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The philosophy of phones: why it might not matter that you can't stop checking yours

A new paper on phantom phone vibration syndrome suggests that we rethink our negative approach to technology and its effects on us. 

Use a smartphone? Then it’s pretty likely that you suffer from something called “phantom phone vibration syndrome”, which roughly translates as “thinking your phone is vibrating or ringing when it’s not”. It also ties into related behaviours, like repeatedly checking your phone, even when you know it hasn’t lit up. 

In fact, phantom vibrations aren't really a syndrome. Researchers use the term because they don't really know what the phantom vibrations are, or what causes them. And yet the limited research into the phenomenon shows that somewhere between 70 and 90 per cent of regular phone users exhibit these strange, impulsive behaviours.  

The weirdest part, though, is that most of us don’t seem to mind. In both a 2012 study of almost 300 undergraduates and a 2010 study of 169 medical professionals, only around 2 per cent found the phantom vibrations “very bothersome”.  This hasn’t stopped researchers from worrying, of course – most studies try to connect the behaviours to a change in brain function brought on by technology.

Larry Rosen, a psychology professor who has written extensively on the subject, coined the term "iDisorders" to describe the ways technology may be impacting our psychological health. On phantom phone vibrations, he has this to say: “We are now so primed with anxiety…. that we misinterpret a simple signal from our neurons located below our pocket as an incoming message rather than as an itch that needs to be scratched.”

It is very tempting to charge our constant interaction with technology with a general increase in anxiety and decrease in attention spans. In the summer 2008 issue of the Atlantic, technology writer Nicholas Carr threw his hat into the ring with the headline “Is Google making us stupid?”:

Over the past few years I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory. My mind isn’t going – so far as I can tell – but it’s changing. I’m not thinking the way I used to think.”

But Robert Rosenberger, a professor in the philosophy of technology, has a slightly different take. In a new paper on phantom phone vibrations,  he suggests that we view technology as an extension of our existing senses, rather than a damaging new development somehow divorced from all the other technologies – from flints to Facebook – which we've used throughout history. 

“There are ways to talk about technology without reducing everything to brain rewiring talk,” he tells me over the phone. “Yes, you’re brain’s involved, but your brain’s involved in everything. There's a weird scientific legitimacy that comes from saying it's changing your brain, as opposed to just claiming it’s changing your behaviour or society. If I'm teaching you to drive, we wouldn't talk about brains. I would just say, OK, take hold of the steering wheel. ”

To counter this type of knee-jerk thinking, his paper on phantom vibrations, published in the journal Computers in Human Behaviour, includes a section on the philosophy of experience and phenomenology. Philosopher Martin Heidigger, for example, wrote about humans’ use of technology in the 60s, and noted that where we use technology as a tool, it simply becomes part of the user’s experience (he uses eyeglasses as an example). As Rosenberger paraphrases in his paper, “a user may remain barely aware of the device itself as it is used. Instead, it is whatever the device is being used for—whatever work is being accomplished with that device—that stands forward with significance.”

In this formulation, it’s not the, phone, glasses or book which are at the centre of our experience– it’s the communication from a friend, view of the sea, or story that our brains are really concerned with.  Rosenberger describes phones as a “mediating technology”, used to do the same old thing we always do: communicate.  

So how do phantom phone vibrations fit in? Rosenberger argues that they’re simply perceived by our brains as a “bid for attention made by another person”.  Vibrations in a pocket are easily suggested by fabric rubbing together, or a faint noise. Most of us who have experienced this have, too, thought we heard our name in a crowd, or spun round at a noise that turned out to be meaningless.

Personality seems to tie into the prevelance of the vibrations, too. Studies have found variously that those who are more neurotic are more likely to find the phantom vibrations annoying, while conscientious people tended to experience them less, and be less bothered by them. In one study, researchers tracked the phantom vibrations among medical students on different rotations, and found that students experienced more phantom vibrations during their year of internship, and far less once the internship ends.

This final piece of evidence backs up something Rosenberger put to me thus: “We could think of these phantom vibrations as a kind of bad habit – not a very bad one, as it’s not actually bothersome – which might be a more useful analogy than a rewired brain.” Yes, we check our phones a lot – but the effects can disappear quickly once the reasons for checking (emergencies while working on a hospital ward, for example) disappear.

Indeed, as communication devices become more wearable, they're likely to become even more embedded in our consciousness. Because Apple Watches, for example, don’t need to be physically taken out and looked at, the checking process is far less distracting, as this post on wearables from product designer Luke Wroblewski demonstrates.

We may be addicted to our phones, and we may check them too much – but if our technology is just an extension of ourselves, we’re only as bad as Charlie Brown, obsessively checking his postbox for Valentines, or a late commuter, straining for the sound of their bus rounding the corner. The technology and tools may change, but we're only as neurotic and anxious as we've always been. 

Barbara Speed is comment editor at the i, and was technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman, and a staff writer at CityMetric.

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“There will be an absolute meltdown in 2020” : what’s holding back the introduction of electronic voting?

The government's reluctance to implement electronic voting will affect our future, and in – the case of Brexit – may have already dramatically affected our past. 

Imagine, just for a second, that the situation was reversed. Imagine if, for a hundred years, we had scanned, swiped, and tapped our votes into a secure, fool-proof electronic system and someone waddled along and said, “Alright lads, how about we try pencil and paper?”. How about we desperately try to find a spare hour to shuffle to the village hall in the rain and scratch an “X” onto a scrap of paper with a stubby bit of lead, and then let a volunteer named Deidre count it at two am? What could possibly go wrong?

If you picture this scenario – posited by my colleague Anna – then it quickly becomes clear how ridiculous it is that the UK has not yet implemented electronic voting in any lasting way, shape, or form. Not only are we not on board with popping online to vote, we’re also reluctant to use technology when it comes to marking our ballots, authenticating voters’ identities, and counting votes. Despite the success of electronic voting in countries such as Brazil, Estonia, and India, the UK continues to reject reform. Why?

 “I think the problem is political at the moment,” says Mike Summers, the program manager at Smartmatic, an electronic voting company who have run three national elections in the Philippines, have a 15 year contract with Belgium, and have counted around 3.7 billion electronic votes in 12 years. “I think there is a fear that if you enfranchise groups of younger people, then you don’t necessarily know how they’re going to vote.”

We can, however, make a pretty good guess. Smartmatic’s own research shows that 57 per cent of 18-24 year olds would be more likely to vote if they could do so online and 55 per cent said they would have used online voting at the last general election. As Labour's vote share could have been boosted at the last election if only more young people had turned out to vote, this might make electronic voting an uninviting prospect for Theresa May.

“Prior to the last parliamentary election the Labour party were vehemently in favour of electronic voting,” says Summers. “Things are moving very slowly compared to other developing and developed nations so our reading of the situation is that it’s a largely political one.”

The consequences of this inaction are severe. Holding off on a voting system that provides greater accessibility to all compromises the very notion of democracy, but it also has potentially more immediate repercussions. “In 2020 everything is going to hit the proverbial fan we’re going to be a laughing stock,” says Summers.

The reason for this is because of the wide array of elections sheduled for 2020. Not only will there be a general election, there are also police and crime commissioner elections, the London Assembly and the London mayoral elections, and also local elections. “There is real concern that because of the complexity of this event there is going to be an absolute meltdown.”

Electronic voting would help prevent such a meltdown by ensuring, among other things, that voters couldn’t accidentally mark a first past the post ballot with a preferential voting system (or vice versa), that votes could be counted faster, and that overseas votes would not be lost in the post. The last is of particular importance as the government are now planning to scrap the 15-year rule that bans long-term expatriates from voting in UK elections.

“That’s a potential five million additional expats who will be eligible to vote,” says Summers, “How are you going to service them?” The answer to that is via the postal vote, and the limitations of this traditional method make the case for electronic voting even stronger.

“Postal voters authenticate themselves with a signature – mine is easily forgeable – and their date of birth,” says Summers. “The traditional methods are not secure. With online voting we can use facial biometrics to compare a person’s digital facial portrait – a selfie, if you like – with their ID, and we can verify there is a match.

“The next problem is security, and putting your ballot in an envelope is not secure. We have very, very strong application level cryptography. The moment a voter casts their ballot we encrypt it on the voting side and digitally sign it as a method of proving the integrity. Additionally, when postal voters put their vote in the post box they have no way of checking it was received or counted, so you have no verifiability. We have a number of tools that voters can use to verify their vote was received and was included in the final tally.”

Nowhere is the importance of the postal vote clearer than in the case of Brexit. “You could argue that the outcome would have been different,” says Summers. “Lots of expats voted by post and a lot of the votes didn’t come back before the close of the election count. We have an office in Amsterdam and one of the guys plays in a local rugby club in The Hague. There are ten Brits on that team and six of them received their postal vote after the close of the election. If you’re an expat living overseas then are you going to vote for or against Brexit? If those voters had voted then the outcome could have been completely different.”

Yet the benefits of accuracy, transparency, verifiability, and accessibility are easily side-lined by one bloodcurdling word. Hackers. If Hillary Clinton’s emails can become your bedtime reading, isn’t it possible – nay, probable – that elections will be hacked, falsified, and corrupted?

“The easiest election to hack is a paper election,” says Summers. “It is important to educate people on the difference between election information systems, which the DMC use, and voting systems. The protections of voting systems are above and beyond anything you will use in any other online application, including online banking and ecommerce solutions.”

As a representative of Smartmatic, Summers would say this, but they and other companies have created a wide variety of solutions which – even if imperfect – are vulnerable to fewer mistakes than Deidre in the village hall. Even if there are flaws, it seems important to iron these out now – before 2020 – to ensure the success of electronic voting in the future.

Although the House of Commons’ Commission on Digital Democracy recommended that the UK should adopt electronic voting by 2020, there is little evidence that steps are being taken towards this goal. “I’d love to turn around and say I think steps are being taken but there is a lack of willingness to acknowledge the shortcomings that we have in terms of UK elections,” says Summers. For now, then, the debate rages on. Should we stick to the tried-and-tested, or should we transform the electoral process forever? I know – let's vote on it. 

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.