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Ed Smith: Why you should give up your smartphone

Silicon Valley has us hooked on digital dope. A “dumb phone” is one way to break that addiction.

“Pushers” have contempt for ­“users”. They rely on them for profit but interpret the relationship as the justified exploitation of stupidity by intelligence. Drugs are an obvious example, ­captured during a classic exchange in the US television series The Wire.

When one user asks his dealer for a hit, the pusher replies: “It ain’t even nine, and you fiending on it . . . He’s a goddam drug addict.” Separately, when a drug lord thinks a junior colleague is losing his judgement, he asks furiously: “You ain’t using, are you?” Using is for other people: using is the business, refraining is the lifestyle.

I thought of The Wire as I was chatting with a senior executive of a soft drinks company at a corporate function. Slim and elegant, she waved away the sugary or alcoholic drinks, favouring sparkling water. Sugar was for other people.

To drugs and sugar, I’d add a third: digital dope, the rampant addiction of our time.

My favourite story from Silicon Valley relates to Jack Dorsey, the Twitter co-founder. How does Dorsey start his day? With a big hit of social media, a chunky dose of the gear he pushes to us, a fat line of digital chemicals applied to his bleary brain?

You must be joking. Dorsey kicks off every day, unfailingly, with meditation followed by a workout. He avoids checking emails until the evening. The man has got to think, you know. Dorsey, a devotee of austere food diets, retains his discipline in digital life. Like a host wandering around a party foisting doughnuts on his guests, he is privately sipping super-juices.

Protected from distractions, Dorsey dedicates his talents to finding ways to hook users into spending more time on his platform – monetising those goddam addicts.

Well, I am pushing back at the pushers and their push-notifications. There is nothing cool about the values being pushed to us by Silicon Valley. Under the pretence of joining something liberating and modern, we are giving up information and control to a class of secretive billionaires. This dichotomy will define the next generation: disciplined people creating addictions for ill-disciplined ones, and then profiting from that dependency.

The preposterous share offering by Snap (its Snapchat app allows users to send naked pictures that automatically “dissolve”) is a classic of the genre. Devise a product, whether or not it makes the world better; inflate a bubble; never make a profit; finally, having flogged the gear to stupid users, then flog it to even stupider investors by selling them shares that don’t even give them a stake in the running of the company.

Just before Christmas, I accidentally smashed the screen of my smartphone. It came back from repair with all the apps deleted. I liked app-free life and kept the phone clean. But my email was still on my smartphone. And, like most people, when I know that my emails are in my pocket I find it hard not to check them.

No longer. I’ve acquired a “dumb phone”, made by the Swiss company Punkt. This phone does two things: calls and texts. It has zero digital capacity. Emails and apps are impossible. If I want to check my emails, it must be a conscious decision, not a habit.

I’ve kept my smartphone. If I’m travelling and likely to need email access, I swap the sim card back into the smartphone. But evenings, weekends and writing days are now mostly free from emails and apps.

Since the dumb phone arrived, I’ve noticed two opposite but connected developments. First, it has helped sustained concentration, escaping into my writer’s world. Second, I’ve found it easier to switch completely into work-free family life. Days are more productive and less stressful. That’s because the addictive drug of mildly stimulating but usually meaningless ­curiosity – spreading through emails, tweets and
posts – is a barrier to entering a more interesting psychological space.

Cognitive reasoning relies just as much on empty space as it does on stimulation. Ideas may be initiated by information, but to grow and develop they rely on spare capacity. Fed constant information, we have no hunger to think deeply; dosed up on sweets, we’re giving up proper meals. The people pushing the pings are flogging self-medicated paralysis.

The smartphone is ten years old. A decade – that is our evolutionary exposure to living in the digital sweetshop, our hands just a moment away from another fluffy hit of sugary vapidity. We are not doing a great job of saying no.

That was the central insight of Petter Neby, Punkt’s founder. After a series of losing battles with his teenage stepdaughter about smartphone addiction, Neby then looked at himself. Checking his emails late at night, he was taking those problems to bed with him. “Technology is not the problem,” he explained to me last week. “We’re benefiting from it in this conversation now. But we must be the master of technology, not it the master of us.

“I could have written a book about it, but I’m an entrepreneur, not a writer,” Neby said. “I had to find my way to do something I’m in disagreement with.”

The shocking thing about the ubiquity of digital life is the paucity of our ambition. Can’t we choose a more exciting lifestyle model than fiddling with a small rectangle? Go back to square one – how do I want to live? – and ask yourself, “Who would advocate smartphone addiction?”

Intermittent fasting, we now know, is far healthier than any degree of “healthy eating”. It’s the same with our digital diet. Need inspiration? Think of the Silicon Valley mogul – post-meditation and post-workout – laughing at you fumbling for your phone first thing in the morning. “Ain’t even six,” he says to his masseuse, “and they’re fiending on it. Goddam addicts!”

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 09 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The May Doctrine

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The mother lode: how mums became the ultimate viral fodder

The internet’s favourite joke used to be "your mum". Now it's "my mum".

“I was like: oh my.”

Terri Squires is describing her reaction to the news that she had gone viral. Last month, more than 213,000 people shared a tweet about Terri – but it wasn’t sent from her account. The 50-year-old Ohioan was propelled to internet stardom by her son, Jeff, who had tweeted about his mother.

“I didn’t really realise what it meant at first until he was like: ‘Mum, you do realise that millions of people have looked at this?’ … When I started seeing those numbers I was like: ‘Oh boy’.”

It’s a funny story – and Terri laughs heartily all she tells it. After coming out of a meeting, she checked her phone and noticed a picture of a missing – white – dog on Facebook. She quickly texted 17-year-old Jeff to check that the family dog, Duey, was safe. “That’s not Duey… Duey’s face is brown,” replied her son. “OK – just checking,” replied Terri.

More than 600,000 people “liked” Terri’s mistake after Jeff shared screenshots of the text message exchange on Twitter. But Terri is just one of hundreds of mums who have gone viral via their sons and daughters. Texts mums send, mistakes they make, things they fail to notice – these have all become the ultimate viral fodder.

In the last three months alone, Gerald’s mum went viral for a microphone mishap, Adam’s mum shot to Twitter fame for failing to understand WhatsApp, Lois’ mum got tricked by her daughter, Harry’s mum was hit in the head with a football, Hanna’s mum misunderstood a hairstyle, and Jake’s mum failed to notice her son had swapped a photo in her home for a portrait of Kim Jong-un.

But how do the mothers behind these viral tweets feel?

“I'm pretty much a mum that everybody wants to talk to these days,” says Terri, with another warm laugh. The mum of three says going viral “is not that big of a deal” to her, but she is happy that her son can enjoy being a “local superstar”. But is she embarrassed at being the punchline of Jeff’s joke?

“Believe me, I have thick skin,” she says. “I kinda look at what it is, and it’s actually him and his fame. I’m just the mum behind it, the butt of the joke, but I don't mind.”

Not all mums feel the same. A handful of similar viral tweets have since been deleted, indicating the mothers featured in them weren’t best pleased. A few people I reach out to haven’t actually told their mums that they’re the subject of viral tweets, and other mums simply don’t want any more attention.

“I think I’ve put my mum through enough with that tweet already,” says Jacko, when I ask if his mum would be willing to be interviewed. In 2014, Jacko tweeted out a picture of his family writing the word “cock” in the air with sparklers. “This is still my favourite ever family photo,” he captioned the tweet, “My mum did the ‘O’. We told her we were going to write ‘Love’.”

“No one ever expects to call home and say ‘Mum, have you heard of something called LADbible? No, you shouldn’t have, it’s just that a quarter of a million of its fans have just liked a photo of you writing the word ‘cock’ with a sparkler’,” Jacko explains.

Although Jacko feels his mum’s been through enough with the tweet, he does say she was “ace” about her new found fame. “She’s probably cooler about it all than I am”. Apart from the odd deletion, then, it seems most mums are happy to become viral Twitter stars.

Yet why are mums so mocked and maligned in this way? Although dads are often the subject of viral tweets, this is usually because of jokes the dads themselves make (here’s the most notable example from this week). Mums, on the other hand, tend to be mocked for doing something “wrong” (though there are obviously a few examples of them going viral for their clever and cunning). On the whole: dads make jokes, mums are the butt of them.

“We all think our mums are so clueless, you know. They don’t know what’s going on. And the fun thing is, one day we come to realise that they knew way more of what was going on than we thought,” says Patricia Wood, a 56-year-old mum from Texas. “People always kind of make fun of their mums, but love them.”

Last year, Patricia went viral when her daughter Christina tweeted out screenshots of her mum’s Facebook posts. In them, Patricia had forgotten the names of Christina’s friends and had candidly written Facebook captions like: “My gorgeous daughter and her date for formal, sorry I forgot his name”. Christina captioned her tweet “I really can't with my mom” and went on to get more than 1,000 likes.

“I felt, like, wow, it was like we’re famous, you know. I thought it was really cool,” says Patricia, of going viral. Her experiences have been largely positive, and as a part-time Uber driver she enjoys telling her customers about the tweet. “But I did have one bad experience,” she explains. A drunken passenger in her car saw the tweet and called Patricia an “asshole”.

Another aspect of viral fame also worried Patricia. She and her daughter were invited on a reality show, TD Jakes, with the production company offering to pay for flights and hotels for the pair. “I have too many skeletons in my closet and I didn't want them to come dancing out,” says Patricia, of her decision not to go. “By the time I got off it, it would be the Jerry Springer show, you know. I’m kind of a strange bird.”

On the whole, then, mothers are often amused by going viral via their offspring – and perhaps this is the real beauty of tweeting about our mums. Since the moment they earn the title, mums can’t afford to be fragile. There is a joy and relatability in “my mum” tweets – because really, the mum in question could be anyone’s. Still, from now on, mums might be more careful about what they tell their sons and daughters.

“When I send Jeff a text now I make sure I’m like: ‘Is my spelling correct? Is what I’m saying grammatically correct?’,” says Terri, “Because who knows where the words are gonna end up?”

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