Sunday, October 8, 2017

Smartphones Are Making Us Stupid

I recently posted on Facebook that, to me, the two worst inventions of the 21st Century are Twitter and and so-called smartphones. The post got almost no reaction, so this post may likewise represent a tilt at a windmill.

Whether you agree or disagree (or are not sure), I strongly recommend reading Nicholas Carr's essay How Smartphones Hijack our Minds in this weekend's Wall Street Journal. Here is a link, but reading the full article will probably require a subscription. Copies of the Journal are, however, widely available in libraries and offices.

Carr's essay summarizes a large amount of recent scientific research that, in essence, proves that smartphones are more than a simple distraction, and actually decrease our ability to think and reason. Here are a few of the more compelling points:
  • One study shows that students performing a test who had their phones in view performed worse than those with their phones in a pocket or bag, and worse still than those whose phones were stored in a different room.
  • Merely the presence of a phone decreased the quality of personal social interaction.
  • The ability to consult Google and search engines diminishes the ability to remember.
And here's a really important part: Participants in the studies do not perceive that phones hamper their abilities to perform or remember. In fact, people conflate the ability to look things up with their own intelligence. So, if you are disagreeing with the research,  you have reason to question your conclusions.

Carr's ultimate conclusion is not surprising, but still somewhat stunning: The insight [from the studies] "sheds light on our society's current gullibility crisis, in which people are all too quick to credit lies and half-truths spread through social media by Russian agents and other bad actors. If your phone has sapped your powers of discernment, you'll believe anything it tells you." Carr's article is well worth the ten to fifteen minutes it takes to read, and offers many more insights.

What Carr's article does not cover are the other very significant costs smartphones impose on our lives:
  • Distracted driving. I have given up counting how many times I've seen drivers ripping through a parking deck, phone held to their ear and paying no attention to pedestrians.
  • A complete lack of awareness of surroundings. This includes people (particularly college students) who cross busy streets while staring at (or talking on) their smartphone, assuming that the "walk" sign will somehow protect them from a distracted driver blowing through a light.
  • The complete loss of privacy. George Orwell's 1984 laid out a future with an absolute lack of privacy, when every citizen's movements were monitored through a telescreen. Today, we gladly carry telescreens in our pockets! For people who, quite literally, live on their phones, a complete loss of privacy is only a hack away.
OK, so what can we do about it? Smartphones are not going away, and I freely admit they perform many useful and even vital functions (such as a quick link to emergency services). My suggestion is to start managing your smartphone use. Here are some thoughts:
  • When I'm at home, my smartphone is stowed. I don't need to be available 24/7.
  • Have "phone free" dinners and other social encounters. Engage in conversation with real people.
  • Get out in nature or out in the city without your phone (or with it turned off).  Use your powers of observation. Watch a sunset, gaze at the stars, or listen to the rain falling or the wind whispering through the trees.
  • Don't talk on a phone while you are driving unless your car has hands free capability, and, even then, stay off it when you are in parking garages or traffic. 
  • Apple's IOS 11 has a very useful feature that prevents notifications when you are driving. It works. Let's hope it becomes a standard feature on all phones.
  • Limit the information stored on your phone. Do you really want your whole life available to someone who hacks it or finds it if it is lost?
  • Make sure to lock the phone with a password or fingerprint technology (or the face recognition technology that is coming).
  • Schools should strongly think about limiting any access to phones during the school day.
Finally, use your brain. Engage in critical thinking. Engage in learning instead of mindless entertainment (at least for part of each day). Don't believe everything you see on a phone. Don't believe anything unless you personally know it to be true or have verified it from multiple reliable sources.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Why Did They Steal Summer?

On the calendar, summer begins near June 20 and ends around September 20. For many years, the unofficial summer season in the U.S. was between Memorial Day (around May 31) and Labor Day (in early September). The academic calendar typically corresponded with the unofficial summer season.

When I grew up (now many years ago), summer was a time for playing games with my brothers and friends (often using our imaginations to create new challenges). It was a time for family vacations, often driving across country in the family station wagon. It was a time for cookouts with neighbors and catching fireflies after dark. For older kids, it was a time to take a summer job and earn a little money, and, more importantly, learn a little responsibility.

In the last 25 years ago, the powers that be have gradually and inexorably stolen summer as we knew it. Summer has been compressed and the school year expanded. One county in metropolitan Atlanta began school this year on July 31. Most other public schools in Atlanta are opening next week (August 7). Classes at the University of Georgia begin on August 14. Although there are surely pockets of resistance (Wisconsin), this trend seems to be prevalent across the U.S.

A lot of this seems to be driven by well meaning efforts to improve educational quality. However, as is so often the case with policies driven by politicians and academics, the results do not seem to be there. Correct me if I am wrong, but I have not noticed a massive increase in U.S. educational performance. In a more limited sense, many my students at the University of Georgia Law School (all academically gifted) seem to arrive with little appreciation of how the world works.

While the benefits of stealing summer are difficult to discern, the costs are clear. As one article recently reported, the percentage of teens with summer employment has dropped significantly (from 57 percent in 1986 to 36 percent). This is true even in the face of a shrinking unemployment numbers. It has likewise been reported that many students are unable to take advantage of summer fellowships and other programs that extend into August. Finally, summer vacation season has effectively been crammed into roughly six weeks (from June 15-July 31). This results in overcrowding at National Parks and other vacation destinations (who have difficulty maintaining staffing after roughly the middle of August).

Although there are concrete costs of the compressed summer season, there are intangible costs that I would argue are at least as important. Summer used to provide a time to get away from our scheduled existence, and to do something different. It provided a time to use the imagination--to contemplate the beauty of a sunrise or sunset--and to explore something outside of one's everyday existence. For kids, it was a time to dream of the future and what might be. Sure, summer can still be such a time, but in its current compressed form, its value is likewise compressed.

If someone asked me (and no one has), I would offer this simple formula: No school after Memorial day and before Labor Day. This would restore summer to its traditional place. Do I think this will happen? No, but it does appear that some are beginning to understand the costs of the shrinking summer season. Maybe there will at least be no further encroachment.

The photo is of a a meadow in front of Mt. Hood in Oregon on a magnificent summer day in late July.