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I was recently invited on a “digital detox” weekend, where you hand over all your electronic devices and, to use the tabloid terminology, “detox” yourself from their apparently malign influence.
I declined, because although a weekend in Italy sounded nice, I enjoy my devices and do not consider their presence in my life a bad thing. I would have wanted to take photographs: not having my mobile would have meant lugging along my ageing SLR camera. And I have no desire to load up my bags with printed books: you would have to prise my Kindle Paperwhite out of my cold, dead hands.
I am sceptical about the need to detox. It seems an extension of the evidence-free industry that has grown up to sell the worried well expensive potions and therapies that promise to boost your immune system and purge your body of toxins, which is, of course, something your body does very well on its own.
As with health, the digital detox narrative is underpinned by a central assumption: that modern life, replete with tablets, mobile phones, laptops and wearables, is toxic and that we should keep our distance. That is absurd — a classic example of the appeal-to-nature fallacy that everything “natural” is better. This is exemplified by the stream of badly designed surveys proclaiming that children have “too much screen time”, followed inevitably by experts opining that kids’ access to devices should be restricted. Some Steiner schools deny pupils any technology at all until they are teenagers — even at home.
The problems with this are myriad. First, most of the surveys I have seen fail to distinguish not only what kind of screen children are using — is it a phone, a tablet, a TV, an e-ink reader? — but also what they are doing. Screens can be used to play timewasting games and bully other kids, but they can also be used for knowledge, for reading books, for Skyping grandma in Australia and for interacting with school resources.
Many of these surveys also lump together a wide age range, from toddler to teenager, and fail to note that what is not appropriate for one group — disappearing down the rabbit-hole of Tumblr, for example — is fine for another. Nor do they note whether screen time is supervised, and they tend to depend on post hoc self-reporting — a notoriously flawed way to gather data.
Some thoughtful advice from the American Academy of Pediatrics acknowledges the reality of devices being tools in our lives, noting: “Media is just another environment. Children do the same things they have always done, only virtually.” The Academy also makes the vital point that content matters: “The quality of content is more important than the platform or time spent with media.” It adds, crucially: “Parenting has not changed. The same parenting rules apply to your children’s real and virtual environments.”
What needs to be noted here by any technology business is that someone else is defining and driving the narrative around its products — and it is a negative narrative that can damage its brand and its sales.
The point is that technology is neutral — it is what you do with it that is important. Take Uber, the ride-hailing company. I deeply dislike its approach and will not use it as I do not like its seemingly aggressive tactics when it launches in a new city. I also do not want yet another app tracking me and collecting data about where I am and where I go.
But as a technology, an app that connects someone who wants something (in this case, a ride) with someone offering something (a car and the time to drive you to your destination), it is neutral.
Security cameras have a bad reputation, too. They are touted as devices to keep us safe, but they do no such thing. At best, they might help solve a crime; at worst, they are just plain intrusive, whether they are out in the street or in the home. So-called “nanny-cams” (hidden security cameras planted by parents to keep an eye on those caring for their children) have led to convictions, but also to disquiet about the principle of spying on people without their consent.
Adam Sager, chief executive and co-founder of Canary, a New York-based company that makes a $199 consumer security camera, spent some time thinking about how his device could be used and how to prevent it being misused. “We don’t want to force any way of using it,” he stresses.
The camera is controlled via an app and has three modes: “privacy”, which means it is off and not recording; “home”, where the camera records if triggered by movement; and “armed”, where movement both triggers the camera to record and sends you a notification. The idea is that you can then sound the siren, thus hopefully scaring off the intruder, and ring the police.
You can add users, or you can control the Canary yourself. Could that then be used to spy on a partner? Sager points out that there is a visible light on the device that cannot be overridden, thus alerting anyone in the house that the camera is on. That was a deliberate move, he says, but adds: “People are always going to use technology in inappropriate ways. That’s why we built it this way.”
Sager is clearly making a concerted attempt to direct the narrative around the Canary, which includes the decision to have the light on the device. He points out additionally that when the camera is disarmed, it is not recording video at all, so there is no way for a suspicious spouse to access it later.
So if a technology company is exasperated by negative narratives around devices, it might be a good idea to think about all the less than ideal ways its product could be used and at least try and head off the negativity by taking control of it.
And what of the Canary? I have had one in my home for a couple of weeks. I work at home a lot, so it is generally switched off, but I do have a lot of videos of my cat pottering through the sitting room. Meanwhile, if you feel your mobile is toxic, you probably have a toxic job or partner, and it is this that needs dealing with, not the device itself.
Apps to keep tabs on developments
Windows Phone, Free
This is from Microsoft Garage, a “skunkworks” development department that produces a quirky range of apps, from the whimsical but useless to the surprisingly good. This falls into the latter category: snap a picture of a receipt, let the optical character recognition magic do its work, then assign it to either a pre-defined category or to one you have created yourself. The app produces graphs of your spending and a calendar so that you can keep an eye on when you incurred the cost. It also lets you share the image via social media apps and email. Smart, useful and quick.
Android, iOS, free
I really like the BuzzFeed app — but then I am impressed by the serious journalism BuzzFeed does alongside its nicely pitched “listicles”. You can set your location to get more locally relevant stories. A home screen gives you the top stories and then under the menu come other sections, such as politics (again, giving you local stories), technology and, naturally, animals. Also impressive is the transparency of the app’s terms and conditions under the Quantcast tracking setting, which also lets you opt out. This is a smartly designed, well executed and very usable way of keeping up to date with both news and popular culture.
Android, iOS, £2.29
One for the kids, or perhaps the executive who wishes he or she had been a geneticist, this is designed to teach the user about genetic science. You start with a basic creature, then solve the puzzles to give your monster limbs and a face. You can then introduce mutations that make each creature unique while at the same time getting a basic understanding of how genes work. It is beautifully realised, generating monsters that manage to be both cute and educational. A parents’ section helps adults explain concepts to their children.