Thursday, 28 October 2021

Is Meta's Metaverse really what the world needs right now?

I started this blog in the late 00s to write about Transhumanism, Technology, and Virtual Reality. Technology has always been a passion. Growing up in the 80s I lived through an incredible evolution of electronics and computing. Mass mobile communication was a science fiction wonder I read about in the technology magazine Quest. My internet was Teletext, I wrote letters to pen pals. It was a time of hope and wonder for what the future of technology could bring.

Until the last few years, this wonder has continued. Smart phones have brought us closer together, and the digital world has matured into a significant piece of our lives.

I think it was the Apple watch when things changed for me. The iphone was an incredible, though incremental, world changing gadget. We all know that. But when the Apple watch was announced it became obvious that these technology companies had peaked. They were no longer about pushing boundaries, they were no longer interested in trying to evolve society with new technology. They just needed a new revenue stream. Smart watches have had some limited success. But change the world they did not.

I believe we may be witnessing a similar moment in the history of Social Media and technological connection. Facebook was a world changing platform. It connected lost friends and relatives, it brought the world together into one platform. Then it went public and needed to make money, and in doing so it brought about the attention economy, enabled cyberbullying, undermined democracy, eroded privacy, revolutionised misinformation, and generally became a toxic presence in the world.

Now, Meta seeks to bring about a Virtual Reality platform to rival any that have gone before. Is it a distraction from Facebook’s continuing problems? Is it just a way to develop a new revenue stream, like the Apple watch?

It’s probably both of these things. Yet the vision is genuinely something that many of us, especially those of us with an interest in gaming, have been wanting for decades. It’s easy to get caught up in the hype of something so long in the making, finally with some serious backing, coming to fruition.

For gaming, it could certainly make a difference. Free roam VR is as immersive as it gets. The fun factor of this technology is not overrated. VR is the inevitable evolution of digital entertainment.

For many, virtual worlds already have a bigger appeal than the real world as our environment and governments collapse around us. The potential for an immersive and varied universe of experiences is huge. If Meta gets this right and establish themselves as the gateway to this universe, they could become the biggest company in the world by a very long way.

Yet as for the metaverse becoming an embedded part of our lives, no thanks.

The world has changed. Facebook themselves have single handedly done so much to collectively turn us off technology. 

For those of us old enough to remember life before the internet, Facebook’s toxicity has pushed us to reconsider that simpler time. And those who grew up in this fully connected world and who didn’t get to experience the hope of previous generations, are not filled with wonder; and are immersed in its negative impacts while real social problems are getting worse.

I don’t want to be negative about this. It’s a moment I’ve been waiting my whole life for. But Facebook has already shown us where this path leads. I doubt I’m the only one beginning to wonder if maybe all this awesome technology is not what we need after all.

Tuesday, 14 September 2021

Adventures without a smartphone

Photo by Raychan on Unsplash

I spent a day without a smartphone.

As most of us have, I’ve grown addicted to the conveniences and dopamine hits of smartphones. So I decided to see how, and if, I would function without one.

The night before I was due to go into the office, I took the SIM out of my Pixel 2 and inserted it into my old Nokia E63. In the morning, I got up, grabbed both phones, and headed for the train station. I had the Nokia in my pocket and my Pixel tucked away safely in my bag.

I decided to take the Pixel too in case there was something urgent that I had forgotten about that I might need my phone for. I had no intention of using it. Also, I don’t have wifi at work, and I’m not sure if you’ve realised, but smartphones are almost useless without internet. Almost all apps require it, and those that don’t are not apps that you would generally spend a lot of time on. So without the SIM, I wasn’t likely to use the Pixel at all.

I arrived at the station and had to check my train pass balance at the machine, and top it up at the counter. The train pass on my phone could have been checked and topped up en-route, so that was the first inconvenience, albeit a small one.

I had been sitting on the train for about 30 seconds before I started to get restless. Sure you can look around, look out the window, take the day in, but that gets old fast, and I had a 50 minute trip ahead of me. My addiction pretty quickly made itself known.

I realised I was going to have to buy lunch, and I wasn’t sure how much money I had on my bank card. On the phone I could have checked that in seconds, maybe transfer some money if I needed. But I didn’t have that option. I made a mental note to stop by the ATM on the way to the office.

I toyed with the Nokia for a bit. Went through some of the menus, the calendar, the notes, the messages. There wasn’t really much there. And it didn’t quite match the thrill of scrolling through a Facebook feed.

I’m not sure how long it had been when I caved. Maybe halfway to work? I decided I would switch my SIM back into my smartphone and give up on the experiment. Or at least, check my bank. Maybe watch some sport. I pulled my Pixel out of my bag and went to open the SIM slot.

I then realised that I needed something like a needle to open the SIM compartment on the Pixel. I scratched around furiously for something to open it. Anything, a pen, a keyring, a safety pin. It was to no avail. I had nothing that could open the slot. I thought about what I might have at work, what I could get from 7–11, what I could beg from a stranger. The reality dawned on me. I couldn’t use my smartphone for the rest of the day, even if I wanted to.

This realisation actually set me free. I could no longer obsess over what I was missing, there was simply no way I could do anything that I needed the smartphone for and this was the way it was. There was nothing I could do about it, so at that point I just had to let go.

The day at work went pretty well, I quite liked the lack of distraction, and I had zero battery anxiety. I had to use Facebook messenger on my computer a couple of times. And email. Luckily I had already signed in, because I wouldn’t have been able to do 2 factor authentication through my Google Authenticator or Microsoft apps.

After work, I had arranged to go out for drinks with a couple of colleagues. This is where the inconvenience of a not having a smartphone really presented itself.

We got to a bar and were asked to check in. I asked for the pen and paper version. My colleagues thought I was making a political statement. I decided to show them the Nokia. When they had picked themselves up from laughing on the floor, they asked me what the deal was.

I said it was just an experiement. I mentioned the addiction of smartphones, and then, not one person thought I was crazy any more.

A few more inconveniences arose from not having a smartphone at this point. The biggest issue was that I couldn’t order drinks. Luckily I have generous colleagues. Just kidding, I had some cash on me. But the bar staff did insist that all orders were made at the table with the QR code. Had I been alone or with someone else who didn’t have a smartphone, this would have simply not been feasible. So I had to rely on others to order for me.

Another time I needed my phone was when we were talking about pets and I wanted to show a photo of my dog, and realised, that I couldn’t do this. A minor inconvenience, but just another moment I realised the reliance we have.

I also couldn’t take random photos of things. Or check how many steps I had done. Or check what time the next train was leaving so I could get to the station at a good time. This was the biggest inconvenience as it meant that my journey home was noteably longer.

On the train home, I got out my wonderful paper notebook and made a list of all the things I missed out on due to not carrying a smartphone. The list could be split into 3 distinct groups.

  • Things which were substitutible
  • Things which were a big inconvenience not to have
  • Things which I could completely live without

This categorisation was the biggest eye opener from this experiment. It made me realise what is really important for a phone to be able to do, and what a phone has that actually takes away from our lives.

Things which are substitutable

  • 2FA
  • Checking Bank balance
  • Paying for stuff
  • Electronic Train pass
  • Making notes
  • Taking pictures
  • Counting steps
  • Checking train times
  • Checking in at venues

There are alternatives to all these things, but, many of them are much more inconvenient. I would have to carry a notebook, a camera, a step tracker, a paper train timetable, a bank card and a train pass. Some of these are easier to live with than others and you have to make the choice. When was the last time you carried a (non DLSR) camera around?

Things which were an inconvenience not to have, and that I could not very easily substitute

  • Showing pictures of my dog
  • Writing emails
  • Ordering drinks
  • Checking in

I know I had Checking in to venues in the substitutable list, and it is, for now. But it’s becoming a real pain to be able to do without a smartphone. Personally I am not worried about being a pain, but eventually I can see the human element of this interaction being removed and us being unable to complete certain actions without a smartphone. Like ordering drinks now — the staff are around but they may not always be. I have visions of the 80s cafe in Back to the Future 2, or worse, the government bureaucrat robot bust in Elysium…

Emails are a personal need, you may not see them as being essential, and I guess there is something to be said about only actioning them on the computer like we did in the old days (pre-2010).

Showing people photos is not something I do often, but it’s something that’s not really replacable. I mean, you can keep a couple of pictures in your wallet but sometimes you think of a picture you took years ago that you just need in that moment.

Things which I could completely live without

  • Social media
  • Watching videos
  • Watching sport
  • Games
  • Keeping updated with the news

The biggest eyeopener of this experiment was realising the things I spend most of my time doing on my phone are actually the things I need the least. This is significant. We live our lives glued to our phones and we tell ourselves that we need them — but what we need are not the things which glue us to them.

Breaking the Addiction

Smartphones are a problem. They distract us from what’s important, they pull us from our children, they addict us, they waste so much of our precious time. Yet they have their uses. There are a few things which smartphones have which are increasingly difficult to live without. This is why we find it so hard to break this addiction.

But by identifying what is really important, we can break this addiction. Since this experiment, I’ve realised that a dumbphone is not the answer at least not for me and probably not for the majority of people. Some of us may be lucky enough to get what we need from a dumbphone, but for the rest of us, we need to accept the place that smartphones have in our lives. But they don’t need to take over our lives. It is possible to refine our experiences so that we are in control.

Social media is the biggest driver of addiction and removing it from your phone may be hard but realise that it is not a function that you need. You might need to take photos, to have a decent calendar, to have chat, but you don’t need these toxic apps.

Reduce your notifications — don’t let your phone dictate when you look at it — that should be in your hands, in your control. Give priority to close friends and family, and block everything else. It’s simply not important.

These 2 simple steps can make an enormous impact in reducing your addiction and usage.

After that, you might find that having a smartphone isn’t even a problem any more.