Anyone there? Photo: Getty.
Show Hide image

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 was technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric in 2014-16.

Lifestage
Show Hide image

Everything that is wrong with the app Facebook doesn't want over 21s to download

Facebook's new teen-only offering, Lifestage, is just like your mum: it's trying too hard to relate and it doesn't care for your privacy.

Do you know the exact moment Facebook became uncool? Designed as a site to connect college students in 2004, the social network enjoyed nearly a decade of rapid, unrivalled growth before one day your mum – yes, your mum – using the same AOL email address she’s had since her dial-up days, logged on. And then she posted a Minion meme about drinking wine.

Facebook knows it’s uncool. It had a decline in active users in 2014, and in 2015 a survey of 4,485 teens discovered it came seventh in a ranking of ten social apps in terms of coolness. In fact, only 8 per cent of its users are aged between 13 and 19. This is the main reason the corporation have now created Lifestage, an app specifically for under-21s to “share a visual profile of who [they] are with [their] school network”.

Here’s how it works. After signing up and selecting their school, users are prompted to create a series of short videos – of their facial expressions, things they like, and things they dislike – that make up their profile. Once 20 people from any school sign up, that school is unlocked, meaning everyone within it can access one another’s profiles as well as those from nearby schools. Unlike Snapchat (and truly, this is the only thing that is unlike Snapchat) there is no chat function, but teens can put in their phone number and Instagram handles in order to talk. Don’t worry, though, there are still vomit-rainbows.

But with this new development, rather than hosting your mum, Facebook has become her. Lifestage is not only an embarrassing attempt to be Down With The Kids via the medium of poop emoji, it is also an invasive attempt to pry into their personal lives. Who’s your best friend? What do you like? What’s not cool? These are all questions the app wants teens to answer, in its madcap attempt to both appeal to children and analyse them.

“Post what you are into right now – and replace the video in that field whenever you want,” reads the app description on the iTunes store. “It's not just about the happy moments – build a video profile of the things you like, but also things you don’t like.” They might as well have written: “Tell us what’s cool. Please.”

Yet this is more than an innocent endeavour to hashtag relate, and is a very real attempt, like Facebook’s many others, to collect as much data on users as possible. Teens – no matter how many hot pink splashes and cartoon toilet rolls are used to infantilise them – are smart enough to have figured this out, with one of the 16 reviews of the app on the iTunes store titled “Kinda Sorta Creepy”, and another, by a user called Lolzeka, reading:

“I don't like how much information you have to give out. I don't want my phone number to be known nor do I want everyone to know my Instagram and Snapchat. I could not figure out how to take a picture or why my school was needed. Like I said, I don't want all my information out there.”

But Facebook already knows everything about everyone ever, and it’s not this data-mining that is the most concerning element of the app. It is the fact that – on an app specifically designed for children as young as 13 to share videos of themselves – there is no user verification process. “We can't confirm that people who claim to go to a certain school actually go to that school,” Facebook readily admits.

Although the USP of this app is that those over the age of 21 can only create a profile and aren’t allowed to view others, there isn’t a failsafe way to determine a user’s age. There is nothing to stop anyone faking both their age and the school they go to in order to view videos of, and connect with, teens.

Yet even without anyone suspicious lurking in the shadows, the app’s privacy settings have already come under scrutiny. The disclaimer says all videos uploaded to Lifestage are “fully public content” and “there is no way to limit the audience of your videos”. Despite the fact it is designed to connect users within schools, videos can be seen anyone, regardless of their school, and are “viewable by everyone”.

Of course none of this matters if teens don’t actually bother to use the app, which is currently only available in the US. Lifestage’s creator, 19-year-old Michael Sayman, designed it as a “way to take Facebook from 2004 and bring it to 2016”. Although he has the successful app 4Snaps under his belt, there is no guarantee Lifestage will succeed where Facebook’s other app attempts (Notify, Facebook Gifts, Poke) have not.

There are a few tricks Facebook has put in place to prompt the app to succeed, including the fact that users are ranked by how active they are, and those who don’t post enough updates will be labelled with a frowning or (here we go again) poop emoji. Still, this hardly seems enough for an app whose distinguishing feature is “Privacy? Nah.” 

Only time will tell whether the app will appeal to teens, but one thing is certain: if it does, your mum is totally downloading it.

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