The New Luddites Redux

It's been a long time since I've written about the New Luddites—the last time was early on in my old blog (1, 2, 3)—but sadly their silliness has surfaced again. I follow Shelly Palmer's Digital Living blog, which is geared towards the non-technical user of consumer electronics but often has interesting posts. Yesterday he reported on a CNN article that discussed smartphone users obsessively checking their phones. That article, in turn, mentioned a study published in the Journal of Personal and Ubiquitous Computing.

Palmer begins by poking fun at the study for belaboring the obvious but then goes on to take its conclusions seriously and offer “solutions” for our addictive behavior. The study itself is not particularly compelling. Its methodology is ad hoc and its sample sizes are ludicrously small (the largest of the 3 studies had 36 participants, another 12, and the last studied 3 groups with single digit participants).

What are the study's results that have so alarmed Palmer? The participants checked their smartphones an average of 34 times a day. Really? Assuming they were sleeping 8 hours a day that amounts to checking their phones every half hour. That's addictive behavior?

First of all, it's silly to use the word addictive with its overtones of alcoholism or hard drug use. Those habits clearly are harmful both physically and emotionally. The most harmful thing pointed to by the CNN article was that one man's frequent checking of his smart phone annoyed his wife. Many people today choose to live a digital life: they read ebooks, get their bills as emails, keep electronic diaries, maintain friendships through social media, use Google as a sort of associative memory, and most of all stay connected all the time. The device that enables this lifestyle is the smartphone. Of course these people check their phones frequently.

To devise tactics to reduce smartphone use as Palmer suggests makes no sense except as a bizaro world yes-I-can type of experiment. Twenty years ago the equivalent exercise would have been to go without electricity and air conditioning for a week just to prove you could. Just as it was silly to worry about becoming habituated to electricity and A/C, it's silly to forgo the advantages of smartphones on the grounds that using them twice an hour is addictive behavior. The New Luddites are always with us, of course, but I was surprised and saddened to see the author of Overcoming the Digital Divide: How to use Social Media and Digital Tools to reinvent yourself and your career give them aid and comfort.

Update: bizzaro → bizaro

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