The Power of Distraction

So much for multi-tasking with a smartphone.  Researchers at The University of Texas at Austin have found the following:

...that it didn’t matter whether a person’s smartphone was turned on or off, or whether it was lying face up or face down on a desk. Having a smartphone within sight or within easy reach reduces a person’s ability to focus and perform tasks because part of their brain is actively working to not pick up or use the phone..

Source: The mere presence of your smartphone reduces brain power, study shows — ScienceDaily

We really are addicted to these things and they pretty much destroy our concentration.

The next time you are in a meeting look around the and see who has a smartphone in reach.  Doesn’t matter if it’s in their hand or on the table.  They aren’t actually engaged with the meeting.  Even if they think they are.

Everybody’s phone needs to go into a basket when they enter the room.

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University of Texas at Austin (UT Austin). “The mere presence of your smartphone reduces brain power, study shows.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 23 June 2017. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2017/06/170623133039.htm>.

High Anxiety (or, The Race to The Bottom of The Brainstem)

Which of you, by being anxious, can add one moment to his lifespan?  –Matthew 6:27, World English Bible.

But we seem to think we can worry ourselves into more likes on our Facebook pages. There is an experiment that is worth the attempt.  Disconnect from all social media and electronic devices for a full day — leave your phone at home and go somewhere fun.  Does even the thought of doing so make you anxious?  If so, a television segment from the show 60 minutes (CBS News) might explain why.

The piece is titled What is “brain hacking”?  And in it Anderson Cooper profiles how the tech industry appears to be attempting to use neuroscience to manipulate our physiology so we use their products.

Advertisers have been attempting to get in our heads for years.  Most consumer marketing is about image and how our lives will be suddenly fulfilled and have meaning if I buy this or that.  Very little of it is about actual product information.  But Cooper captures something qualitatively different in a quote from Tristan Harris about children, social media and smartphones:

…there’s a narrative that, “Oh, I guess they’re just doing this like we used to gossip on the phone, but what this misses is that your telephone in the 1970s didn’t have a thousand engineers on the other side of the telephone who were redesigning it to work with other telephones and then updating the way your telephone worked every day to be more and more persuasive.[1]

Except it’s not mere persuasion.  Harris described the tech companies’ competition for our attention as a “race to the bottom of the brainstem.”  And as psychologist Larry Rosen pointed out during the segment:

What we find is the typical person checks their phone every 15 minutes or less and half of the time they check their phone there is no alert, no notification. It’s coming from inside their head telling them, “Gee, I haven’t check in Facebook in a while. I haven’t checked on this Twitter feed for a while. I wonder if somebody commented on my Instagram post.” That then generates cortisol and it starts to make you anxious. And eventually your goal is to get rid of that anxiety so you check in.[1]

Wikimedia Commons

The tech companies appear to be engineering theirs apps and devices to make us anxious. To turn us into addicts.

The idea that social media feeds stimulate biochemical responses is not new.[2]  But what is quite disturbing is that the tech companies might be deliberately engineering the devices and apps to stimulate addictive responses.  Seems to me we’ve seen this before. In past years the tobacco industry was taken to task for manipulating nicotine levels in cigarettes.  They were described as creating:

nicotine delivery systems that deliver nicotine in precisely calculated quantities — quantities that are more than sufficient to create and to sustain addiction in the vast majority of individuals who smoke regularly.[3]

I’m not seeing a great deal of difference between the behavior of Apple, Google or Facebook, and that of the tobacco companies.  They are turning smartphone and social media cravings into the 21st century version of the nicotine fit.

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[1] Anderson Cooper.  What is “brain hacking”? Tech insiders on why you should care  60 Minutes, CBS News, June 11, 2017.  http://www.cbsnews.com/news/what-is-brain-hacking-tech-insiders-on-why-you-should-care/

[2]  see Eva Ritvo M.D.  Facebook and Your Brain: The inside dope on Facebook  Vitality blog at Psychology Today,  May 24, 2012.  https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/vitality/201205/facebook-and-your-brain

[3]  David A. Kessler, M.D., Commissioner of Food and Drugs.  Statement on Nicotine-Containing Cigarettes. Testimony before the House Subcommittee on Health and the Environment March 25, 1994 https://www.fda.gov/NewsEvents/Speeches/ucm106558.htm

Backyard gene editing risks creating a monster | New Scientist

While we were all being distracted by cat videos and meaningless tweets by celebrities and politicians:

“Biohackers have already signalled their intention to use CRISPR, which poses a big problem for the authorities.” 

Source: Backyard gene editing risks creating a monster | New Scientist, 15 March 2017.”

The US Food and Drug Administration is allowing a dog breeder to use  CRISPR to fix a harmful mutation.  We are told that the FDA is trying not to stifle innovation.

By a dog breeder.

Why aren’t we reacting to this?  An article in the Atlantic suggests it might have something to do with the innocuous acronym for the tool used to fiddle with genetics.

Why does a revolutionary gene-editing technology sound like a candy bar? 

Source: CRISPR Has a Terrible Name – The Atlantic, April 11, 2017

Close your eyes and imagine it is 1938.  The German chemists Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassmann have just discovered nuclear fission.

Now give the process of Uncontrolled Nuclear Fission an innocuous acronym like UNUFI, something that sounds a bit like a stuffed animal.  And imagine those chemists also discover ways to make it happen within reasonable reach of private parties at manageable costs.  Who can then use the process in a barn somewhere out in the woods.

The world might look more like this:

__

Silicon Valley Dystopia

“The new road to serfdom — actually, it’s more like a hyperloop — runs right through Silicon Valley.” via Silicon Valley has our backs

This post by Nicholas Carr at Rough Type references a recent New Yorker profile of venture capitalist Sam Altman.  I share Carr’s skepticism and the profile is worth reading.  If I understand correctly, Altman’s vision appears to distill down to the following:

  • Technological advancement will bring artificial intelligence and cheap energy.
  • This will bring limitless wealth, and drive down the cost of producing pretty much everything and put pretty much everyone out of a job.
  • Therefore governments should provide stipends to everyone so they can do whatever they want.

All of which sounds wonderful.  But there may be some fundamental dysfunction baked into this vision of technocratic utopia.  This statement by Altman suggests rather a technocratic myopia:

“People pay a lot for a great education now, but you can become expert level on most things by looking at your phone.”

Galaxy S6
Galaxy S6

Exactly which fields of study could one reach expert level via a smart phone?  Neuroscience?  Biochemistry?  Mathematics?  Structural Engineering?  Linguistics?  Philosophy?  Religion?

One of the bothersome aspects of some technocrats’ visions of the future is the apparent shallow appreciation for subjects beyond the range of their expertise.  Perhaps this would not be a problem if learning was merely the collecting of oversimplified and trivial facts, unencumbered by connection to any real context.  Or at least, whatever such info-bits content providers choose to serve up.

But as it happens, most of the really important stuff requires too much mental bandwidth and breadth of experience to fit on a three or four-inch screen.

Practical Passwords for Regular People

“Dadada.”  According to the article below this was the password for Mark Zuckerberg’s hacked LinkedIn account.  I found this astounding.  And I am just a regular guy who works in an office full-time, not some super-geek.

seeker.com

“A group of hijackers known as OurMine, possibly from Saudi Arabia, briefly took over Facebook chairman and CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s Twitter and Pinterest accounts yesterday.” – Source: Seeker.com – How Not to Be Mark Zuckerberg About Your Passwords

But Zuckerberg is ridiculously wealthy.  He can afford to pay people to clean up the mess.

For the rest of us poor schmucks the article has some suggestions which are worth perusing.  I got my AOL account in the late 80s and have used hundreds of various online accounts since then..  I probably have at least 50 active user passwords.  It would be nice to have a reasonable way to manage that.  Unfortunately the suggestions are not packaged for users in the real world.  And the article fails to engage real-world questions that need to be asked about any website you use before deciding which to use:

  • Are you famous or do you otherwise have some sort of highly visible public profile?
  • Is the information you need to protect important?
  • Would theft of the information affect anyone besides you?
  • Is the data valuable?

If the answer to all these questions is “no” then pick any junk password you like.  If you answered with a strong “yes” to any, then find someone with actual expertise and don’t fool around with trying to do this on your own, particularly if you need super-secure options like hardware tokens.  But most people will likely answer “no” to the first and a mild “yes” to one or more of the rest.  So here is my stab at a rework of the suggestions, in order of priority:

  1. Turn on basic two-factor authentication (2FA) for every site that provides it.  Two-factor (or multi-factor) means something besides your user name and password is required to sign in.   The easiest version to use sends a text to your mobile phone with an access code when the site fails to recognize you.  A slightly more complicated but more reliable variant installs an app on a smart phone (which most people have these days).  Basic 2FA means most thieves will need your crappy password and physical possession of your phone.
  2. Lock all your computers, tablets, and smartphones.  A basic four-digit pin or pass-code is probably fine, provided that the device does not connect to a corporate network, and has no remote access capability (or remote access is turned off).  This is basic stuff.  You lock your residence and car, don’t you?

This should keep out casual thieves and provides reasonable security for most of us.  But if a thief gets both your passwords and access to your computer and mobile phone you have bigger problems.  You might now be some hacker’s personal project.  Or you might be bound, gagged, and in the trunk of a car bouncing along a dirt road.  As one writer has pointed out, your potential threats boil down to “Mossad or not-Mossad[1].”  If it’s the first one you are pretty much screwed.

For sites that don’t provide two-factor authentication, do the following:

  • Create unique and reasonably complex passwords.  Passwords should contain at minimum mixes of upper case letters, lower case letters, and numbers.  Special characters should be added if the site allows.  But as long as you do not spell out actual dictionary words, your passwords need NOT be super long or super complex.  Eight characters is good enough for most purposes.  Whether to use more depends on how much damage unauthorized access will do.  Passwords for your bank need to be longer than passwords for your streaming media.
  • Long passphrases can be easier for most people to remember than completely random sequences.  Just don’t use components that you have posted on social media.  Use something obscure, like the combination of a partial childhood address and the name of a childhood pet.  Or the long name of a band you would never admit listening to.  Then mangle it with numbers and mix the upper and lower cases.
  • If you have too many passwords to remember, then create a secured list to build a barrier between where you record them and where you use them.  A plain, old paper notebook is just fine, provided you keep it somewhere reasonably safe.  An encrypted Microsoft Office or Evernote document, or something equivalent will also work.  Or if you are at least slightly geeky you can use a password manager app[2].  The point is to find something that works for you and create the barrier.   So when your device gets stolen and/or hacked the thief doesn’t get your passwords.

The article had some additional suggestions, which are distilled below to something normal people might actually use:

  • Don’t let websites retain information that connects to your financial accounts.  This means debit cards, account numbers, or anything else that points directly to your bank.  The only exception I can see to this is the website of another bank.  Charges on a stolen credit card can be high-order nuisances.  But stolen bank balances are something else entirely.
  • If you let your web browser store your login information, then use a browser that encrypts the data and requires a password to access it.  And never allow storage on a computer you don’t own and completely control.

Oh, and if your passwords are stored on your computer or smart phone please remember these gadgets are not immortal.  Back up the list to a flash drive or printout and hide that  somewhere you can find it.  And be sure to include those stupid security questions and answers.  You might need them a year from now.

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[1] James Mickens. This World of Ours. “;login: The Usenix Magazine.” January 2014
https://www.usenix.org/publications/login-logout/january-2014-login-logout

[2] If you want to really lock your stuff up and need a suggestion for a password app I use KeePass.  It’s highly configurable and open-source (and free).  I’ve also heard good things about LastPass but I’ve never used it.

December 4, 2017 update:  Thank you to a reader who pointed me to a secure password generator at this site: https://www.vpnmentor.com/tools/secure-password-generator/.  She rightly pointed out how easy it is to slip into making weak ones.

 

Loss of Context

Exploring the world in comfort. That’s the theme of a recent commercial for the European travel company, Viking River Cruises. Scenes of Europe flow by to violin strains and a poetic cadence:

“Sailing through the heart of cities and landscapes with Viking, you’ll see things differently. You’ll get closer to iconic landmarks, to local life and cultural treasures. It’s a feeling that only a river can give you, that only Viking can give you.”

The commercial told me next to nothing about the company but the imagery they presented was intriguing. There might be something to be said for touring Europe that way. These seems like a far better use of a trip than some cruise with an inane cartoon theme.  But hold on a minute. Let’s wind the Earth back around the Sun to Paris in 845 AD.

Sailing through the heart of cities and landscapes as a Viking, you’ll see things differently. You’ll sack more iconic landmarks, and loot more cultural treasures. It’s a feeling that only a river can give you, that only being a marauding, pillaging, burning, murdering, and thieving barbarian can give you.

Context is everything.

Replica Longship

My home town used to be heavily Scandinavian and Nordic motifs decorate some of the businesses. There is a strip mall named “Viking Village” where the anchor store has a replica of a longship’s dragon prow on the peak of the roof. It’s truly amazing what a millennium does to the meaning of the names and symbols.

As Christians, we are not immune to losing the context of our symbols.  There are artistic crucifixes in various places in my house. It is a valid symbol of remembrance. Crucifixion only became a widespread object of art after Constantine outlawed it as a method of execution in the Roman empire and its image of brutality faded. As a symbol of commemoration an artistic cross can be a good thing.

But in the Middle Ages it was used to adorn crusader shields. Now it graces everything from napkins to photo frames. It might be fair to say we’ve lost our sense of what the symbol is about.  We do not think of the context of the cross.

It used to take hundreds of years to completely lose a sense of the context of an event.  The meaning of symbols related to an event is shaped by the surrounding culture.  This changes over time but that process used to be much slower.  It’s easy to forget that before mechanization few people traveled very far from where they were born.  There always have been small subsets of a community that traveled, such as merchants and soldiers, and occasionally entire groups would migrate to escape something bad in hopes of finding something better.  For good or for ill, context was created and reinforced by where you lived and whom you lived with.

This is no longer the case.  We move.  We routinely travel distances that used to take days and lifetimes.  Very few of us live with the people we grew up knowing.  We are disconnected from what used to surround our sense of what a symbol meant, and vulnerable to the reframing of symbols by the technology that pervades the modern world.

In Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman described the effect of 20th century media in the decontextualization of information and serious discourse, and their repackaging as primarily visual entertainment. It is a dated polemic, having been written three decades ago during the dominance of broadcast television. We have vastly greater access to information than when the book was written. But the notion of decontextualization appears dead-on, making the book a must-read*. Our access to information is now mediated by portable devices that bounce us from one bit of disjointed content to the next.

Is it even possible to communicate context on a 5-inch electronic screen?

*I recommend reading this in tandem with The Shallows, by Nicholas Carr. Carr’s emphasis is different — specifically how the Internet is changing the way we think.  But the book provides a necessary update for the idea of decontextualization.

A High pH

Museum of Science and Industry (Chicago)
Museum of Science and Industry (Chicago)

Once upon a time a ring from the wall telephone signified a crisis of some sort if it occurred outside of certain times. We just never thought to call anyone early in the morning, during dinner, or late at night. We stayed outside the boundaries of each other’s private spaces until such time as it was polite to knock. Not that stuff didn’t spill over from time to time – that couple fighting in the courtyard of the apartment complex was hard to ignore. But the boundaries were clear and the spillage said things about the emotional health of the couple that went beyond the obscenities they were shouting at each other.

Something has happened to the boundaries. We’re in each other’s private spaces in a way most of us would have found intolerable a couple of decades ago. Cell phones were involved somehow but it is difficult to say whether they are a cause or a marker.

My first cell phone stayed in my car. It was a foot-long “bag phone” that needed frequent charging from the cigarette lighter plug. I acquired it second-hand but it was expensive to operate and was used only for work. Even the original hand-held phones didn’t intrude much into our personal spaces. That obnoxious businessman at the next table with the original Motorola brick was an aberration.

This changed when the device shrank to it fit in my pocket.  Now cell phones showed up everywhere, like the movie theater, the car in front of you in the traffic jam, and pretty much every public space you can think of, as well as a fair number of formerly private spaces.  Messaging was added and then email.  Then we graduated to having the Internet in the palm of our hands and the relative cost has fallen so much that keeping the old residential telephone is a waste of money. In a post at Rough Type , Nicholas Carr observes that the smartphone is cooking all of our media down into a “singularity.” It is dissolving the boundaries between our music, books, news, and pretty much everything else and condensing it all into one space that fixates our attention in the palm of our hand.

The smartphone seems to be dissolving more than just differentiations between media. Somewhere in its development this little device acquired a very high social pH. Corrosive substances can be extremely useful in the proper place, such as the sulfuric acid in your car battery. But they are a problem on your clothes and hands.

We have spilled the smartphone on our bare skin. It is an extremely useful device, but one which we seem to have no sense of how to use.  It seems to be obliterating the separations between our personal, work, and social spaces. Couples are messaging other people when out at dinner together.  Employers and employees are emailing during non-work hours and days.  Acquaintances are messaging each other at times we used to consider phone calls rude. And a failure to respond causes anxiety in the recipient and sometimes consequences from the sender.

We are losing our sense of what is appropriate to say to whom, and when it is appropriate to say it. And we have lost some ready reference points for where you end and I begin.

Pocket Protectors

Technological progress seems to have a certain inevitability. Over the last twenty years large organizations have undergone a transition from the scattered use of mobile phones to wide use of cell phone to blackberries and now to smart phones. We started with typewriters, note pads, pens, and marginally useful green screen email. Now we have dual flat screen monitors and tablets and chafe at how slow the organization’s intranet is.

Galaxy S3
Galaxy S3

At one point communications devices stuffed into a pocket consisted of a rack of ball-point pens and various pencils in a pocket protector. Which was universally mocked. But it is hard to avoid a disturbing notion that somehow we have come full circle. My wife commented the other morning on how pockets on clothing (like jackets) that were intended for cell phones no longer fit them. Smart phones seem to be growing larger as the distractions they provide no longer fit on the screen. The smart phone has supplanted the pens in the pocket protector and spread from the geeks into nearly everyone’s pockets.

Locutus was right. Resistance was futile. We have been assimilated.

Writing Without Spaces

I’ve been reading The Shallows, a book by Nicolas Carr in which he argues that the Internet and devices which provide access to it are essentially rewiring the way we think. What we’ve discovered in the last few decades is that the brain is very malleable and responsive to changes in how we interact with our environment. Carr backstops the discussion with a sketch of the historical development of writing and reading, and cites analysis of the effect on how people think and looks forward to current effects on culture. Carr is looking forward and I’ve found his argument compelling. But what he highlights also has implications for how we engage with ancient authors.

The interaction with text was very different in the ancient world. There were no “books” in the classical world as we think of them. The codex (a stack of pages in a binding) was an invention of the early first millennium. Documents of any length would be recorded on scrolls and early writing was treated by scribes like the oratory they heard. It did not have spaces and there were no rules for word order. Meaning was transmitted through inflection as the text was generally read aloud. Silent reading was apparently rare as reading in this environment would require enormous concentration. The use of text was inherently different as Carr notes:

“The writing and reading of tablets, scrolls, and early codices had stressed the communal development and propagation of knowledge. Individual creativity had remained subordinate to the needs of the group. Writing had remained more a means of recording than a method of composition.*”

But when scribes began to insert spaces and impose rules of word order, the amount of mental labor required to read was significantly reduced, which facilitated development of the reader’s ability to concentrate and engage more difficult material. This led in turn to the development of the ability to think in a more linear fashion. Carr’s argument for the modern world, is that the Internet is changing how we interact with text and media in ways that appear to interfere with ability to concentrate, and with the linear thought that changes in writing made possible.

Looking back at the history of literacy and books suggests an additional point. Some caution is in order in the interpretation of ancient texts. Some of the fine-grained theological distinctions that Christians argue over might simply be artifacts of linear thinking, which was fostered by the development of easily read books. Nobody in the ancient world sat up late at night reading their scrolls by the flickering light of candles and smoking oil lamps.

The way we think differs radically from how Biblical authors engaged with the texts they wrote. Centuries of argument on a wide range of topics from scholastic disputes during the Middle Ages, to modern denominational divisions over baptism and predestination might lack even the possibility of resolution. The points made in these debates probably never existed in the minds of the original authors.

*Carr, Nicholas. The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 2010, ISBN: 9780393079364. 2011 Kindle edition p. 63.