Smart Phones… Or, not so Smart?

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‘Ye ken keep your so-called smart phone!’ said Old Greg, throwing the new Samsung onto the bar.

He was in a Fine Glaswegian Rage.

At eighty, Greg is fit, a regular at the bowling club, constant walker and – apart from when he’s channelling his ‘I’ll see you, Jimmy!’ – an intelligent conversationalist.

The previous morning, I had given him a new Samsung.

Talk about kid in a candy store. His bright blues lit up.

‘So, what else ken we do wi’ it!?, he’d, said.  ‘But, no!  That’s where I went to school!,’ he said when I brought up monochrome images of  an old Catholic Convent.

Greg was now inked up to the club’s Wi-fi.  For the first time in his life, Greg had a smart phone AND was on the internet.

‘But you can just do that with just the phone!?’ he said, looking around all sides of it as I brought up pictures of Beith, where he grew up, just out of Glasgow.

‘Could you… look up the scores for the Beith Juniors Football Club?’ he’d asked, almost sheepishly

Sure, enough they had a Facebook page, a site, pictures of Beith’s finest, and links the recent scores.

‘Well, I never!’

I showed him how to look up the weather, to tell if bowls was likely to be called off that afternoon, how to find the quickest way across town by public transport or road, via Google Maps, set him up on Facebook and sent a friend request to an old buddy back home.

All this and more.  All the wonderful things a smart phone can do.

‘Tell me, I have not heard from my niece for a couple of years.  Do you think we can find her?’

Via Linkedin, I had her on the phone within ten minutes, and left them for what was an apparently emotional conversation.

‘She said she’d call me again next week!’

But, twenty-four hours later he was throwing the thing down and swearing.

‘What happened!? I could’na see Beith nor nothin’!?’

‘You turned the Wi-fi off.’

I got everything back up and running.

‘How are you supposed to know that!?’

‘It just comes with practice, you just have to play with it.  Little kids can do it.’

So, began this big kid’s trip in cyberspace. Daily revelations, daily frustrations and tantrums

But, speaking of kids, what have we created with our passion for and ubiquitous acceptance of smart phones?  Did the Chinese know their invention of gunpowder, used for harmless fireworks, would be used by Europeans to dominate the planet?

Did we know that simply mobiles phones would lead to sexting, revenge porn, bullying, the rise of ‘the echo chamber’, autistic behaviour, and suicide?

Does our love affair with all things hand-held, need a closer look?

Socrates said, ‘A son is more the product of his times, that of his father.’ Much more recently, David Attenborough titled the final episode of Life on Earth, which was about the human evolution as, ‘The Compulsive Communicators.’

It’s a Perfect Storm.

Now our sons, daughters and grand children can hold in their hands, and compulsively communicate with, a computer that is a literally hundred million times more powerful than the one that ran the Apollo Space Craft.

The original computers took up whole rooms. The term ‘debugging’ meant cleaning out the bugs that crawled amongst the wires, causing short circuits.  But the Space Race required light, tough computers that could be launched by rockets, a requirement led to the thing you can now hold in your hand.

Like so many inventions, however, will the original high, the promise of a brave new world, end up being replaced by social isolation and dysfunctional misery?

As one of the original team which created the first Netbank, in the mid-nineties, I had more than a passing interest in the internet, also watching the rise of Google and its first public offering, around this time.

Writing, back then, that this wonderful invention would allow single mums in the western suburbs to access the world’s best universities, that generations of children would grow up super-intelligent, not held back by slow library research… not even needing to waste time on the bus, getting to the library.

To some extent, this has been borne out.

‘I expect my children to live to one-hundred and twenty,’ said another club-member Dr Nobel, who, at ninety-one, is even older than Greg.

‘How old are they now?’

‘Still in their early sixties.’

‘So why do you predict this?’

‘It’s the internet. The speed with which medical knowledge spreads around the world now is astonishing.  It’s truly wonderful. Someone in England comes up with an idea. Someone in India takes that to some further step… the Americans take it even further. Such rapid advance!’

So, ask a doctor, referring to medical research, or even an Uber driver, using satellites 20,000 km out in space to steer him around traffic jams, how good this instant world-wide knowledge is, and they will tell you.

But not everyone is taking advantage of smart phones to get a bigger world view.  Just the opposite, in fact. Enter The Echo Chamber.

As a media lecturer I always impressed on my students that there is no such thing as objective reporting. Try as we might, humans will always put their own subconscious spin on things.  You must expose yourself to alternate views and draw your own conclusion. It’s called The Dialectic. Read the Sydney Morning Herald, and The Daily Telegraph, then make up your own mind.

Via smart phones, political activism sites have run riot. You can instantly be updated with what is being said worldwide about any political topic, such as Global Warming, Trump and Hollywood scandals. (But not so much on Yemen.)

But, you can also block what you don’t want to hear.  Many people ‘unlike’ news sites and commentaries they disagree with, even ‘unfriending’ old friends when they have an online spat about vaccinations, so, while they are getting thousands of people who ‘like’ the same item as they do, agree on the same topic, there is no independent verification, it becomes an echo chamber where people keep feeding back the same opinions to each other. This is not verification, not debate, not The Dialectic. It becomes propaganda, pure and simple. Noam Chomsky must be tearing his hair out.

So a photo/video about two different coloured men in a fight, make up whatever story you like, about who it is and when it started, ask for shared and liked, and complete, racist, garbage can fly around the world in an instant

I’ve even seen this at a tertiary level, where you would think people would know better. Head of one science department forwarded around a ‘photo’ purportedly taken of the Earth sitting space, taken from the shuttle Columbia, just before it exploded.

But, on even a cursory examination of the ‘photo’ showed no clouds anywhere on the planet, that the point of view would have been from a space vehicle that would have been much further out in space than the Columbia, and the Earth was facing the wrong way in relation to the Sun.

It was clearly just an artist’s impression of the Earth in space, but with the headline, ‘Last Photo sent back by Columbia!’, the thing had ‘gone viral’, and even an astronomy teacher passed it on uncritically.

This is dangerous. Legions of people with their faces in mobile phones can be misled, even as they walk through shopping centres, expecting you to get out of their way.

Recent research from Oxford suggests, rather than allowing all mums to go to university and have super-bright children, some mothers are constantly staring into their phones, rather than their infant’s faces are leading to Autistic characteristics in the children as they are not getting enough practice reading human faces and emotions.

Even worse, school girls liking, un-liking, unfriending, blocking, bullying each other through the un-moderated medium of the smart phone, is known to have contributed to suicides, but information about such situations is supressed by schools and the media, for fear of a knock-on effects.

Let’s be clear: I’m no, ‘The End is Neigh!’ Latter-Day, Luddite’.  I love my smart phone, use it to see what the rain is doing before going pushbike riding, keep in touch with friends and ex-students all over the world, use Google Maps to get myself anywhere in, or out of, Sydney, and play Spotify all night long, letting it select new and interesting music, based on the first track I search for.

They are good.  Then again… let’s get back to old Greg.

Two weeks after she said she would call him, he had not heard from his niece.  I checked the log on his phone.

There was no missed call.

‘That’s the problem with these things,’ I said.

‘The whole world can communicate with you.  But then again, the whole world can ignore you too.’

Greg’s got a good sense of humour, and we both laughed, put our phones down and, over a coffee, discussed the weather.

Larry Mounser

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