Smartphones and Productivity

Samsung Exhibit 2Against my will, I was forced to get a smartphone. My friend and partner Will wanted to get a new phone so he decided to give me his old phone. It is some kind of a Samsung unit, but of course, compared to what I’ve had, it is awesomely amazing. I think what I had before is 0.0001g or some version of SLIP. (That’s old hacker humor!) This thing seems to do all the things I see people doing with what must be much better smartphones. I’m on Twitter, getting updated about what drunken atheists are up to. And I can check my 15 different email accounts. But it makes me wonder about the people who tweet and email throughout their days.

How do they do it? I’m a really good typist. In fact, I’m so good that I’ve forgotten where the keys are. My fingers know, my eyes don’t. The little keyboard comes up and I’m thinking, “Now where is that H character?!” It does, however, have this little microphone gadget that does a surprisingly good job of converting my voice into text. It makes obvious mistake. It is hopeless with homophones. It puts numerals into sentences when I don’t want them. And most of all, it is hopeless with punctuation and doesn’t know how to capitalize the beginning of a sentence. Still, it’s pretty amazing. I can get a tweet completed a lot faster than I could type it in. Of course, it is nowhere near as fast as I type on a proper keyboard.

The way I used the internet on my old phone was that I would enter a website and then put the phone in my pocket. After a few minutes, I would check to see if it had loaded. Mostly it did. Sites like Wikipedia do an excellent job of spitting out bits of pages to phones like mine. But even after regular pages would load, it was a hassle. It was very much like the old days using the text-based browser Lynx. If there was a left sidebar, you would have to scroll all the way down it because the page didn’t do any formatting. And worst of all, the phone’s browser would only load so much of a page. So the Frankly Curious page (which is hardly long) would only make it upwards of half way down the page.

Still, the whole thing makes me wonder. How is it that the whole society is going toward tablet computing. Maybe I’m just biased because I’m a writer, but I find a traditional setup with a keyboard and mouse far easier to use to get work done. Even for reading, I would rather just hit page-down than zip my finger across the screen, which seems always to cause the screen to move more than I wanted. Admittedly, I will doubtless get much better at that. But I wonder: does anyone get actual work done with these devices?

Q*bertI’m afraid that the answer is no. My experience in corporate America is that very little work ever gets done. And I suspect that the hyper-connectivity in modern business is just a way for management to convince itself that it is accomplishing things. I don’t mean to suggest that these tools can’t or even don’t help people be productive. But I think at this point, it would take me about four times as long to create an article on my phone—and that’s assuming I could use the microphone function. I could use the phone to tweet as I go about my life, but that would likely turn me into one of those sad people who tweet things like, “Just bought a BBQ chicken at Whole Foods. Yum!” And I can’t imagine anything but the tersest of responses on email.

The way the phone helps me greatly is that it will allow me to read my standard websites while I’m out. And I assume it will also work as a book reader. Also: the microphone function on the text messages is great, although Andrea has already complained about typos in the three texts I’ve sent her. But there’s no doubt that this is a major advance. It is just that its a major advance in the ways that I was already using my phone. And I don’t think those were making me especially more productive. In fact, I think that computers generally have made me less useful to society. So I curse them generally.

Of course, now that I’ve downloaded Q*bert, all bets are off.

7 thoughts on “Smartphones and Productivity

  1. I doubt anyone would claim that a tablet is faster for writing than a keyboard. (No author would write a book on one.) But ease of typing isn’t necessary, these days. Essays get shorter and shorter. Interpersonal communication has dwindled to 140 characters, max.

    Which is fine for some things. Particularly brief notes on current goings-on. Or humor. And even long-form writing has always benefitted from sharp-eyed editors who suggest what can be cut.

    While books should do well for a while, essays have been getting shorter and shorter. Sometimes that means more concise. But other times it just means less in-depth.

    One of the reasons I can read almost anything by Gore Vidal or Thomas Frank is that they take the time to make their argument. Whether or not I agree with them (which I usually do, although I didn’t when I first started reading them or Chomsky), they put effort into assuming I don’t agree with them and making a case to win me over. That’s what essayism should be.

    Rick Perlstein at the Nation had a piece I liked on this:

    Although his immediate target is a young conservative writer, the issue extends to most of them. They don’t argue. They assert. The ones who do so the most forcefully, in the most instantly catchy fashion, get promoted to the majors.

    Now this trend has been going on for a long time. I can’t think of a modern conservative writer who didn’t assert instead of argue (classical conservatives are different, naturally.) So I don’t blame our modern attention span for the simplicity of conservative writing.

    I do blame our modern attention span for the decline in liberal essayism. Not that there aren’t perfectly talented writers out there; you link to them often. And their work constitutes a kind of ongoing argument. Yet it’s all in bite-sized chunks. Most people who read their work do so because they agree with it, or to be trolls.(*) The pieces themselves are just too short to make a convincing argument to anyone reading them who has opposing views. Such readers would likely look at one article, realize this writer isn’t for them, and never go back.

    I believe there is something definitely lost in this. We lose in the quality of our debate. Informative video is nice (we are in a golden age for documentaries), but doesn’t engage one’s critical faculties the way prose can.

    Oh, well, TV was killing literary attention spans long before the Internet was. All I know is that, a few years ago in community college, when I had to do some political history research papers, I gave up slowly searching online academic databases and just did it the old-fashioned way. I set aside a few days to spend time at the local library with the biggest periodical collection. And I don’t think that’s just my techno-incompetence speaking. It’s just easier to skim fifty articles and find which ones to read in depth with print than it is online. Skimming ten books? Forget it, print wins hands-down.

  2. (*) On trolls. I’d love to read your assessment of that phenomenon. To me, the person who goes on "The Nation" just to start a fight seems unhinged.

    There IS something to be said for engaging with a hostile audience online. I took a few out-of-my-comfort-zone courses in conservative-dominated subjects ("Business Ethics" was one) at the suggestion of my academic advisor. She thought I’d contribute to and enjoy the discussion in an online course in a way I wouldn’t in a live classroom. In a live setting, if you’re outnumbered 20-1, you’re up against everyone else as a group. Online, you can have different conversations with different people.

    Because this was a public university course, the discussions had to uphold certain rules of conduct and respect, and my advisor was right. I had a blast, and some of the people I argued with did, too. (The ones who didn’t enjoy the arguments, we mutually agreed to leave each other alone.)

    Trolls aren’t having arguments. They’re deliberately trying to stir people up, to make them angry. Is this just people trying to feel like their Fox bully heroes, like kids will sing in their bedrooms like Disney pop stars? I DFFT, so I don’t know enough about them. I assume you do!

    And my phone flips on to make phone calls. The rest of the time I’m out, I’m either with people (who better but their damn phones away and have a conversation), at work, running errands, or riding on the bus. Bus is my Book Time. Without it, I’d be crazier than I am . . .

  3. @JMF – The issue of depth is an important one. I deliberately don’t go into depth (most of the time) because I can’t demand that much time of readers. But if I’m reading someone I really like or respect, I want the articles to go on and on. My preferred reading material is always the book length essay. On the internet, you have people like Atrios who rarely write more than a paragraph. There’s a place for that. (And it’s good, because his longer form stuff is weak.) I often feel that I only have a paragraph of material but I feel compelled to create a properly structured article.

    On the other side, there are people like Noah Smith. I like him and he often has very interesting things to say. (He is perhaps the best critic of libertarianism around.) But most of the time when I’m reading him, I’m thinking, "Just get to the point!"

    As for trolls? I think there are different kinds. There are professional trolls and I’m sure we all know what that’s about. I tend to think that the FoxBots are of that type. To a large degree, I think trolls are just people who want attention. I know the excitement of writing a comment that a lot of people like and riff on. I think the trolls get that same thrill. I try to ignore them.

    Other trolls are made, I think. I remember a conservative hanging around FAIR’s website. I had some very nice interactions with him. Well, it is two years later and he’s still around (I rarely am). But now it is just nonstop flaming with very little thought.

    Of course, I have done my own trolling. Here is an often funny recap of my argument about Glenn Beck’s rally size:

    [url=]31 August 2010[/url]

    I had more time on my hands back then!

  4. Wow. That was pretty funny/sad. There’s an old Beck song (other Beck) where the chorus just screams "Everyone’s Out To Get You Motherf****r" over and over, which popped into my head reading that. CBS is the Communist Broadcasting System, CNN the Clinton News Network, the New York Times is . . . well, I don’t know their label for the NYT, but I’m sure it’s something involving socialism. Probably Jews, as well. Everything except Fox, the ministry of TRUTH.

    Here’s a funny aside. I couldn’t quite remember how this whole CBS hate started (it was something about Bush’s service record where the network made a source boo-boo, and then retracted publicly.) I hit "CBS communist" in a search engine. Guess what? This year, the CBS show, "The Amazing Race," had contestants visit Hanoi, look at a crashed US bomber memorial, and learn a local patriotic song. (Actually makes shows like that sound more interesting!) Well, cue the outrage meter! More CBS communism!

    Back to the original point about phones. You’re right, there are good and bad lengths for everything, and book-length essays, which are the best, will be around for a while. (E-readers, which I dislike aesthetically, are probably helping keep books alive.)

    Here’s something that disturbs me, and I run into it a lot. Young people shamefully saying "I can’t write." I saw it in college classes, I see it in blogs, read it in e-mails. These are people who can express their day-to-day experiences, their histories, their opinions perfectly well. Yet they have a big mean devil on their shoulder screaming "you can’t write!" Because their tweets or whatever don’t get enough "like" icons clicked.

    Long-form terrifies them. Yes, their grammar often needs improving. It does for all of us when we start out. We get better with writing practice, and with reading things that are written well. I worry that phones are getting in the way of this. To have so many people intimidated by reading/writing is a very sad thing.

    I get accosted at the bus stop by young people who berate me or congratulate me for reading a book. They’re on their phones, so they can read/write English. It’s almost as if phones (and our idiotic, corporate-takeover, test-based school design) are creating, not an illiterate generation, but one fearful of literacy. I do not like that on the bus, I do not so I make a fuss.

  5. @JMF – I’ve worked with young people who have claimed they couldn’t write. What they really mean is that they [i]won’t[/i] write–that they have no patience for it. To me, writing is thinking. If you can’t write, you aren’t thinking. I only know what I think about anything by writing about it. Without writing, you allow yourself to be very fuzzy in your thinking.

    The biggest problem young people have is that they think they have nothing to say. But I can show that as false with 5 questions. Just ask a question and then drill down into the details. It’s all about intellectual laziness.

    The whole focus on reading and math is fine when children are young, but writing ought to be the focus from age 13 onward. And good God: no one should be able to graduate from college saying, "I can’t write"!

  6. We run in slightly different socio/economic circles. The young I know who claim they can’t write aren’t intellectually lazy so much as intellectually atrophied. Truly, a gal/guy at a tech firm who says "I can’t write" is just saying, "I don’t need to write to succeed. Oh, you can? Good for you, old fart." It’s different for community-college students who feel intimidated by the challenge, and see proficiency in English as some magic code allowing access to success that they’ll never be able to crack.

    "I only know what I think about anything by writing about it." That’s certainly true for me. I used to tell young people afraid of writing not to start by focusing on big themes or issues. Just start with simple stuff. Did you see a movie all of your friends liked, but you didn’t? Try to explain why, get into specific details, and send it to your friends, people who know you and are interested in what you have to say. Then read their feedback.

    Phones and social media have pretty much eliminated e-mail, so I can’t give that suggestion to young people anymore. (I point them in the direction of blogs friendly to their interests instead.)

    I miss e-mail. Once upon a time, I could bloviate 10000 words on a subject and get thoughtful responses highlighting what people thought were the most important points I made, and where they thought I was wrong. (That’s why I bloviate here.) I still write those screeds to help myself understand things, but I don’t expect a response anymore besides "nice!" or "thanks!" or "fun!" I should have suspected, when those brief responses started coming in with the addendum "Sent Via BlackBerry" that the end was nigh.

    At least they put up with me writing those screeds, as do a few others . . .;)

  7. @JMF – We always appreciate your bloviating here!

    They weren’t coders, who in general are not so bad about writing English–probably because it isn’t that different from computer programming. These were just ordinary techs who really did need to write for the job. I would request something that would result in maybe 5 pages of writing from me and I’d get a paragraph. It was frustrating, because I don’t have much patience for it. I see it as little more than laziness. But laziness that college had allowed.

    I’d be much more accepting of people who had never had the training. And I’m willing to help anyone who is willing to try. But none of our educational system really focuses on writing.

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