Internet Intervention

Technology. Marvellous, isn’t it? Why, at this very moment I am using the marvels of technology to type these very words which can be read by anyone on this globe with an internet connection. At the moment that is over 3 billion people who are online, just under half the world’s population. And, yes, the various tech giants are pushing hard to get as many of the rest online too. Marvellous. However, not everyone thinks all this tech is a good thing. Human innovation has transformed the way we live, often for the better. But as our technologies grow more powerful, so do their consequences. There are voices, growing in number and in decibels, who are decrying the various darker aspects of our ongoing love affair with all things digital. For a start, there is the issue of who is actually behind that article you just read.

Several years ago I went to a mosque in sunny Birmingham to listen to a Muslim scholar. I cannot recall the name of the speaker or what the topic was, but I do remember the preacher saying we should be careful when reading about Islam on the internet. He warned the gathered congregation that we should try to find out who actually wrote the article. Was it a Muslim? Was it a learned Muslim? A confused Muslim? An enemy of Islam, deliberately trying to confuse and obfuscate? He went one step further and suggested the article could indeed be written by a pesky jinn, a creature from the netherworld.

As soon as I heard this I started thinking how one could prove that an article on the web was or was not written by such a creature. Could we devise some sort of Islamic Turing test? Whilst this particular notion may seem rather farfetched, more recently people are asking if, when we are online, are we dealing with humans or bots. With the rise of Amazon’s Alexa, Google’s Home Hub, chatbots, and bots galore on social media (Twitter has taken down a reported 6m bot accounts this year alone), we are spending more and more of our time talking to non-human entities. And as the line between human and digital voices blurs, perhaps we should be asking to whom exactly are we talking to? The comedian John Mulaney does a brilliant bit of stand up about how crazy this particular situation has become…

Everything’s fast now and it’s totally unreasonable. The world is run by computers. The world is run by robots and sometimes they ask us if we’re a robot, just because we’re trying to log on and look at our own stuff, multiple times a day. “May I see my stuff please?” “I smell a robot! Prove, prove, prove you’re not a robot. Look at these curvy letters, much curvier than most letters, wouldn’t you say? No robot could ever read these. You look, mortal, if ye be, you look and you type what you think you see? Is it an ‘E’ or is it a ‘3’? That’s up to ye. The passwords have passed, you’ve correctly guessed. But now it’s time for the robot test! I’ve devised a question no robot could ever answer. Which of these pictures does not have a stop sign in it?” What?! You spend a lot of your day telling a robot that you’re not a robot. Think about that for two minutes and tell me you don’t want to walk into the ocean. – John Mulaney, 15 Apr 2018, from the opening monologue of Saturday Night Live

These types of activities that many of us engage in online on a regular basis are a weird turn of events. The Turing test was originally conceived as a way of enabling us humans to determine whether a machine could respond in such a way that one couldn’t tell whether it was a human or a robot. But now we have wandered into a topsy-turvy world in which the machines make us humans jump through hoops to prove that we are humans and not robots. We began by shaping our tools and now it seems our tools are shaping us.

This is just one of many concerns about technology. There are plenty of others unfortunately, such as how sexism flourishes online, a point recently brought into sharp focus by the sister of Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook:

With regards to the toxic moment we are in, it is without doubt that social media has allowed this to happen. It has created the opportunity for men with anti-feminist ideas to broadcast their views to more people than ever before – and to spread conspiracy theories, lies and misinformation. Social media has elevated misogyny to entirely new levels of violence and virulence. – Donna Zuckerberg

The internet overall is vastly male dominated. Men are on average 33.5% more likely to have internet access than women, according to the Inclusive Internet Index, a survey of 86 countries that are home to 91% of the global population. In some poor, urban areas, men outnumber women online by as much as two to one. The main reason is due to inequalities in education. Women across the world do more unpaid care work than men, and so have less free time and less money than men, and so are less likely to own and use a mobile phone, or spend time on the internet. It is no surprise that not knowing how and not being able to afford it, can act as barriers to being online.

They also have to contend with various patriarchal societies where technology, and the wider online world, are seen as male preserves. And, to be honest, with the amount of sexism online, many of them may not want to. I personally know of at least three women who are no longer on Facebook due to the unwanted male attention they were constantly receiving. Simply put, misogyny and sexism are rife on “the glory hole that is the internet” (to grossly quote the New York based comedian Fareeha Khan).

Other tech related issues include increased narcissism due to the increased amount of selfies we take, the addictive nature of screen time (especially for kids), technological progress offering us more and more bewildering choice, and too many others to mention. These issues, and more, are discussed in the articles presented below. As always only selected quotes are presented, but each article is well worth reading in full…

Posting selfies makes you more narcissistic…

Posting Lots Of Selfies Makes You More Narcissistic, Study Suggests

Chris Baynes, 09 Nov 2018,

Excessive use of social media, in particular by posting pictures and selfies, is linked to a subsequent increase in narcissism, according to a new study.

Heavy users of platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat displayed a 25-per-cent average rise in narcissistic behaviour over four months, the research found. Psychologists at Swansea University and Milan University studied personality changes in 74 people aged 18 to 34. They also assessed participants’ use of social media over a four-month period. The researchers found “problematic” use of visual forms of social media, such as posting selfies, “appears to drive levels of narcissism” in a way that primarily textual usage does not.

Internet usage is defined as problematic when there are multiple negative impacts on an individual’s life, such as withdrawal effects when disconnected and interference with friendships.

All but one of the study’s participants used social media, with their average usage – excluding for work – about three hours a day. Some reported using social media for as much as eight hours a day for non-work related purposes. Facebook was used by 60 per cent of participants, while a quarter used Instagram and 13 per cent used Twitter and Snapchat each. More than two-thirds of the participants primarily used social media for posting images.

Over the four months, the increase in narcissistic traits took many of the participants above the clinical cut-off for Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Narcissism is a personality characteristic that can involve grandiose exhibitionism, a sense of entitlement, and exploiting others.

Professor Phil Reed, of the Department of Psychology at Swansea University, said: “There have been suggestions of links between narcissism and the use of visual postings on social media, such as Facebook, but, until this study, it was not known if narcissists use this form of social media more, or whether using such platforms is associated with the subsequent growth in narcissism. The results of this study suggest that both occur, but show that posting selfies can increase narcissism. Taking our sample as representative of the population, which there is no reason to doubt, this means that about 20 per cent of people may be at risk of developing such narcissistic traits associated with their excessive visual social media use. That the predominant usage of social media for the participants was visual, mainly through Facebook, suggests the growth of this personality problem could be seen increasingly more often, unless we recognise the dangers in this form of communication.”

In fact, selfies can kill you…

I’m Not Surprised An Israeli Teen Fell To His Death Taking A Selfie On Holiday – I Used To Be That Obsessive Myself

Shappi Khorsandi, 07 Sep 2018,

In the news this week I read that an 18-year-old boy fell 800ft and died as he tried to take a selfie at the edge of a waterfall in Yosemite National Park.

Do we, as parents, not have enough to worry about already? His poor mother. From when he was little, she would have warned him to wrap up against the cold, to eat his greens otherwise he won’t grow strong. She would have instilled in him the term “stranger danger”, trained him to cross roads sensibly and before the young Israeli set off on this wonderful adventure in America, she would have kissed him goodbye and told him to take care of himself.

Except his world was very different to the one she grew up in. Her son was raised in the culture of “likes”, reporting his every experience on social media rather than living in the moment.

It seems now, next to “don’t go off with a stranger” or “look both ways before you cross the road”, we now have to tell our kids: “Don’t lean over backwards when you’re standing in a canyon because no amount of Instagram likes is worth breaking your mother’s heart.” It’s maddening. He’s not the first and I doubt he will be the last.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: selfies are a pox on us all and the sooner our culture tires of this soulless, narcissistic practice, the better. I want to go back to the halcyon days when picture-taking was more natural – when we are laughing so hard that our faces looked like a scrunched-up paper bag or perhaps are in the midst of a deep and meaningful chat at a Christmas party about a friend’s divorce and have completely forgotten we are wearing an orange paper party hat.

Selfies don’t capture a moment – they kill it. I know, because I used to be pretty obsessed with them myself.

A few years ago, I was in the Vatican, gazing up at the Sistine Chapel. My boyfriend at the time sensed my angst at the “no photo” signs we had seen. He looked at me, disappointed, and said, “You’re thinking of how you can take a selfie, aren’t you?” Yes, I was. And all I took away from seeing one of the Wonders of the World, was how relieved I was that I’d snuck one in.

The desire to document the moment wrecked my chance of treasuring it. My memory of that day isn’t of seeing Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel; it is of my boyfriend seething, exasperated with me, and me eyeing the security guard, heart-in-mouth, taking a bloody picture and not being able to rest until I’d posted it. I might as well have visited McDonald’s for all the joy I got out of it. It becomes a compulsion to do something at the expense of everything else: your enjoyment, the happiness of your partner, and, in the most tragic cases, your own life.

The same boyfriend threatened to leave me at Glastonbury one year when the Dalai Lama surprised the crowd by joining Patti Smith on stage. Instead of looking at the stage, I scrambled around looking for my phone which I’d tucked into my bra and took pictures of the Dalai Lama as my soon-to-be-ex-boyfriend stood there in anger. I managed to ruin his moment as well as my own, but I also managed to record Patti Smith yelling at the crowd to “put your phones down and live in the f**king moment” which I promptly posted on Facebook, while my boyfriend’s love for me drained from him forever.

The best photos of us are taken by other people. They are not the ones from the same flattering angle, with the same “photo face” taken by ourselves.

One of the sweetest, funniest sights I have ever seen is my dad sliding down a wide slide at Center Parcs in a star shape, spinning as he went down, just after the lifeguard told him spinning is not allowed. He is a small man who looks like wholemeal Willy Nelson. I often play the vision back in my mind and have a little chuckle. No one took a picture of it. It’s my own little piece of joy that I share with people when I feel like it.

I’ve stopped taking my phone out when I’m with my children too. As long as they are with me, there are no emergencies that cannot wait and frankly, I hope they never have the time to sit and look at the thousands of photos I’ve taken of them; they should always be too busy having adventures. I hope one day they will be staring up at the Sistine Chapel holding on to nothing except perhaps the hand of their dear old mum – who would very much like to see it again.

Phone Devil

Addiction risks for kids are high…

A Dark Consensus About Screens And Kids Begins To Emerge In Silicon Valley

Nellie Bowles, 26 Oct 2018,

The people who are closest to a thing are often the most wary of it. Technologists know how phones really work, and many have decided they don’t want their own children anywhere near them.

A wariness that has been slowly brewing is turning into a regionwide consensus: The benefits of screens as a learning tool are overblown, and the risks for addiction and stunting development seem high. The debate in Silicon Valley now is about how much exposure to phones is O.K.

“Doing no screen time is almost easier than doing a little,” said Kristin Stecher, a former social computing researcher married to a Facebook engineer. “If my kids do get it at all, they just want it more.”

Ms. Stecher, 37, and her husband, Rushabh Doshi, researched screen time and came to a simple conclusion: they wanted almost none of it in their house. Their daughters, ages 5 and 3, have no screen time “budget,” no regular hours they are allowed to be on screens. The only time a screen can be used is during the travel portion of a long car ride (the four-hour drive to Tahoe counts) or during a plane trip.

Some of the people who built video programs are now horrified by how many places a child can now watch a video. Asked about limiting screen time for children, Hunter Walk, a venture capitalist who for years directed product for YouTube at Google, sent a photo of a potty training toilet with an iPad attached and wrote: “Hashtag ‘products we didn’t buy.’”

Athena Chavarria, who worked as an executive assistant at Facebook and is now at Mark Zuckerberg’s philanthropic arm, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, said: “I am convinced the devil lives in our phones and is wreaking havoc on our children.”

Ms. Chavarria did not let her children have cellphones until high school, and even now bans phone use in the car and severely limits it at home. She said she lives by the mantra that the last child in the class to get a phone wins. Her daughter did not get a phone until she started ninth grade.

“Other parents are like, ‘Aren’t you worried you don’t know where your kids are when you can’t find them?’” Ms. Chavarria said. “And I’m like, ‘No, I do not need to know where my kids are every second of the day.’”

For longtime tech leaders, watching how the tools they built affect their children has felt like a reckoning on their life and work.

Among those is Chris Anderson, the former editor of Wired and now the chief executive of a robotics and drone company. He is also the founder of “On the scale between candy and crack cocaine, it’s closer to crack cocaine,” Mr. Anderson said of screens.

Technologists building these products and writers observing the tech revolution were naïve, he said. “We thought we could control it,” Mr. Anderson said. “And this is beyond our power to control. This is going straight to the pleasure centers of the developing brain. This is beyond our capacity as regular parents to understand.”

He has five children and 12 tech rules. They include: no phones until the summer before high school, no screens in bedrooms, network-level content blocking, no social media until age 13, no iPads at all and screen time schedules enforced by Google Wifi that he controls from his phone. Bad behavior? The child goes offline for 24 hours.

“I didn’t know what we were doing to their brains until I started to observe the symptoms and the consequences. This is scar tissue talking. We’ve made every mistake in the book, and I think we got it wrong with some of my kids. We glimpsed into the chasm of addiction, and there were some lost years, which we feel bad about,” Mr. Anderson said.

His children attended private elementary school, where he saw the administration introduce iPads and smart whiteboards, only to “descend into chaos and then pull back from it all.”

This idea that Silicon Valley parents are wary about tech is not new. The godfathers of tech expressed these concerns years ago, and concern has been loudest from the top.

Tim Cook, the C.E.O. of Apple, said earlier this year that he would not let his nephew join social networks. Bill Gates banned cellphones until his children were teenagers, and Melinda Gates wrote that she wished they had waited even longer. Steve Jobs would not let his young children near iPads.

But in the last year, a fleet of high-profile Silicon Valley defectors have been sounding alarms in increasingly dire terms about what these gadgets do to the human brain. Suddenly rank-and-file Silicon Valley workers are obsessed. No-tech homes are cropping up across the region. Nannies are being asked to sign no-phone contracts.

Those who have exposed their children to screens try to talk them out of addiction by explaining how the tech works. John Lilly, a Silicon Valley-based venture capitalist with Greylock Partners and the former C.E.O. of Mozilla, said he tries to help his 13-year-old son understand that he is being manipulated by those who built the technology. “I try to tell him somebody wrote code to make you feel this way — I’m trying to help him understand how things are made, the values that are going into things and what people are doing to create that feeling,” Mr. Lilly said. “And he’s like, ‘I just want to spend my 20 bucks to get my Fortnite skins.’”

Progress ain’t all it’s cracked up to be…

Black And White TVs Are A Lo-Fi Rebuke To A World Gone Wrong

Stuart Jeffries, 09 Nov 2018,

The UK has 7,000 households that shun colour television. They may be on to something.

A report by TV Licensing this week shows that, more than half a century after colour broadcasts began, over 7,000 people still watch television in black and white.

Why do some still opt for black and white? They can’t all be cheapskates who would rather pay just £49 a year for a black and white licence compared with almost £145.50 for a colour one. Black and white TV is like black and white photography and cinema: for some it’s aesthetically superior, more potently expressive. If you colourised a Mapplethorpe, a Weegee, a Fay Godwin, that glisteningly beautiful black and white of Alexander Mackendrick’s film Sweet Smell of Success, or indeed most of the great Hollywood genre called film noir, you should be arrested for cultural vandalism if not murder, since, in a sense, you would be sucking the life out of them.

One champion of black and white, TV historian Jeffrey Borinsky, asked rhetorically yesterday: “Who wants all this new-fangled 4K ultra HD, satellite dishes or a screen that’s bigger than your room when you can have glorious black and white TV?” Viewed thus, black and white TV is like craft beer, lo-fi reproof to a world gone wrong.

It’s a good point. Technological “progress” often just gives us more of what we don’t want. Endless choice is misery-making rather than liberating. No wonder the 7,000 rebel against colour TV’s gimcrack lunacy of red buttons; endless channels screening nothing worth watching; the binge-based death-in-life of modern viewing, and the whole lie that having access all the time to everything will make us happy rather than confused and sad.


Social media never seems to end…

The End Of Endings

Amanda Hess, 15 Nov 2018,

The age of the sequel is over. Now it’s the age of the sequel to the sequel. Also the prequel, the reboot, the reunion, the revival, the remake, the spinoff and the stand-alone franchise-adjacent film. Canceled television shows are reinstated. Killed-off characters are resuscitated. Movies do not begin and end so much as they loiter onscreen. And social media is built for infinite scrolling. Nothing ends anymore, and it’s driving me insane.

Meanwhile, on smaller screens, social media has given rise to self-perpetuating content machines.

Didn’t endings used to mean something? They imbued everything that came before them with significance, and then they gave us the space to reflect on it all. More than that: They made us feel alive. The story ended, but we did not. This had been true at least since the novel supplanted the oral tradition. In his essay “The Storyteller,” Walter Benjamin wrote that the novelist “invites the reader to a divinatory realization of the meaning of life by writing ‘Finis.’” He continued, “What draws the reader to the novel is the hope of warming his shivering life with a death he reads about.” We needed stories to end so we could make sense of them. We needed characters to die so we could make sense of ourselves.

At the same time, social media is pushing the limits of limitlessness. What Instagram has branded “Stories” is an endless feed of images, one-liners and special effects that carries no pretense of progression. All it does is continue.

Phones are NOT God…

The phone network 3 had an advert recently that decried the awesomeness of mobile phones by showing how great they would have been in historical situations such as the sinking of the Titanic.

However, the reality of the situation is perhaps somewhat different, as illustrated by the artist Pierre Brignaud…

Phones Titanic

Also, the advert by 3 has a very clever (and sacrilegious?) bit right towards the end, where we very briefly see the phrase ‘#PhonesAreGod’ just before it quickly changes to ‘#PhonesAreGood’. Not sure what to make of it, not sure what they are trying say, but see if you can spot it anyway.

Phones Are God

We really are addicted to our phones…

And finally, as an added bonus, here is the brilliant British comedian Russell Howard explaining in under 6 minutes some of the ridiculous behaviours technology induces in us all (WARNING – contain adult humour, you have been warned)…

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