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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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How the internet has democratised pornography

With people now free to circumvent the big studios, different bodies, tastes and even pubic hair styles are being represented online.

Our opinions and tastes are influenced by the media we consume: that much is obvious. But although it’s easy to have that conversation if the medium we are discussing is “safe for work”, pornography carries so much stigma that we only engage with it on simple terms. Porn is either “good” or “bad”: a magical tool for ­empowerment or a destructive influence on society. Many “pro-porn” campaigners shy away from nuanced critique, fearing it could lead to censorship. “Anti-porn” campaigners, convinced that porn is harmful by definition, need look no further than the mainstream tube sites – essentially, aggregators of clips from elsewhere – to gather examples that will back them up.

When we talk about the influence of porn, the emphasis is usually on a particular type of video – hardcore sex scenes featuring mostly slim, pubic-hairless women and faceless men: porn made for men about women. This kind of porn is credited with everything from the pornification of pop music to changing what we actually do in bed. Last year the UK government released a policy note that suggested porn was responsible for a rise in the number of young people trying anal sex. Although the original researcher, Cicely Marston, pointed out that there was no clear link between the two, the note prompted a broad debate about the impact of porn. But in doing so, we have already lost – by accepting a definition of “porn” shaped less by our desires than by the dominant players in the industry.

On the day you read this, one single site, PornHub, will get somewhere between four and five million visits from within the UK. Millions more will visit YouPorn, Tube8, Redtube or similar sites. It’s clear that they’re influential. Perhaps less clear is that they are not unbiased aggregators: they don’t just reflect our tastes, they shape what we think and how we live. We can see this even in simple editorial decisions such as categorisation: PornHub offers 14 categories by default, including anal, threesome and milf (“mum I’d like to f***”), and then “For Women” as a separate category. So standard is it for mainstream sites to assume their audience is straight and male that “point of view” porn has become synonymous with “top-down view of a man getting a blow job”. Tropes that have entered everyday life – such as shaved pubic hair – abound here.

Alongside categories and tags, tube sites also decide what you see at the top of their results and on the home page. Hence the videos you see at the top tend towards escalation to get clicks: biggest gang bang ever. Dirtiest slut. Horniest milf. To find porn that doesn’t fit this mould you must go out of your way to search for it. Few people do, of course, so the clickbait gets promoted more frequently, and this in turn shapes what we click on next time. Is it any wonder we’ve ended up with such a narrow definition of porn? In reality, the front page of PornHub reflects our desires about as accurately as the Daily Mail “sidebar of shame” reflects Kim Kardashian.

Perhaps what we need is more competition? All the sites I have mentioned are owned by the same company – MindGeek. Besides porn tube sites, MindGeek has a stake in other adult websites and production companies: Brazzers, Digital Playground, Twistys, PornMD and many more. Even tube sites not owned by MindGeek, such as Xhamster, usually follow the same model: lots of free content, plus algorithms that chase page views aggressively, so tending towards hardcore clickbait.

Because porn is increasingly defined by these sites, steps taken to tackle its spread often end up doing the opposite of what was intended. For instance, the British government’s Digital Economy Bill aims to reduce the influence of porn on young people by forcing porn sites to age-verify users, but will in fact hand more power to large companies. The big players have the resources to implement age verification easily, and even to use legislation as a way to expand further into the market. MindGeek is already developing age-verification software that can be licensed to other websites; so it’s likely that, when the bill’s rules come in, small porn producers will either go out of business or be compelled to license software from the big players.

There are glimmers of hope for the ethical porn consumer. Tube sites may dominate search results, but the internet has also helped revolutionise porn production. Aspiring producers and performers no longer need a contract with a studio – all that’s required is a camera and a platform to distribute their work. That platform might be their own website, a dedicated cam site, or even something as simple as Snapchat.

This democratisation of porn has had positive effects. There’s more diversity of body shape, sexual taste and even pubic hair style on a cam site than on the home page of PornHub. Pleasure takes a more central role, too: one of the most popular “games” on the webcam site Chaturbate is for performers to hook up sex toys to the website, with users paying to try to give them an orgasm. Crucially, without a studio, performers can set their own boundaries.

Kelly Pierce, a performer who now works mostly on cam, told me that one of the main benefits of working independently is a sense of security. “As long as you put time in you know you are going to make money doing it,” she said. “You don’t spend your time searching for shoots, but actually working towards monetary gain.” She also has more freedom in her work: “You have nobody to answer to but yourself, and obviously your fans. Sometimes politics comes into play when you work for others than yourself.”

Cam sites are also big business, and the next logical step in the trickle-down of power is for performers to have their own distribution platforms. Unfortunately, no matter how well-meaning your indie porn project, the “Adult” label makes it most likely you’ll fail. Mainstream payment providers won’t work with adult businesses, and specialist providers take a huge cut of revenue. Major ad networks avoid porn, so the only advertising option is to sign up to an “adult” network, which is probably owned by a large porn company and will fill your site with bouncing-boob gifs and hot milfs “in your area”: exactly the kind of thing you’re trying to fight against. Those who are trying to take on the might of Big Porn need not just to change what we watch, but challenge what we think porn is, too.

The internet has given the porn industry a huge boost – cheaper production and distribution, the potential for more variety, and an influence that it would be ridiculous to ignore. But in our failure properly to analyse the industry, we are accepting a definition of porn that has been handed to us by the dominant players in the market.

Girl on the Net writes one of the UK’s most popular sex blogs:

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times