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.



Monday, 24 September 2018

Free Roam VR is as immersive as it gets

I recently visited Zero Latency — a Virtual Reality company specialising in free-roam experiences. I was expecting a fun, entertaining, but overall gimmicky experience.

I was blown away.

From the moment you put on the headset, you are immersed.

What makes the experience so unique is the way that you have to physically interact. It starts when you pick up your gun. It’s really there, physically in front of you on the ground. And when you pick it up, you can see it in the game. You can see it and you can feel it.

Then, you look around at your teammates. They are really there — physically and virtually. How far away they look is how far away they really are. You’re even guided by proximity warnings to stop you bumping into them. This actually increases your senses, essential when your eyes and ears are completely covered.

The social element makes it so much fun. It’s hard to believe that’s a real person standing next to you. Not like in an online game where they’re miles away — they are actually, physically there. It’s a hilarious experience.

The games see you wander around an empty, silent warehouse, waving a plastic gun around and looking ridiculous to spectators who are unable to see or hear what you are seeing and hearing. You don’t care. You’re in the game (or as Zero Latency calls it, “experience”) as much as it’s physically possible to be in a game. You believe it because you see it and hear it and feel it.

You believe it so much that when there is an object to walk around, you walk around it, even though it’s not really there. When there is something to duck behind, you duck behind it — actually avoiding virtual bullets. And when there is a rickety bridge between two buildings, you wobble. You know you’re in an empty warehouse with a flat floor. It doesn’t matter.

In the game, you walk from one end of the warehouse to the other, before clever level design coerces you back the other way. It feels like you’re exploring vast areas.

I have not stopped thinking about the experience. It was a defining moment in my gaming life. Like the first time I felt the speed of Sonic the Hedgehog, the fear of Doom, the awe of Hololens.

Like these experiences — I was blown away because I saw the potential. I realised what this now means for entertainment— and for the world. It’s not just about this experience. It’s about what this experience show us is now possible — the potential for amazing opportunities.

My mind immediately filled with ideas. Impossible worlds. Reliving dreams. Nostalgic trips. Travel. Psychedelic fun. Sharing experiences. Adventures — so many adventures.

That’s why it was so exciting, and that’s why I can’t stop thinking about it.



Tuesday, 20 September 2016

The Possibilities of Augmented Reality

 


The creative potential of Hololens and "Mixed Reality"is huge. There are a wide variety of applications we can develop for it.

I believe the demos shown so far are barely scratching the surface of what we can do with the Hololens. Once the imagination of the development community warms up, we're going to see world changing ideas. Industries will be turned upside down, lives will be changed, and millionaires will be made.

I'm going to make some assumptions on its abilities, but try and highlight some of the many directions we can take in creating for the interface of the future.

Presence Sharing

One of the most interesting uses for the Hololens is allowing others to share your experience, and interact with it. This opens up many prospects for communication and collaboration in virtually every industry.

Think about how cool GoPro cameras are and what we're able to do with them. Now imagine seeing the video live and being able to interact with it.

This particular feature also has plenty of promise for gaming, with users interacting with the same virtual objects, the same reality, or in the same game area.

Reality Overlays

Probably the main purpose of Hololens is its ability to overlay the imagined onto the real. We have seen some examples of this, and there is so much more to come. Interfaces will probably make up the bulk of these overlays, and there is plenty of scope for variety in how these work. But the possibilities go much further than just interfaces.

We've seen game characters and levels merge with the real world. What about augmenting our environment with photo-realistic people, new fixtures and furniture, or movie scenes? Or changing our atmosphere with movement, light, and sound? Virtual Reality might do this better. But having the real world still in view gives a certain edge to the atmosphere.

Gesture Controlled Augmentations

The use of gesture controlled interfaces might have been around for a while, but it takes on a new potency in the realm of artificial reality. Rather than interacting with things on a screen, you'll now be able to "physically" interact with "objects" in your world.

And while the recognisable gestures are still quite simple, this will only get more complex with time. As the Kinect technology gets better at recognising more fingers and more intricate movements, it will allow for more advanced control in much the same way as musical instruments or crafts.

Reality Recognition

Let's not forget that the Hololens cameras can be used to process the real world and the things in it. Measuring distances, identifying objects, detecting movement and more can all lend to the interaction.

How far can we take this real world processing? Imagine, tailoring your experience based on what the Hololens sees, such as popping up an information snippet of a visible landmark, finding your friends in a crowd, or identifying danger.

Voice

Like gesture controls, voice finds new opportunities in this context. It's part of the experience, narrating what you see, talking over the internet, recognising commands, sometimes recording. What else?

*

There are probably several more Hololens abilities that I've missed, so please leave a comment if you can think of any. Each of the items above has the potential for some groundbreaking new applications. Combine two or more concepts and the possibilities increase exponentially.

We just need to start thinking differently about what we can do. Rather than extrapolating our current computers and software to this new paradigm (which we should still do), we should try to think about what new possibilities all these new capabilities afford us, separately as well as combined.

I didn't want to get too deep into these possibilities, I really just wanted to highlight them, to get people thinking about how they might use each of them.

It'll probably take a few years for the world to realise what Augmented Reality can do for it. But all ideas are built on other ideas.

We're just getting started.

Thursday, 21 April 2016

Sunday Service at the Church of Retail

Shopping Mall

 

Sundays. The day of rest. The day of community, and spiritual reflection.

Or at least it used to be. Now, we have something else.

Today’s church is the shopping mall. We worship retailers. We congregate not side by side but in long queues, at the alter of the checkout. We pray for discounts, credit cards in hand, stain glassed windows replaced with shiny glass store fronts.

This is the world we have built for ourselves – consumerism is our new religion. There is no community here. We shop alone in large crowds, even fighting each other for the last bargains. Instead of spiritual guidance, we have forced lip service from uncaring store clerks.

The almighty dollar is our god now. These shiny, air conditioned, logo-emblazoned plazas are our churches.

I’m in no way religious – but there is definitely something to be said about getting together with your community and reminding yourself of life’s purpose.

Of course, it would be better minus the guilt, indoctrination and irrational narrative. Perhaps an open air “church” – an opportunity to appreciate nature and enjoy each others company – would be a good way to spend a Sunday morning.

Anything would be better than fluorescent lights and food courts.



Thursday, 25 June 2015

Automation and its Impacts on the Labour Economy

Automated Job Hunter

The Lights in the Tunnel” by Martin Ford explores the implications of the increasing automation of labour. It begins by visualizing the world economy, and how it will change as automation increasingly eliminates labour. Many commonly held beliefs are dispelled throughout the book with convincing logic and some unquestionable evidence. This is not something we can afford to ignore. Even without the current rapid advances in technology or full artificial general intelligence, automation is going to have some significant effects on society, and it is going to happen sooner than you think.

The Reality of Automation

This is not science fiction. Far-off notions of intelligent androids performing our every wish are the least of our worries. Automation is set to displace workers in many areas with little advance in technology. With profit as the incentive, it is only a matter of time.

Much of this displacement is simply a question of design. For example, automated checkouts are not intelligent, they’re just interfaces. Many jobs can be replaced by pre-programmed interfaces. The service industry is already seeing this happen. Other industries can be replaced by large databases (specifically knowledge based work such as General Practice and Law).

You might be reassured by the belief that “Robots can’t do everything”, and that until the day they take all the jobs, or perhaps just your job, you don’t have to worry about it.

Wrong.

As the video “Humans need not apply”  points out, robots don’t need to be perfect, they just need to be better than us. Human drivers kill 40,000 people a year in the United States alone, automated vehicles will be much safer. Your robot vacuum cleaner might miss the skirting boards, but it doesn’t matter, it saves hours of work and goes over the same spot dozens of times leaving it cleaner than you would have.

Also, automation requires software, and software is built from libraries of other software. Once developers have built software to perform a task, that software is then available to other developers to build on. Once a problem has been solved, it’s solved forever. The solution can be improved but you never need to go back.

So with automation being even better than perceived, and problems being continuously solved, it’s only a matter of time before automated solutions take a large proportion of jobs.

This becomes a problem, not just for the individual, but our entire economy. The entire system of consumerism depends on the majority having jobs. There is in fact a tipping point, a point where there are not enough people earning an income to sustain our current system.

The Tipping Point

With no buyers, there can be no sellers. The lack of consumer confidence will result in less demand and businesses will be less likely to take on more staff. The economy will embark on a downward spiral of unemployment.

This, of course, is not just a problem for the average worker, but for the rich elite, who will no longer have a market from which to make their fortune. Not only will less workers be bad for the economy, but with the massive drop in income tax revenues, even public services are set to be hit hard by the coming unemployment tsunami.

Nobody will be safe. Even cheap labour jobs in countries such as India and China cannot sustain their level of growth once automation hits critical mass, partly because they rely on Western prosperity in the first place, but also because their jobs will also be subject to automation, both in the west and in developed countries.

Then there is the misconception of the “Luddite Fallacy”, the belief that the economy will always create new jobs, and advancing technology will continue to create new industries for displaced workers.

Martin Ford’s argument is that accelerating automation technology will ultimately invade many of the industries that have traditionally been labour intensive. He also argues that any new industries that are created by these advances are unlikely to be labour intensive, focusing more on capital and expensive equipment – take Google’s extremely low staff number compared with its income as a prime example.

Therefore, our fate is sealed – and the idea that every individual must “earn their living by the sweat of their brow” is all but obsolete. Ironically, it is capitalism that has led us to this transition.

$lavery

There was an interesting point made in the book: This concept of “free labour” has happened before.

The slave trade in America was active for over 200 years. It made slave owners rich beyond their dreams, while poorer whites, unable to compete against free labour, lived in abject poverty. So how did it continue for 200 years, with so much poverty? Well, the slave colonies relied on exports. There was a constant flow of new money from overseas.

A system that depends on external resources can only increase its prosperity as long as the external resources continue. Today, we function under the illusion of separate countries trading with each other, but in essence, the whole world is the market, so really there is nobody to export to. Growth in this case can only come from inside the system – from more of the Earth’s limited resources, including labour.

Today, we are the slaves. Although we are paid, our money is simply to drive the system of consumption. It is what allows the producers to grow. At first, this sounds like a good thing. Essentially, the corporations provide us with value.

The problem becomes apparent when we realize that the system relies on us as much as we rely on it.

The labour of the working classes feeds this system. This is why we are, essentially, forced to work.

We need to consume to live, but to consume, we must work. This system, where producers are also the consumers, relies on itself to function. Production drives consumption and consumption drives production. Break this cycle and the system cannot continue.

A World Without Jobs

The reason this could be so disruptive, is that our automated future will decouple production from consumption. Things can still be produced, but there will be no way of affording it, because we won’t have jobs.

How can we have production if there is nobody to consume?

While Martin Ford does a great job of identifying the problems of automation in the current economy, most of his solutions are fundamentally flawed. One suggestion is an overwhelming “Robin Hood” style government welfare system that taxes producers to allow the consumers to continue consuming. He says that even the most hardcore libertarian will have to agree to this, as without it, there will be no market to which any business can sell its goods.

He explains that in this system, there would still be incentives for people to do good for society for example, and capitalism would still reward those who become the best producers.

However, it soon becomes clear that many of the problems of capitalism (relentless growth, inherently aberrant behavior, destructive affluence etc) are still not addressed in his suggested solutions.

Additionally, his argument is based on the assumptions that consumption is necessary for growth, and that growth is necessary for progress. This is a very narrow view. To believe that consumption is a necessary factor in progress is an assumption with little grounding, and as we all know, growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of cancer.

Regardless of Martin Ford’s suggestions, we cannot ignore the most pressing implication of the decoupling of labour from the production/consumption cycle. That is, the elimination of the assumption that everyone must work.

This is a profound concept that will have significant implications on society. Without a job, how can one survive? If not everyone has to work, why should anyone? It wouldn’t be fair if some people went to work and some didn’t.

What do we do when the lack of employment combines with technology and actually removes our requirement to work? For example, when our essential amenities are provided for free by renewable-energy-powered, fully automated farms, house building machines, and more, and the masses suddenly realise that work is no longer obligatory – we will see a near instantaneous collapse of the labour based economy.

These imminent tipping points will force us to rethink the roles of humans in the economy. This is perhaps the most pressing issue in our transition to a new kind of economy.

Luckily, the world is changing, and changing fast. We are seeing more and more possibilities, game changers, emerging ideas. The Internet is opening up new landscapes of economic paradigms (AirBnb, Netflix, Uber). Movements are forming that no longer participate in the current economic system, such as collaborative consumption and peer to peer systems. Technology is enabling people to manipulate the system to their own ends. Some have suggested the eradication of money altogether.

The movement towards a new system, a system where producers and consumers are no longer the same thing, where jobs are no longer obligatory, is already in progress.

With the very survival of the working and middle classes at stake, the question is whether a new system can be built in time.