Are smartphones stealing away our lives?

Moderated by Steve Ranger | September 23, 2013 -- 07:00 GMT (00:00 PDT)

Summary: For better of worse, we're living in a digital world. Jason Perlow and Matt Baxter-Reynolds debate the consequences.

Jason Perlow

Jason Perlow

Yes

or

No

Matt Baxter-Reynolds

Matt Baxter-Reynolds

Best Argument: Yes

67%
33%

Audience Favored: Yes (67%)

The Rebuttal

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Welcome

    To our weekly Great Debate series. Today, Jason Perlow and Matt Baxter-Reynolds face off over the power of smartphones. Are you ready?

    Posted by Steve Ranger

    All set

    I'm ready.

    Jason Perlow

    I am for Yes

    Me too

    I'm prepared.

    Matt Baxter-Reynolds

    I am for No

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Problems, problems

    What's the problem with smartphones? How does it manifest itself?

    Posted by Steve Ranger

    The fast track to nitwit

    So, the issue isn't so much smartphones per se but our increasing reliance on mobile technology combined with an irresistible cocktail of social networking in which there are incentives for constant participation or sharing of information as well as incessant information "snacking".

    Basically the problem comes down to what Yale University computer science professor David Gelernter has termed the "lifestream" and what I have referred to as "The fast track to nitwit."  

    In summary, the smartphone/social networking cocktail combined with this penchant for information snacking is a perfect storm for artificially created autism spectrum disorders and it makes antisocial behavior, in the form of a non-stop feedback loop the new accepted norm.

    Jason Perlow

    I am for Yes

    Staying focused

    Jason's argument is that by accessing one's digital life through a smartphone, you're missing out on all the good stuff that's happening in the real-world. This presupposes a position that everything in the real life is better by definition because it is "real" and not "digital".

    The actual problem with smartphones is that is can damage the user's ability to focus and remain on task, but that's not necessarily what we're talking about here.

    Matt Baxter-Reynolds

    I am for No

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Morals

    But isn't technology morally neutral?  It's how we use it, surely?

    Posted by Steve Ranger

    Society sets the standards

    Technology may be morally neutral but society as a whole establishes the norms. Once we decide collectively as a society what is socially acceptable to do, then there's no turning back. For example, in the 1920s radio became a popular form of entertainment which started to displace various social activities. In the 1950's television re-enforced this and the "Boob Tube" became part of our lexicon.

    The move towards Personal Computing starting in the early 1980s added additional societal detachment -- by comparison radio and TV could be enjoyed in groups, whereas the PC and online interaction was by nature a single user activity. With smartphones and mobile devices we've extended that introversion and ersatz social activity to anywhere there's a wireless data connection.

    Jason Perlow

    I am for Yes

    We control technology

    Great way to put it, but my view is that we as as society have intentionally built post-PC devices (smartphones and tablets) specifically as devices optimized to be relationship-centric and access one's digital life in a always-available, always-connected manner.

    Therefore, they're not really neutral *per se* -- they're doing what we want them to do.

    Matt Baxter-Reynolds

    I am for No

  • Great Debate Moderator

    The tipping point

    When did our gadgets start to create these issues? What was the tipping point? The mobile phone, the PDA or the smartphone or something else?

    Posted by Steve Ranger

    Smartphones bringing out the worst in us

    So while we can certainly point towards societal detachment with the introduction of radio and television, those were only consumptive technologies rather than interactive ones.

    The widespread use of the PC and the rise of online services and the use of the Internet outside of academia was probably one tipping point, and the mobile phone along with texting was another one. Once these technologies were combined into the smartphone, the perfect device for bringing out the worst of our inner antisocial qualities was born.

    Jason Perlow

    I am for Yes

    The iPhone

    It was the convergence of digital social networking services reaching a point of maturity and mass, combined with the introduction of the iPhone. This was the tipping point that created the post-PC era. The post-PC era is defined by relationship-centric computing, digital life, etc.

    Matt Baxter-Reynolds

    I am for No

  • Great Debate Moderator

    A benefit?

    Don't smartphones make us more connected, not less? Surely the benefits outweigh the problems?

    Posted by Steve Ranger

    In moderation

    One could argue that any technology when applied in moderation is beneficial. Becoming connected to other people is always a good thing, but there are qualitative aspects of making connections. I'm having a hard time believing that Facebook, Instagram, Vine or Twitter are high-value experiences compared to say, email or a VOIP/Video conferencing session between colleagues or distant family members.

    Jason Perlow

    I am for Yes

    A benefit

    Yes. To reiterate my position, my view is the "only" reason they exist is to connect us through to the people and things that we love.

    Matt Baxter-Reynolds

    I am for No

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Other tech devices: Good or bad?

    Is it just smartphones that are affecting us? What about PCs, tablets, games consoles?

    Posted by Steve Ranger

    They have their moments

    Smartphones and Tablets just so happen to be the latest and greatest tool for freebasing social networking and information snacking -- eventually, there will be other avenues for doing this, such as through wearable computing devices.

    Game consoles and PC gaming, interestingly enough, are more of a high-value experience particularly if they involve multiplayer games. It's certainly a more complex form of social interaction than of the standard quick share/quick consume model of social networking.

    However, too much gaming and staying inside too much is not great for us as a society either.

    Jason Perlow

    I am for Yes

    Yes they do

    The value comes from the services that we access and the relationships that connect through them. Any technology can do this, so yes, PCs, games consoles, etc.

    Matt Baxter-Reynolds

    I am for No

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Gadgets for good or evil

    What's the broader impact of our obsession with our gadgets? Long term what does it do to society, for good and for ill?

    Posted by Steve Ranger

    The age factor

    Those who have lived through the evolution of mobile computing can still remember an age when we didn't have these devices and still have the capability to "turn off", but even so it's still difficult to do for those people, including myself. What is most concerning is the generation of people who are growing up with smartphones and cannot remember life without them, or never knew a time when this form of behavior was socially unacceptable

    Jason Perlow

    I am for Yes

    They're not gadgets

    I think it's dangerous to talk about "gadgets." These are not little PDAs that only geeks got anything out of. Smartphones have minimal barriers to entry in every sense, yet give access to unimaginable power to their users, throughout all aspects of human society.

    Take someone living in an African village with no main power, no mains water. If they have a phone, they can access education services, health services, etc. They can build relationships and change their lives.

    We've built systems that create greater human interconnectedness than anything that's gone before. They're not geeky gadgets!

    Matt Baxter-Reynolds

    I am for No

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Keeping it under control

     Apart from wearing tin foil hats, what can we do to ameliorate the impact of smartphones and other gadgetry?

    Posted by Steve Ranger

    Monitoring needed

    So I'm not advocating neo-Luddism of any kind here. I think that we can put mechanisms into our technology that tells us that we need to take a "time out." Just like the fitness sensors that we have built into our phones and bluetooth devices that count our calories and miles walked, it would also be possible to track how much we are using our technology and create thresholds which inform us that we need to take a rest.

    We also need to tell people when they are acting in a socially unacceptable manner and try not to be part of the problem ourselves.

    Additionally, as my colleague James Kendrick points out, human beings just plain need to get out and be with other people more.

    Jason Perlow

    I am for Yes

    Hard to focus

    There are, for sure, real problems in this brave new world.

    One I struggle with is finding it hard to focus, and/or being too easily distracted. Other's have written about this. There are other problems in that certain types of crime is easier, bullying is easier, kids are marinated daily in a way of being with others that their parents don't understand. There are many more.

    It's those darker aspects that we need to understand as a society, then take that understanding and us all adjust and change in line with the technology that we're building.

    Matt Baxter-Reynolds

    I am for No

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Wearable computing

    What about wearable computing (Google Glass, smart watches and more)? Will the next generation of gadgets make things better or worse?

    Posted by Steve Ranger

    No checks

    Wearables will allow people to be antisocial in a nearly undetectable manner. In my opinion that makes it worse, because nobody on the other side of the eyepiece will truly know whether they are being paid attention to or not. This is pretty much the ultimate evolution, short of a cybernetic implant or the mythical technological singularity, of an artificially created autism spectrum disorder.

    Jason Perlow

    I am for Yes

    It's a good thing

    Anything we do now will be about improving the interconnectedness. If you're like me, you'll think it's a good thing.

    Matt Baxter-Reynolds

    I am for No

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Keeping it under control

    What's the best way of using technology without it taking over your life?

    Posted by Steve Ranger

    Just turn it off

    So as I have said in earlier writings, we are becoming a society of anxious, sleep-deprived, irritable stress-heads. Add the "lifestreams" to this mix and we're all at risk of becoming attention challenged and socially inept as well.

    My earlier advice is simply to turn the devices off and engage in basic social activities more often. Cook with people and have discussions, without your devices at the dinner table. Engage in group exercise like team sports, or even engage in solitary exercise to clear your mind and to meditate. And while long-form reading of books and newspapers is not a social activity per se, it stimulates the brain differently than social networking services do.

    Jason Perlow

    I am for Yes

    Take charge

    The one thing most of us can do, I think, is look to gain focus and maintain control over distractions.

    Matt Baxter-Reynolds

    I am for No

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Deja vu?

    Isn't this something we've been wrestling with since we invented writing, and the wheel?

    Posted by Steve Ranger

    No, it's a new challenge

    No, I fundamentally disagree with this. Writing and the Wheel created modern society. What we've been debating today has been actively dismantling it

    Jason Perlow

    I am for Yes

    Yes, it's societal change

    Yes. This is classic "technology leads to sociological change". All technology is like that -- that's why we invent it.

    You're talking about "high technology" here. But technology has always sought to improve the human experience, even if the path through has been sketchy. (Technology here can be anything -- the wheel, four-field crop location, a national health service, etc.)

    Matt Baxter-Reynolds

    I am for No

  • Great Debate Moderator

    The human factor

    Is technology making us better or worse at being human?

    Posted by Steve Ranger

    Brings out the best and the worst

    It can enable us reach out to people in ways that were never possible before, but at the same time, it is also extremely capable of bringing out the absolute worst of humanity as well. Anything that enhances the human condition is a positive thing, but anything that displaces basic forms of human interaction will potentially destroy us, if we are to believe E.M. Forster, who predicted the rise of the Internet in 1909 with his short story "The Machine Stops."

    Jason Perlow

    I am for Yes

    Brings out the best

    Better. Much, much better, in every way.

    Matt Baxter-Reynolds

    I am for No

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Thanks

    I'm sure you'll agree that this is a very interesting question and the debater's handled both sides with authority. Stay tuned on Wednesday for the final arguments and Thursday when I post my final verdict. In the meantime, check out the comments and add your own. And don't forget to vote. Until next week...

    Posted by Steve Ranger

Talkback

31 comments
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  • humm...

    " 'Lifestreams' experienced on today's smartphones and other mobile devices are replacing traditional computing experiences and in many cases intruding on actual life experiences."

    ... if you're a blogger. Don't know anybody else who "lifestreams," though.

    "But as this recently published YouTube video"

    Amusing, although I should note that the YouTube video was staged. It intentionally exaggerates how many people pull out their cell phones in order to make its point.

    "especially if you consider the future . . ."

    Nobody knows "the future." It's become a meaningless catch-phrase in blogging circles.

    " . . . is to prove to you all that my camp -- that digital and real-life relationships are converging and will one day be indistinguishable . . ."

    There's no way to prove the future, sorry. And attempts to do so have always failed; the world never quite turns out the way people predict it does.

    . . . and there's no real way you're likely to prove to me that "relationships are converging." And to be honest, that proves Jason's side, not yours.


    The only thing I think I'm gonna see here is proof that tech bloggers are out of touch with reality.
    CobraA1
    Reply 17 Votes I'm Undecided
  • Smartphones are stealing our lives away

    Especially for generation Y and after
    decosailor@...
    Reply 11 Votes I'm for Yes
  • Like so many others things we BLAME for our shortcomings, the ...

    ... smartphone is the latest example. The smartphone is one of those devices that distracts us from our boredom but, in reality, it is our choice to fall prey to these devices. I am afraid that I am like so many others. I too am addicted but it is not the device that is to blame. It is ourselves - who let our employers, our families, and our friends, have access to us 24/7.
    M Wagner
    Reply 13 Votes I'm for No
    • This I'll agree with.

      "It is ourselves - who let our employers, our families, and our friends, have access to us 24/7."

      This I'll agree with. When all is said and done - we need to accept responsibility for our own actions.

      And that's something I don't see a lot of in bloggers. They like to blame things like smart phones and "the inevitable future" for their own actions.
      CobraA1
      Reply 5 Votes I'm Undecided
  • Smarthphones

    We are a digital society... and our smart phones help us access that society.. we don't have photo albums and dusty DVDs and VCR tapes of our special events. Our media "lives" in the cloud, often taken by our phones, viewed on our phones, Etc. This is what Jason means by life streams.. that nearly a stream of consciousness digital capturing of our lives; many of us are stopping to upload pictures before we eat, Tweet before we view entertainment, and take extra photos and videos during our trips and adventures.

    The question if we don't check-in, upload a picture and a video and send a few Tweets, do we feel the non digital experience is less worthy or even worthless?

    Sharing the digital artifacts of my life with my friends, co-workers and family has made me closer to them, I interact with people I don't normally interact with and the interaction range from the silly to sublime.
    Harry Hawk
    Reply 6 Votes I'm Undecided
  • its about the experienced world

    The scope of our experienced world is no longer centered around our physical location. To those that WANT the sphere of experience to be localized, it feels offensive when the digitally involved person walks by without any awareness of the other's presence.

    I was biking to the restaurant to pick up dinner, BT headset on, audio stimulus and visual status info flowing into my squishy brain; and the squishy brain of another human walked by the other way, involved in his visual stimulus and text conversation with yet another squishy brain somewhere else. We each caused no trouble for the other, and pleasantly proceeded forward involved in our own digital worlds. To another, non-digital-sentient, my inability and unwillingness to hear or acknowledge their presence I suppose could be really irritating. To bad. You might be famous and noteworthy to someone else; you aren't to me.
    rwwff
    Reply 13 Votes I'm for No
  • I have no life to steal.

    nt
    ye
    Reply 11 Votes I'm Undecided
  • Life vs. Cyber Life

    This is something we all battle with, internally, even if we don't think about it. One the front end, we are connected, plugged in and content flowing with the everyday lives of the cyber world. On the back end, we are managing our lives, our families and our sanity. Without the balance of the two, where would we be? Life can only rule you if you let it. Your phone is not an extension of you - it is a tool, just like your computer, your pen, your clock. If you let it take over your personal relationships, that is your choice. We have technology to thank for our careers, our income and most definitely our lives. Phones are tech, they aren't our lives.
    DesertedRoad
    Reply 11 Votes I'm for No
  • Just have to go off grid every once in a while...

    I just go off grid overy once in a while...don't anwer the phone, no texts, no internet, no Facebook, etc...partake in my family and hobbies for several evening and weekends...do more of what I like to do and not what I have to do, or at least what others think I have to do...too many think too much is too important...when in the big picture, little really is...and with age comes wisdom...hopefully you learn what is more important...
    Cubbie
    Reply 20 Votes I'm for Yes
  • its the user not the phone

    if you want to spend your life on trivia - facebook and twitter which are not much more than technology enhanced gossip, then yes, it is stealing your life.

    But checking my emails whilst waiting for something else (wife trying on dresses, checkout line at supermarket) enables me to use what were wasted moments for something useful

    The old saying - "a bad craftsman blames his tools" could be rewritten as "an unfocussed person blames their smartphone for wasting their time"
    tony@...
    Reply 16 Votes I'm for No