Sleeping Cyborg

Jonathan David Page talks about whatever he happens to be thinking about. Sometimes other people join in.

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Tool Values

by on 24 November 2013
in , , , ,
with some comments, maybe.

Simplicio: The problem is not the tool, it's the monkey.

Salviati: No, the problem is the tool too. Tools are never value-neutral.

From a discussion on Facebook back in September regarding smartphones. Names changed to protect the guilty, and lest I misrepresent their ideas. In later discussion with Mr. Salviati, he revealed that the specific reason he hates smartphones is because they disconnect people from each other. He dislikes tablets and laptops for similar reasons, though not nearly so much due to the fact that they can’t really be carried around in one’s pocket.

I was going to write a puerile, ranty, and self-righteous article when I first saw the above discussion, but it got filed away in my drafts. I’ve returned to it due to a circumstance which prompted me to make the following observation on Twitter:

Specifically, I wish that my laptop was more like my phone in that it had a cellular internet connexion and a longer battery life, and I wish that my phone was more like my laptop in that it ran a general-purpose operating system and had a real keyboard. Though each of those sentiments might be the converse of the other; I suspect that if the former were satisfied, my desire for the latter would evaporate, or at least be vastly reduced.

This suspicion arises from the circumstances under which the above tweet was produced. I had been studying the gmpxx.h file from the GMP distribution in an effort to understand the techniques used therein, and had been obliged to move to a different location for some reason—probably to catch a bus or get dinner. En route, I had taken out my smartphone and was checking my email or some other tic, when it occurred to me that it’d be pretty great if I could read the file on my phone. Of course, that’d require me to download and extract a tarball, then view the appropriate file in some editor. At least one of those steps is somewhat impractical on an iPhone, and so I composed the above tweet to vent my feelings to the world.

Then again, if the laptop were constructed with the same sort of mobile usage in mind as the smartphone, it would be easier for me to have simply used that, but it would be worse at doing the task in question. If the phone were designed with the same sort of general-purpose application in mind as the laptop, it probably wouldn’t be a particularly good phone. This is, incidentally, why I don’t own a tablet.I own a Kindle, but that doesn’t really count as a tablet. The only resemblance it bears to one is the form factor and touch screen, but other than that they’re basically chalk and cheese.

The point?

Tools aren’t value-neutral. This expresses itself in multiple ways in the above anecdote. Had I not had a smartphone, I wouldn’t have had the expectation that I could do computer things with it. Furthermore, I wouldn’t have had it out to engage in whatever mindless time-waster I was using it for. The time could have instead been occupied by some meaningful consideration, rather than seeing what new and earthshaking things Wil Wheaton has to say on Twitter. The values considered in the design of the tool influence not only what one can do with it, but what one does do with it, what one expects to do with it, and in what contexts one uses it. Smartphones are small, and ostensibly telephones, making them acceptable to have in many contexts where overt computer usage would be totally unacceptable. It’s ironic that societal norms allow us to stand around at parties, messing around on our phones and not interacting with people, while discouraging us from reading a book instead. I have been known to do this at parties. Both of them are contrary to the spirit of the occasion, but at least the latter is arguably constructive, and can even serve as a conversation-starter.

The idea that smartphones suppress meaningful thought and human connexion is hardly a novel one, nor even an unpopular one. On the contrary, it’s quite a trendy position to hold, particularly among owners of flip phones and Nokias. In fact, I am in many ways disqualified from holding this position without being hypocritical by owning an iPhone. Which is fine, since I don’t hold that position. My thesis is that smartphones can suppress meaningful thought and human connexion if used without thinking. They can also be used in productive ways, and can be useful to own. However, the values that they are built with—hence the values that people require from them—hence once again the values they are built with, are not conducive to such usage, in a positive feedback loop of inane Facebook statuses and “sent from my iPhone” email responses from stressed smartphone users who are now expected to be on top of their email at all times.

There are two places that this loop can be broken. It could be broken by the manufacturer, but that is not in their best interests; the device might not live up to the expectations generated by previous iterations, which could hurt the manufacturer’s profits. It would be a risky proposition, at the very least.

The other place that the loop could be broken is on our end. It would involve two things. Firstly, we smartphone owners need to be thoughtful in our use of our phones. Secondly, we need to change the social norms surrounding smartphones. The best part about this is that not only can the second self-propagate, begetting the first along the way, but that non-smartphone-owners can join in. Act with the expectation that those around you are not going to check Twitter or text while talking to you. Don’t send emails and texts with the expectation that they’ll be responded to instantly.

Until next time, ladies and gents.