Computers: Right Back Where We Started

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A lot of my time is spent writing for and talking to people for whom the computer remains a scary beast that is best kept at arm’s length, or, better, in a closet. I feel for these people because I’m not naturally a techie myself.

I failed science and math in school and almost certainly would again if I retook those exams. (I blame the science teacher, an evil vicar who tormented me, but that’s another story.) But perhaps these technophobes have a point? Perhaps computers and the Internet haven’t really done us any favors?

Firstly, the stats. Has the computer/Internet boom made us more productive? Apparently not. Well, it did the first time around: the 1990s technology surge (the steep red bit in the chart above) made us all productive, and that continued until about 2003 (the extra years beyond the bubble burst helped by the momentum of the surge, and some serious cost-cutting. But since 2004 the U.S. has been in decline in terms of the rate of productivity growth (or trend productivity, to give it its proper name), to the point where we’re pretty much back where we started in 1995. I know it doesn’t exactly follow, but given a lot of us didn’t have BlackBerries, ultraportable laptops and ubiquitous Internet connections in those days, does that mean we’re doing about the same amount of work then as we are, with all those gizmos, now?

Scary thought. And in some ways the answer is yes. According to research firm Basex, nearly a third of our day is eaten up with interruptions from e-mail, cell phones, instant messaging, text messaging, and blogs like this one. In financial terms that’s a lot of

McKinsey sees it differently: We’ve outsourced or automated all the simple stuff, so we’re left with people whose jobs can’t be done by computers.

I see it a little differently again. I believe that we have mistaken ubiquitous computing — in other words, the ability to do stuff anywhere, anytime — as making us more productive because we’re filling “dead time”. It’s this misunderstanding of time that I think is causing us problems. Take some of these quotes from a story on how BlackBerries make us more productive, from July last year:

I can now use downtime–waiting to collect daughters, train journeys–to continue to read and action e-mails, which means I don’t have a huge queue waiting for me when I’m next in the office

After a recent long weekend, I would normally have returned to around 150 e-mails …Instead, I spent an hour on my PDA the night before I was due back into work, and the next morning, I walked in to only six mails that required attention. Not only did this make me more efficient, but it totally reduced my stress levels

The technology both increases output by enabling what would otherwise be unproductive downtime to be used positively, and is liberating in that it allows flexibility and responsiveness.

The BlackBerry has definitely extended the capability of utilizing ‘dead’ time effectively–trains, taxis, 10-minute waits or answering questions like this

We are all benefiting from quicker response times to things that need actioning ‘now … Communication between department managers is much quicker.

Each statement is usually followed by a ‘I realise I need a balance/the wife hates it’ comment, as if the user is aware of the pitfalls. But the pitfall is not the ‘always on’ culture this creates, or even the lack of awareness that the ability to react quickly to something will simply prompt another reaction and require another response. The pitfall is that the “dead time” of waiting for your daughter to finish school, or the “unproductive down time” is actually an important component of our lives, and therefore of our productivity.

Sitting in your car waiting for your kid, the lazy hour on a Sunday evening after the washing-up’s cleared away and the kids are in bed, used to be time when you’d think about what needed to be done, or to reflect (on your daughter, hopefully, so you’re mentally ready for her rather than still mentally scanning emails when she’s gushing about gym class.) Dead time was there for a reason: a chance to think outside the box, reflect, think about that email you’re going to send the boss rather than jab a misspelled couple of lines on your BlackBerry so you can cross that item off your Getting Things Done list.

Productivity may be slowing because we’ve just filled every second of that dead time already and there’s nothing left to fill. If that’s even partly true, then the productivity was fake, since it was based on a false assumption: that the dead time was empty, an unused resource. Anyone who has sat in a moving vehicle and looked out of the window reflecting on stuff knows that this is actually the most important part of the day, and by removing it most of our BlackBerry-wielding friends/colleagues/bosses/spouses have turned into zombies, unable to locate themselves in the here and now.

The solution then, to this productivity crisis is to use technology less, not more. I’m not suggesting we don’t use BlackBerries — although I don’t — but I’m suggesting we stop deluding ourselves that these gadgets are saving our marriage/hearts. They’re not. They’re like ping pong paddles with the ball on a piece of elastic — we think are batting the problems out of our lives but they’re just coming back at us. Time to put the bat down and look out the window.

Ho, Ho, Ho, Tis The Season Of The Online Scam

Phishing — the art of depriving folk of their sensitive password data and then using it to empty their pockets — has become the scam du jour of the holiday season. The Anti-Phishing.org website says it has seen ‘dramatic’ growth in November and December of email spoofing (emails claiming to be from, for example, your bank) and general fraud activity. (Anti-Phishing is an industry group founded by Tumbleweed Communications, a builder of anti-spam software.) For example:

— More than 60 unique new phishing email fraud attacks have been launched against consumers in the last 2 weeks
— Over 60 million email fraud attacks are estimated to have been sent out in the same period – timed for the peak of the holiday season
— eBay customers were the most highly targeted by scammers, with 24 unique email fraud attacks over the past 60 days
— Online financial institutions, including banks, Visa and PayPal, represented the largest target group with 35 unique email fraud attacks reported over the past 60 days

It seems that phishing has been remarkably rewarding for the scammers involved. The Anti-Phishing Working Group reckons an average of 5% of recipients respond to such emails, resulting in financial losses, identity theft, and other fraudulent activity. And, perhaps worse, this “activity threatens the integrity of companies that do business online”. (I’m assuming they’re talking about banks, eBay and other folk who rely on ordinary folk to maintain their faith in the security of online commerce.)

There are a number of ingenious scams that play on the holiday theme — which also highlight that it’s not just banks and big-ticket items that the phishers are targeting. One example is a fake online Christmas card, designed to compromise AOL accounts. In this scam, the recipient receives a spoofed email from the “AOL Hallmark” team, and is asked to visit a website to pick up his/her card. In order to access the site (which is run by the scammer), the user is asked to log in to his or her AOL account, thereby divulging the account name and password. The compromised account can then be used, anti-Phishing says, to launch further phishing attacks, virus attacks, spam, or other nefarious activity.

Clearly this sort of thing is going to grow, becoming more sophisticated as users wise up to the scams. Recent emails now play upon the growing awareness of scams by claiming to be from your bank, warning you about such scams and telling you to ignore other emails. They then, of course, go on to tell to visit the legitimate website to confirm your password. (The main component of this trick is that 90% of the email is genuine, in that the images are all from the bank’s website, and if you hover your mouse over the link you’re being asked to visit, it may well look genuine too. What you’re actually seeing, is a clever ruse: the real website is buried at the end of the link, hidden after a lot of empty space. So checking that sort of thing is no longer enough. It should go without saying that you shouldn’t react to any email that requires you to do anything with your password. For a good resource on such scams, check out Codefish.)

In the end all this will help educate users about the Internet and improving their own security. I don’t see it doing any serious damage to online commerce, at least in terms of undermining public confidence. I do believe, however, that we’ve seen only the tip of the iceberg in terms of the sophistication of scammers, and banks and other online institutions must improve their awareness of the threat, as well as protect and educate their customers.

Have a phishing-free Christmas.