Instead of buying our way out of obsolescence, we program, adapt, and workaround. What makes a phone great is not how new it is, but how long it lasts.

This post started as a response to a possible future of technology. However, it grew and grew, so I have split it up. This then is a response to my reading of James Bridle’s book The New Dark Age and the place of the future of the smartphone.


John Philpin recently wrote a response to a post from John Harris I shared discussing the destructive nature of mobile phones. He asked:

If we didn’t have them … what would the world look like … Can we definitively say ‘better’ ?

For me, this is such an intriguing question. My initial response was a little circumspect. In particular, I think the idea of ‘better’ is problematic and instead argue for difference. This particular change is captured by Vala Afshar in the form of emojis:

In less than 10 years, 📱 replaced: 📟 ☎️ 📠 💽 💾 💻⏰ 📷 📹 🎥 📺 📻📰 💿 💳 💼 📎 📄⏳ 🔦 📼 📚 ⌚️ 🎮📓 ✏️ 📁 🎤 📇 📆🎰 💵 📬 📝 🆘 🏧🎫 ✉️ 📤 ✒️ 📊 📋🔎 🔑 📣 🎼 🎬 📀📒⌨️🕹🎙⏱📿🗝📇🗄📁📋🗂✉️⌨️

There is no doubting that the smartphone has simplified so many actions and activities. When I think of my own habits, my writing and reading often starts with my phone, whether it be flicking through my feed reader or jotting down a few notes.

Yet I am left feeling something is still missing in the discussion. I wonder about the inherent design and consequence of smartphone use? I wonder about those places involved in the production? I wonder about the ethics involved?

This is something Adam Greenfield captures in his book Radical Technologies:

This is our life now: strongly shaped by the detailed design of the smartphone handset; by its precise manifest of sensors, actuators, processors and antennae; by the protocols that govern its connection to the various networks around us; by the user interface conventions that guide our interaction with its applications and services; and by the strategies and business models adopted by the enterprises that produce them.

I am not necessarily arguing we should ‘ban’ smartphones in schools as it often feels like such decisions are sometimes made for the wrong reasons, whether it be liability or control. Instead I am striving for more critical reflection.

Here I am reminded of Doug Belshaw’s work on digital literacies. Rather than defining it as a thing in itself, Belshaw discusses eight different elements that come to play in different contexts and situations:

  • Cultural – the expectations and behaviours associated with different environments, both online and off.
  • Cognitive – the ability to use computational thinking in order to work through problems.
  • Constructive – the appropriate use of digital tools to enable social actions.
  • Communicative – sharing and engaging within the various cultural norms.
  • Confident – the connecting of the dots and capitalising on different possibilities.
  • Creative – this involves doing new things in new ways that somehow add value.
  • Critical – the analysis of assumptions behind literacy practises
  • Civic – the something being analysed.

Too often the focus of mobile technology in education is on cognition and communicative, rather than the critical and constructive. We are often willing to talk about moonshots and wicked problems unwilling to let go of certain assumptions and certifications.

Clay Shirky suggests that workflows need to be a little frustrating:

The thing I can least afford is to get things working so perfectly that I don’t notice what’s changing in the environment anymore.

To return to Adam Greenfield, he argues that rather than being flexible and aware of our impact, we have bought into an ethos of efficiency of everyday existence.

Networked digital information technology has become the dominant mode through which we experience the everyday.

The question is at what cost? Should students be encouraged to use the portable over a more complicated device? Is it an ‘everything now’ cloud computing that we should aspire to? As I hold my old Nexus phone, I wonder what is it we actually need verses want? What next, phones inserted under our skin? As Douglas Rushkoff suggests, “What makes a phone great is not how new it is, but how long it lasts.”

So what about you? What are your thoughts on the ‘smartphone revolution’? As always, comments and webmentions welcome.


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James Bridle’s book shines a light into the New Dark Age


Have you ever been to a movie that surprised you? Having seen the trailer and watched past movies from the same producer, you assumed that you knew what was going to happen. That is the experience I had with James Bridle’s new book New Dark Age: Technology and the End of the Future
.

When I read the title, I expected a book describing the coming collapse of Western civilisation. The problem is that this crash is already upon us. Whether it be the breakdown of infrastructure, Eroom’s Law, the unreliability of images and the rise of machine learning algorithms, the darkness is already here.

This book is less about the actual technologies at play and more about their impact on society. It is what Ursula Franklin describes as ‘technology as a system.’ Bridle’s focus is on new ways of thinking about, through and with technology.

In light of the recent revelations around Cambridge Analytica and GDPR, I recently reflected upon the importance of informed consent. I argued that we have a responsibility to:

  • Critically reflect and ask questions
  • Learn from and through others
  • Engage in new challenges

Bridle’s book starts this journey by actively informing us. He then puts forward the challenge of what next.

There is a kind of shame in speaking about the exigencies of the present, and a deep vulnerability, but it must not stop us thinking. We cannot fail each other now.

Although the book offers more questions than answers, it does it in a way that left me feeling somehow hopeful. Whether you are coming from the perspective of culture, education or politics, this book is a must read for anyone feeling at all dissatisfied with the current state of the world today.


For a different introduction, listen to an interview with Bridle on The Guardian:


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flickr photo shared by mrkrndvs under a Creative Commons ( BY-NC-ND ) license

It is easy to be mesmerised by the purported benefits of the digital age. The ability to easily and efficiently communicate, consume, connect and create though often comes at the expense of older more established modes and mediums, such as telephones and newspapers. A vision of supposed freedom and hope has been converted over time into the poster child of digital industrialisation and growth-based economics.

Grounded on the operating system built by the chartered monopolies of the 13th century, companies like Apple, Twitter, Google, Pearson and Amazon are in a race to become ‘the one’ company to rule them all. Sacrificing sustainability, the focus is on cashing in on short term gains via acquisitions and public offerings. This culture of disruption, of sprints, start-ups and pivots, often leads to a scorched earth policy of success at all costs. Whether it be the automation of jobs or the decimation of communities, change and innovation is not always positive or productive for the majority of people.

According to Douglas Rushkoff, it is not all doom and gloom though. For just as we can identify where these ideas of capital at all costs come from in the past, so to can we look back to find alternative solutions to such perils. Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus provides a vision for a future built around the exchange of value, rather than the extraction of capital. A future that focuses on a mixture of local and national currencies, as well as focusing on both family cooperatives and international corporations. A return to the ethos of the bazaar, that is spaces designed to maximise the exchange of value and the velocity of money. A digital renaissance if you like.

Similar in vein to David Price’s OPEN, Douglas Rushkoff’s Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus is a story for our time. With eye to tomorrow, Rushkoff provides suggestions and solutions already being explored by some today.  The choice though is left to the reader to make the next step to link these seemingly disparate ideas to help form a better tomorrow together.

For a different view of the book, flick through the slides for a collection of quotes:

While for a visual introduction, see the following clips:


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