A Bad Line

6th January 2012

Do you always answer your mobile phone? Do you feel bereft if it’s not surgically attached to your wrist? Do you have teenagers who never look up from their hand-held devices?

Clare Finney investigates whether the ‘smart’ in smartphones is really justified…

They’ve been accused of causing cancer, brain tumours, misspent youth and broken relationships. They’re the bane of cinemas, dinner tables and quiet coaches. Yet if there is one thing that mobile phones could not be accused of – in their surprisingly short history – it’s hampering conversation. They are, after all, the ultimate communication device. Or are they?

Five months ago, research denounced owners of so-called smartphones as over 40 per cent more ‘addicted’ than those with stupid ones – not because they were speaking more, but because they weren’t. Instead they were, according to Ofcom’s report, surfing the Internet, or on social networking sites (a oxymoron if ever there was), or downloading version 13.9 of Angry Birds. When asked if they used their smartphone while socialising with others, over half (51 per cent) of adults and two thirds (65 per cent) of teenagers, confessed they did so regularly; nearly a quarter admitted to checking it at the dinner table. So when the famously technophilic sociologist Sherry Turkle caused outrage by throwing away her Blackberry, announcing that “we are so busy communicating that we don't have time to sit down and have a conversation’’, it appeared that the writing was on the Facebook wall for media that, under the guise of protecting us, was seemingly driving us apart.

Turkle’s book is called Alone Together, an astute and discomfiting reference to the sight of families and friends sitting together, heads in their respective handsets. In it, she quotes from a stream of desperate phoneoholics – the people who check their phones during funerals, the woman who risks her children’s lives when driving for the sake of the ‘little red light’ on her phone – as well as from her own experience; primarily her guilt at missing her daughter grow up. Yet when I ask Judy Wajcman, Head of Sociology at London School of Economics, what she thought of Turkle’s assessment, she seems to be surprisingly unconcerned.

“Sherry is American and it is a very American argument,” Wajcman explains. “I respect her greatly as a sociologist but her thesis simply is not relevant over here.” When Turkle lectured at LSE last summer Wajcman said the response was one of confusion, not recognition. “It is so much about the environment there – the lack of public space, the fear around children, issues that are quite specific to the states”. Criticising Turkle’s book for being “very much about her daughter”, Wajcman then goes on to deliver her “anecdotal equivalent”: her son, who at 16 is out all the time with his friends and playing soccer and the proud owner of a Blackberry. She says it half tongue-in-cheek but her point is well made. In our rush to save our children and ourselves from new technologies, it is easy to forget that for the vast majority of us the idea of a good night is not one spent on our iPhones. Are we are at risk of Photoshopping the smartphone picture a little blacker than it actually is?

The answer, according to Wajcman, is unequivocally ‘yes’ – and, in response to the borderline hysterical media reaction (‘Welcome to the toilet-talking, midnight phone-junkie generation’ was one choice headline, and that from the normally staid Guardian), she rejoins that “there is a more mundane story to tell: the mobile is useful”. Drawing on research that she herself conducted into Blackberry usage, Wajcman describes how she set out to expose its effect on work hours, only to find that people were using it more for ringing friends and family than for anything else. “Even if it’s just what time the kids are home, or what to get for supper, or where to meet,” she laughs suddenly. “It’s not a particularly sexy topic for a journalist, but there we are.” If I want literature on addiction to technology I should try television, she adds wryly; she has plenty.

For the most part this appears to be a fairly reasonable observation; as anyone who has found themselves stranded at the station or forgotten a meeting time will agree, mobile phones do make life a lot easier. Yet there is a more sinister side to this line. When I seek to clarify just what their report meant by ‘addiction’, Ofcom’s Head of Research Richard Roocroft tells me that it “probably comes from ease of use; it's bringing together things people did before into one device people carry round with them.” Not only are people with smartphones more likely to call, text and email people, they’re also inevitably more likely to be distracted by the internet than those whose only means of access is the computer. As Richard points out, “it’s just easier to Google on your phone than go to the bother of switching [the computer] on.” Sad as it sounds, the 50 per cent of people who are so impatient they would rather use their phone than wait any longer for Facebook, Twitter or the football scores suggest this is more than a passing trend.

The implications of this are manifold. Firstly, the smartphone and its apps are starting to intrude on activities that since the dawn of civilisation have remained undisturbed. In the Ofcom study both sleeping and eating were listed as times when the smartphone takes priority – and to the unfettered delight of media commentators everywhere, a fifth of us text from the toilet. If this is our attitude to these most sacred of personal rituals, it is depressingly easy to imagine how we treat the people around us.

Regardless of what Wajcman says, any child whose parent is in law, business or finance will know that ‘crackberries’ are so called for a reason. If smartphone users are more likely to make personal calls at work, the reverse is also true: 70 per cent, according to Ofcom, are more likely to take work calls while on holiday. Outside of work, as we’ve seen, over half of us use our phone while socialising with others. “I remember, not so long ago, when a student remarked on the first time a friend interrupted a conversation to take a call,” writes Turkle. “He said ‘it made me feel like he was putting me on pause’.” These days it’s taken as read that people will always pick up the phone. Like it or not, every human these days must learn to have a pause button.

When we speak, Ofcom’s Mr Roocroft is eager to stress that “when we say they are addicted to smartphone we don’t classify that as a medical addiction; we see it as positive engagement. It’s the language people use to say they use it a lot.” But addiction as sociologists and psychologists know it is not so easily pinned down. In a report commissioned by Motorola, researchers pointed to teenagers’ increasing propensity to use their thumbs more than their fingers as a symptom of over texting. Others, more worryingly, have accused smart mobiles of mimicking or stimulating existing neurotransmitter systems by rewarding our desire for human contact quickly – Turkle’s ‘lure of the little red light’ in other words – with the result that they are supplanting real relationships that take more time to fill that need.

Of course mobile phones, and smartphones in particular, have not been around long enough for us to draw hard and fast conclusions about their long term effects. Yet Turkle’s research, not to mention July’s headline news that ready access to the Internet is changing the way our brain remembers information, gave scientific substance to the rumour that phones affect us subconsciously. “Our brains rely on the Internet for memory in much the same way they rely on the memory of a friend, family member or co-worker,” said the report, from Columbia University in the States. “We remember less through knowing information itself than by knowing where the information can be found.” These studies may well be American, but given the UK’s track record in following in our cousin’s footsteps we have every reason to take heed.

For my own part I can only report what I myself have witnessed: the Blackberrying parent turning a deaf ear to their child; the total want of awareness shown by people who text as they walk down the street; the slow but steady way meeting up or chatting with some friends has been replaced by Facebook and SMS. I cannot believe that three words and a ‘smiley face’ emoticon is now considered an effective substitute for a face-to-face interaction. Conversations with others, and the first findings of research into the issue suggest that I am not alone.

Yet, amongst all the cyber clamour of sociologists, psychologists, geeks and ordinary Joes debating the rights and wrongs in technology, the most resonant point comes from neuroscientist Johan Lehrer, who reviewed Turkle’s book in The New York Times this year. “If the Internet is such an alienating force,” he says, “then why can’t we escape it? If Facebook is so insufferable, then why do hundreds of millions of people check their page every day? Why did I just text my wife instead of calling her?”

Easy as it to blame the technology, the old adage about tools and workmen is as relevant as it ever was. As Wajcman points out, “we place too much emphasis on the device. The problem is almost always the people using it.”

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