I would like to make a distinction that I think is not emphasized enough in today’s society — the distinction between Information Availability and Information Accessibility. Information Availability can be defined as “the information being in a location (either physical or virtual) where it can be found”. Information Accessibility can be defined as “the ease at which this information can be retrieved”. In other words, Information Availability pertains to the information being readily available, whereas Information Accessibility refers to the amount of effort that has to be put into retrieving the information.
I think we can all agree that it is vital for people to have access to information, evermore so if it is information that belongs to them – be it their emails or paid digital content. One of the primary functions of the Internet is to make information available to end-users. It facilitates a medium for sending information without the need for expendable resources and provides a means for retrieving information without being dependent on the physical availability of the information provider. In fact, all that one needs in order to send and receive information is an electronic endpoint with built-in Internet access. And herein lies the tragic trap into which we have fallen.
I am referring to the trap of constant connectivity via tablets, smartphones and recently, the more intrusive Google Glass. At first glance, these portable computational devices provide us with a means to realize Information Availability. After all, as we agreed to the importance of Information Availability and the information in online, what can be better than carrying a portable form of access around with you?
After owning a series of ever-evolving smartphones, I can safely say that there’s more to this issue than meets the eye with regard to constant connectivity. In fact, there are quite a few facets of this allegedly desirable state that undermine the good it initially set out to achieve. These facets are (in reverse order of importance to the author):
- Instant gratification and addiction
To be blunt, your smartphone is (among other things) a tracking and homing device. Even if you disable implicit location-based services, your phone still knows where you are in order to ensure that your calls and data can be efficiently routed to you through the wireless network. Furthermore, your phone shares this information with various sites and servers. There are situations where your location can be derived from the network or where you forget to disable GPS location sharing (or were unaware that it was enabled), others where you are connected to a WiFi router that has a known location (in which case you are within 100 meters of the router). In addition, there are instances where the site actively asks your phone where you are and your phone responds. And if that’s not enough, the newer smartphones maintain logs of your positions over time (articles about how to access these logs can be found online – of course). To cap it all off, as an example of where the industry is going, Verizon Wireless set up a business model in which they actively peddle your location. Search the web for “Precision Market Insights” for more details. Another troubling study on the topic is this one, published by the Office of the Privacy Commissioner in Canada. And last, but far from least, the United States NSA is now confirmed to having an active surveillance program, codenamed PRISM.
Aside from your physical location, companies dealing in information are also keen in ascertaining the types of information you search for on the web. This allows them to provide you with information especially tailored to match your fields of interest and more importantly (for them), to show you advertisements geared to pique your interest.
As more and more services are made free providing that you sign the 17-page pesky EULA (end-user license agreement) and that you sign up for the service using some sort of identification, the companies that provide these services are able to aggregate more and more information about you, your interests, etc. Taking the blatantly obvious example of Google (which I use frequently), your personal correspondences (Gmail) are cross-referenced with your search terms (Google search), your location (Google maps, Android positioning), music and books that you own (Google Play), your schedule (Calendar) and your friends (Google+). While when working from the privacy of your home PC or Mac, you can log out of your accounts and instruct your browser to kindly ask sites not to track you (this is a request for cooperation, not a legally binding contract), on your cellphone, your accounts are always active and therefore, information that relates to you can always be traced back to being about you and not some John Doe logging on at an Internet café.
Of course, there is no good reason to single out Google when Facebook, Apple and other content providers are also out there silently stalking you for the information that you willingly provide in return for the “free” services they offer in return.
My personal take on this is that the damages to privacy can be minimized; however, the ship has sailed on this one and without governments stepping up to regulate which information is fair game and which consists of blatant privacy invasion, the only thing an end-user can do is be aware. The first step towards awareness is realizing that the mobile entry point (aka the smartphone) that you carry around with you compromises your privacy.
There is an ongoing debate as to whether cellular radiation induces cancer or not. While I have my own opinion on the matter, it is based on my understanding (as an electrical engineer) of the articles and sound bites that made their way to the media – not an actual case study or formal review of other case studies.
What can’t be debated is my own personal physical feeling as a phone user. To date, I have used different phones, starting with basic Nokia models (in the early 2000s) via the gorgeous (and totally unsatisfactory) Eten M700 and culminating with a Samsung Galaxy SII Skyrocket.
There are two — presumably related — things that I have noticed:
- As time passed, I spend more and more time using my phone (calls, not data).
- As time passed, my phone has caused me to feel physically unwell.
It is quite obvious why I spend more and more time on my phone – people know they can reach me by calling it, whereas I know that if I need to reach someone, their phone number is right there – in the phone – waiting to be used. As a result, my cellphone has become my primary means of communication rather than the backup that it was intended to be.
However, together with the cellphone transversing from backup to primary communication device, it has also become a more powerful computational device. First of all, it now knows how to connect to Bluetooth, WiFi, and data plans. While the Bluetooth option is generally turned off, I am usually connected to either WiFi or my wireless provider’s data plan – after all, I paid good money to be constantly connected. In addition to the above, we are all aware that the device’s capabilities have also increased over time to include music, graphics, eReaders etc. On the modern phone, the modem and RF transceiver are only two of the many computational complexes in the internal chipset. There are application processors, voice codecs, video codecs, GPS receivers sensors, external peripheral controllers (memory card, USB, Wifi, Bluetooth), camera controllers, display controllers and (more often than not) a huge display, etc. While the operating systems do a good job at regulating power to the various components and powering down those that are not needed, the term “not needed” doesn’t translate to what the user doesn’t actually need, rather to what the phone isn’t actually using. For example, while I’m on the phone, I generally don’t need Internet access (talking while using navigation software is a counterexample). However, the phone won’t disable Internet access when there’s an active voice call, and as a result, while the phone is up to my head and dissipating heat due to the various components necessary for carrying out the call, it is also synchronizing my email, performing GPS positioning and a myriad of other unnecessary (to me, at that point of time) tasks. All of these tasks require power, and all this power translates to more heat dissipation, which, in turn, causes me to feel physically uncomfortable. The obvious solution to the heat is to use a speaker of sorts and to move away from the phone, however that only solves the heat issue, not the other physical symptom that I feel when using the phone for extended periods of time – headaches. Put me on a cellphone for over three minutes (with or without a Bluetooth headset) and my head begins to ache. Come the 10-minute mark, my head will be throbbing. Incidentally, this does not happen on my house’s cordless phone. Now I am the first to acknowledge that my personal experience is circumstantial evidence (at best) with regard to the health hazards posed by phones. However, the experience is not unique to me and therefore, I am willing to reach the unscientific conclusion that there is something inherent in the technology that while possibly (and some say probably) not directly cancerous – is definitely not good for one’s well-being.
Instant Gratification and Addiction
The two issues above aside, I believe the most prominent problem that omnipresent Information Availability poses to us as individuals and as a society is the addictive lure that it has and the stripping down of virtues that have held the human society together for many a year. And, while I mentioned addiction and instant gratification as one in the title of this section, they are in fact two intertwined yet distinct issues.
Two well-known patience idioms are “Patience is a virtue” and “Good things come to those who wait”. While the preciseness of the second one is debatable, any parent or teacher will tell you that one of the most difficult — yet most important — lessons to be instilled in children is patience. Children, by nature, demand instant gratification – and who can blame them? After all, why sit around waiting for something for which you have a burning desire when, by pestering your parents, you can have it right now? As adults, we know that there is value in delaying satisfaction. In fact, there is more than one reason to do so, of which I’ll list two.
First, postponing something provides time to reflect on the necessity of obtaining it. While I do an abysmal job of not treating myself to chocolate ice cream when stepping into a convenience store, I am well aware that I don’t really need it. In fact, it was there, and since I was paying for something anyhow and I find it difficult to say no to chocolate, plus it “really” was hot – then why not treat myself? On the occasions that I do resist temptation, I can safely state that no harm was done. I remained the same psychological wreck that I always was, the day cooled off and I remained hot.
Second, delaying the decision allows for better prioritization. More times than not, there are multiple issues at hand, many factors to weigh and balance, a tradeoff to consider or simply put – something more important to do. Without delaying the decision, without the ability to delay action and lacking the self-control required to not act immediately, one will frequently find oneself without time to have done the more important thing. As my mother’s, grandmother’s and great-grandmother’s saying went: “First you do the things that you have to do, then you do the things that you want to do”. As a child, I hated hearing that. As an adult, I frequently say it to myself as a means of imposing self-control and avoiding “jumping into action” in order to feed the beast of instant gratification.
Information Availability strips us of the need to maintain this important lesson that was (hopefully) instilled in us as we grew up. With the world at our fingertips, why wait? Why not stop what we’re doing, the conversation we’re having, the personal interaction we’re engaged in, in order to look of the odd tidbit of information that can reinforce something said or that can shed a tiny (and usually insignificant) glimmer of light on the topic at hand? And to make matters worse, our phones are designed to cater to our loss of ability to delay gratification. All modern phones beep, vibrate, ring or flash messages when anyone in our circle of virtually connected friends does anything. Facebook will inform you that your best friend Jane Doe just shared an article that, more often than not, holds no real interest for you. Gmail will let you know that you just received mail – mail which more often than not is no more important than what you happen to be doing at the moment it arrived (even if you’re just chilling out after a long day at the office). Twitter will let you know of tweets, the App Store will push notices of crucial updates to your downloaded apps. And we all know how that pans out… the phone is beeping now, ergo I must check what’s what right now.
There are times when the message is important, perhaps a text message from the parent of a child’s playmate. Most other times, it can be safely ignored until some other time when you’re not engaging in a more rewarding and enriching human interaction.
And checking right now leads to the vicious cycle of addiction. We all know (either by experience or by having read the technical specifications) that our phone is not always up to date. There are times — and I call on you to not fall off your chair as you read this — that something happened in the virtual world and your phone has not yet been made aware of it, whether by polling or by the server pushing the information. However, in the innermost parts of our minds, we realize this God awful truth and therefore actively poll the services that interest us by logging into them and “taking a quick glance”. And it usually doesn’t end there. There’s the occasional email from work to check (even though you are off the clock), that important tweet (“Just had chili con carne, yum…”) that can’t wait, lest you withhold this crucial tidbit of information from your friends, thus causing them delayed-satisfaction syndrome.
And so “The wind goeth toward the south, and turneth about unto the north; it whirleth about continually, and the wind returneth again according to his circuits” (Ecclesiastes 1, 7), where the need for instant gratification causes addiction which, in turn, fuels the need for more instant gratification.
And at this exact point, one should be asking – what’s the rush?
What’s the Rush?
Why are we compelled to rush to our omnipresent and omni-alerting portable connection to the outside world?
If you’ve read this article so far, you already know the answer. We are addicted and have (to an extent) lost the patience and attention span required to delay the gratification. However, this isn’t the full story. This loss reflects on our personal lives and actual physical human interactions, as many studies show. It has also reinforced the need to have an “electronic brain” around at all times in order to jot down the occasional necessary piece of information so that it won’t be lost for eternity.
Back in the Stone Age when I was born – i.e. 1975, people had the ability to remember things for long periods of time. I was capable of remembering numerous phone numbers, dates and events, even if these were scheduled for a date a few months into the future. In order to test this statement, I just tried to remember the phone number of the house where my best friend grew up (and he’s still a great friend). Lo and behold, I remembered the number without a hitch. On the other hand, challenge me to remember a number that I started using after I purchased my first cellphone and I’ll fail miserably. I can’t even remember my own mother’s cell phone number (speed dial #6). In sharp contrast, I vividly recall my days in university, a few scant months prior to owning my first cellphone, when I remembered term papers, final exams and other random occasions that were scheduled 3-4 months prior to their actual date of occurrence. What happened?
Well, one could argue that at my ripe old age of 38, my mind is somewhat gone. My kids seem to think this is the case. But, as I said, this happened when my brain was still functioning at full speed – back when I was 24. What happened is that I lost the drive to remember things and therefore the capacity to do so. As many people know and teach, memory is like a muscle and it, too, can become flaccid if not exercised.
However, there’s more to the story. As usual, where there’s a buck to be made, there’s someone willing to make it. Working in the high-tech industry, I hear the vision that industry leaders have in mind and the way they plan to achieve it. That vision is where we have been leading ourselves for the past few decades – constant Information Availability and Information Accessibility. In order to realize this goal, technological breakthroughs are being made so that more and more information will be accessible at any given time. Towards that end, your private information is being utilized, aggregated and filtered so that all sources of this information can be presented to you in a user-friendly manner. Your refrigerator will let you know that you have to go shopping, your washing machine will let you know that you have to take out the wash, your electric meter will inform you of your electricity consumption, your printer will let you know that you’re low on ink and so on. Moving on, your car will adjust itself according to your preferences and play the music that you like – just for you.
Of course, the other side of this coin is that the grocery store can send you advertisements promoting brands of food that your refrigerator knows are missing, as will your friendly printer supplies store. And let’s not lose track of your entire bank of preferences being stored on a single device, kind of like the Identi-Eaze card that Douglas Adams describes in “Mostly Harmless”.
It will come as no shock that companies in the telecommunications industry want to dominate their market. The way to do that is to differentiate the product and sell more units of said product. I have heard on a few occasions that the way to sell more products is to enter the emerging markets in China, India and South America by initially promoting low-tier gadgetry and casually working them up to the higher end devices. I know that this is a sound business plan, but it reminds me of the business plan that drug dealers have. Create the need and then fill it. In fact, since the product is addictive and the higher end devices provide an even greater degree of instant gratification, to me it is exactly like a drug. Keeping in mind the health issues mentioned, the similarity and parallelism steadily increases. Furthermore, there are companies with a declared policy of moving everything to the “Cloud”. One way to look at this is that you are no longer limited by your physical proximity to the location of the information that you want, be it a song, a picture or a document. The other way to look at it is that your Information Accessibility becomes a differentiating feature between hardware and software platforms, one that can be capitalized on. Simply by limiting the amount of memory that your handheld device can manage, you are forced to access the Cloud in order to access your information, and as history has taught us, you are willing to pay top dollar to do it at top speed.
So, while Queen sang “I want it all, I want it all, I want it all, and I want it now”, I ask – what’s the rush? Do we really need constant Information Accessibility? Can’t we use an older version of a phone, the type that is superciliously referred to as “feature phone”?
I realize that being without a cell phone is an option, but one that has its price. I doubt that living without a smartphone has a real price. The only tangible added value that I have found for my smartphone is as a navigator. Therefore, I have resolved to make my smartphone act as close as possible to a feature phone, without having to fork over more money in order to buy an actual feature phone.
I removed email synchronization, disabled the data plan and deleted all applications that require an active data connection. As far as I’m concerned, my phone can sync my calendar when I’m in the office, connected to the company’s WiFi network. I retained my eBook reader and my music player. I, for one, have decided to regain some control over my digital presence and the amount of time it steals from my life. And when the urge to check my email arises — as it does — I ask myself the question that I ask you – what’s the rush?
10 Oct, 2013: This article was originally written in June, 2013. I am now back to using a feature phone – one which has no ability to connect to the Internet at all.