Earlier this year, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization, Intelligence Squared U.S. (IQ2US), organized a debate on the topic of whether “Smart Technology Is Making Us Dumb.” The format was simple: two teams, each representing opposing opinions, debate the issue , moderated by host John Donvan. At the end of a combative debate, the audience in the hall has a chance to vote for one of the two sides. IQ2US is a very popular radio show and podcast, and has hosted many celebrities, such as Steve Forbes, Dr. Neal Barnard, Paul Krugman, Karl Rove, Malcolm Gladwell, and Arianna Huffington, all of whom have taken part in debates on a wide range of provocative topics.
While it’s rewarding to just listen in over the airwaves, I went to the venue and sat in the audience in New York in May because I wanted to talk to Andrew Keen, an author of various thought-provoking books that often critique tech and business practices in Silicon Valley. In particular, I wanted to talk to Keen about his last book, The Internet is not the Answer.
For the IQ2US debate, Keen formed a team with Nicholas Carr, whose book, Shallow, sort of depressed me when I read it in 2010. But this was also around the time when I bought my first iPhone. Carr, whom I had thought dull and overly pessimistic as a writer, was entirely different onstage. Though he’ll never be outright funny, I appreciated him and his point of view more this time. Perhaps it was because now I was listening to him after many years of sitting in front of a computer for most of the day, and then using a smartphone or tablet while walking around the house and on the streets of New York. So by the time I went to the IQ2US debate, I had already started noticing new patterns of behavior on the mega city’s streets – observations that made me stop using my own smart phone while commuting.
During the debate, Carr’s opening remarks were as pessimistic as usual.
“How is the technology influencing the way our minds work?” he asked. ”By now I think all of us, if we’re honest, know pretty well how we use our gadgets. We use them compulsively. And the research bears this out. The average person with a smartphone will pull out the phone and look at it about 150 times a day. And that breaks down to about six minutes for your every waking hour. The average teenager or early 20-something-year-old will send or receive about 4,000 text messages a month.”
Despite addressing a room likely full of tekkies, Carr’s honest pessimismscored points for his team , which was trying to convince the audience that technology is making us dumb.
So why is this important? Even if the data Carr was using to support his argument is not completely scientific, it’s hard not to notice that people look at their smartphones practically non-stop – especially when they are commuting and want to kill time, perhaps expressing their desire to be somewhere else and not, say, on the subway. My anecdotal data is not perfectly accurate either, but I have to wonder how many times I’ve missed the train because I got stuck behind people staring into their glossy smartphone screens – texting, tweeting or whatever – while standing and blocking New York’s already narrow subway stairways. How much stress are we adding to our own and others’ lives by stepping on the train and not paying attention to other passengers who are trying to find space in the car? Or how unpleasant has it become to walk down the street while trying to avoid all the people walking around with their gadgets in stretched out hands, looking like some sort of lunatics who are getting calls and following instructions from outer space? All this behavior needs some consideration and requires some sort of new set of rules about phone usage if we do not want to start seeing more serious incidents and disputes on the crowded streets of our cities. That is, unless we want smartphones to be added to the Second Amendment and become as untouchable as the right to carry guns in America. I am afraid that this might actually happen.
But there is a funny story in all this. In the last few years, my cellphone, so often thrown in my pants pocket, has kept calling a particular friend of mine, who is often part of my Yonder stories. She introduced me to the term “butt call”: it is an unintentional call, started by the phone you stuck in a pocket of your pants. Why “butt”? Because most people are wearing jeans, carrying their phones in their back pocket, which means that when a person is seated or makes similar movements, their butt may press the screen of the phone and start a call. But it is not exclusively initiated this way, at least not in my case, since I never keep my phone in my back pocket. These unintentional calls to my friend were inexplicable to me, so to my great regret, I had to delete my friend’s number from my list of favorite numbers. She no longer receives my butt dials, but my phone now seems to call the phone number of my mother-in-law. Oh, well!
One of the much more serious issues caused by butt calls, a.k.a. butt dials, has been recently discovered in San Francisco, California. As the BBC reported, San Francisco’s Department of Emergency Management noticed a surge in 911 emergency police calls and was desperate to know why.
Had the city experienced a surge in crime? Violence? Fear? Or was there some other trend at play causing call volumes to increase by 28% between 2011 and 2014?
It was important to understand what was going on, because while calls were increasing, staffing levels were staying flat, and the system was struggling under the pressure.
Workers in the San Francisco 911 center were being encouraged to do overtime. At particularly busy periods, they were forced to.
Research by police authorities in the area revealed that the increase of the 911 calls was caused by butt dialing! In one sample session – when the researchers sat by the call handlers and noted what was happening – they found that 30% of calls coming in from mobiles were accidental butt dials. Since all 9ll calls need to be followed up and investigated (the operator has no way to know if the phone call is a mistake or true emergency call), tracing these calls is time consuming and often keeps the police from doing more important work.
The U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) estimates that in New York City, butt dials account for 50% of all incoming calls from mobile phones. That means that approximately 84 million 911 calls a year are unintentional butt dials.
“This is a huge waste of resources, and raises the cost of providing 911 services, depletes morale, and increases the risk that legitimate 911 calls – and first responders – will be delayed,” the FCC Commissioner told the BBC.
While the police are squeezing out their brains to resolve the problem, the internet news company Buzzfeed has compiled a list or more ordinary troubles but call can create in private life — to which I would like to add a question: how come butt dialing seems to be such big phenomena only in America? (One theory: Because pickpocketing is relatively rare in the U.S. — or because even the pickpockets have iPhones already — Americans seem uniquely inclined to keep these precious devices, ever ready, in their back pockets!)
Keen and Carr won the debate. And some restaurants and theaters, for example, have established cell-free zones. But the New York City subway system is moving in the opposite direction, improving connectivity and installing WiFi underground. So I suspect that instead of the situation improving, my friends will be getting more butt calls and those scrums at the subway doors are only going to get worse.