in between, the dull moments that people usually take for granted.
Whether you are using post-it notes or loose leaf, paper is ideal for getting down thoughts and mapping out ideas quickly. In fact, some Google employees prohibit phones and use paper exclusively to brainstorm. The magic of writing in analog is a controlled speed, flexibility, and focus.
“Everyone can write words, draw boxes, and express his or her ideas with the same clarity.”
If computers are a bicycle for the mind, as Steve Jobs once proclaimed, then writing on paper is like taking a walk. Paper jogs the mind, it is slow yet methodical, allowing it to connect the dots between disparate things.
“As with music, so with thought: when you want clarity, you seek out paper. Paper is the slow food of thought.”
As much as technology facilitates creativity, it can also distract it. Various studies show that taking notes by hand helps students remember more. Physical books, like vinyl, are also still hanging around despite the popularity of e-readers. Meanwhile, handwritten letters are considered more meaningful because of the perceived effort it went into writing and mailing them.
Digital abundance drives up the value of scarce objects like paper. Paper is proving its longevity not just as a nostalgic medium but also because it benefits the process of thinking and planning.
“As long as everyone is thinking and writing stuff on paper, you’re on the golden path.”
While Tesla and Google are perfecting driverless car technology, Uber will be the first to go to market with it. Later this month, the cab company will release 100 specialized Volvo SUVs in the city of Pittsburgh.
While the cars are not entirely autonomous–an Uber engineer will be riding copilot–Uber customers can still use the app to arrange pickups. The service will be free initially to encourage ridership.
Uber’s announcement comes on the heels of Google announcing its own ride-sharing service. For that reason, Uber bought Otto, a truck-startup, to help Uber build autonomous trucks.
“In order to provide digital services in the physical world, we must build sophisticated logistics, artificial intelligence and robotics systems that serve and elevate humanity.” — Travis Kalanick, CEO of Uber
Like Apple, Uber prefers to disrupt itself before others beat it at its own game. The faster Uber moves, the closer relationship it develops with society and the economy at large.
Google is getting into the GIF-creation game with its own app, Motion Stills, and it creates beautiful GIFs.
Our algorithm uses linear programming to compute a virtual camera path that is optimized to recast videos and bursts as if they were filmed using stabilization equipment, yielding a still background or creating cinematic pans to remove shakiness.”
I’ve been experimenting with the app (see examples below). The first thing you’ll notice is that unlike other GIF makers – Tumblr, VSCO, and Boomerang – Google uses Apple’s Live feature to retain the quality of the image bursts.
Google continues to impress me with its attention to photography. I already switched from Dropbox to Google Photos, where technology like Motion Still will eventually be featured.