Smartphones are truly wonderful things. You can forget your keys, wallet or even clothes but so long as you remember your smartphone when you leave your house in the morning you’ll be fine.
The Informer was reminded of this when walking to work the other day, appeasing his insectile attention span by reading an e-book (The Anubis Gates – highly recommended) while listening to music. Much of the book is set in central London and the experience was enhanced by the ability to switch to Google Maps while reading to explore the journeys and areas described. At the same time there was a constant stream of incoming alerts from news sites, social media and a suite of messaging tools, such that at the end of the commute it felt like a day’s work had already been done.
The Informer’s pride at this feat of multitasking was severely dented on a subsequent commute, however, when overcrowding on a train resulted in a standing position behind a seated smartphone user. From this vantage point the Informer was able to witness two-thumbed typing skills of Olympian standard and a bewildering capacity to flit between apps.
First on the list of morning appointments was Twitter, the stream of which was navigated with expert speed and precision, pausing regularly to contribute a throw-away comment in the space of a nanosecond. In the space of just a few short minutes the subject of this sociological study had interacted with a large number of fellow tweeters and moved instantly onto Facebook, then Instagram, etc. In the 20 minute journey there was also time to read multiple news sites, go shopping for shoes and complete a number of other Herculean tasks.
Technically both the above anecdotes illustrate how much more productive smartphones have made us but that term requires qualification. Yes we were doing more than we would otherwise have been able to, but they were mainly trivial, fleeting things. That’s not to say they were worthless, but neither were they technically ‘productive’.
It’s also possible that this constant multitasking is changing the way our mind works. We’re becoming used to being perma-stimulated and even a brief hiatus leads to panicked prodding of the touch screen in search of interaction. We also seem to be evolving towards committing less of ourselves to each activity. Social networks such as Facebook were founded on lowering the bar of social interaction to the level of a ‘poke’ – the very smallest level of social overture it’s possible to make. A typical social media interaction is usually something along the lines of “OMG!” or, even easier, an emoji.
On that subject, this week saw UK company Intelligent Environments claim the launch of the world’s first emoji-only password. This method is apparently mathematically more secure than using numbers, offering 480 times more permutations as it draws from a bank of 44 emojis. The company is claiming this method is easier to remember, so the Informer is going for angry face, wine glass, bloke on bike and confused cat.
In a similar vein that ultimate expression of ephemeral electronic engagement that is Snapchat has found a way to make money out of ‘geofilters’, which are emoji-like symbols used to indicate where a person is when they… do a Snapchat. In effect they’re looking for companies to create their own little graphics then pay to have them imposed on messages.
But while we may fritter away the miracle of mobile internet on chats, tweets and pokes there are many more profound activities being enabled by it. The Informer met with the people from Qualcomm Wireless Reach this week and heard about ways in which mobile tech is opening doors for people with slightly more pressing concerns.
Among the many case studies presented were the Vecna Cares Clinipak, which dramatically increases the productivity of health care workers in underserved regions, and Orb, which provides information and education resources for health workers in multiple languages via a simple portal.
While the ability to do a million things a second may be wrecking our attention spans and our ability to develop meaningful relationships, it’s also making life better in a profound way for a lot of people, so it’s just as well that it’s here to stay.