Meshing and Stacking Away from Disaster

I’m often haunted by the folk in Wall-E, the movie where humans have abandoned Earth to trash, a small waste-collecting robot and a cockroach. That’s not the bit that scares me: it’s the space-bound humans who are ferried around on pods, their eyes permanently glued to a screen in front of them.

Is this, I ask my worried self, our future? Or has it already happened?
In some ways it has. But for what it’s worth I think it’s a blip. The future won’t in fact look like that at all.

Right now we definitely have a problem. The problem is that screens have gotten smaller, or rather more portable, more convenient, and the content on them has become so compelling that we risk life and limb to watch them as we walk, stand and sit.

But this is just a phase.

I detect the beginnings of a shift. Not of our behaviour – sadly we’ll always be vulnerable to fixating on any screen with bright colours and movement. But the sheer multiplicity of screens is forcing change on us.

Consider the following: Of the seven hours a day spent gazing at a screen, at least two of those hours are actually watching two or more screens. Millward Brown, a brand consultancy, calls it meshing and stacking.

Whereas before we’d pop off to the kitchen to put the kettle on, now we scroll through our tablet to see what people are saying on Twitter about what we’ve just watched. Then there’s shifting, where we start watching something on one screen, and then finish it on a laptop, a smartphone or a tablet.

This may seem like appalling behaviour, slicing our attention into ever thinner chunks. And in some ways it is, but it means that we’re unlikely to be subsumed by any one screen. And that’s good, because we’re dominating the screens, not them dominating us.

There are other things afoot. Screens don’t need to be big to do big things for us: the latest version of Google’s Android operating system allows the user to stitch together separate photos of a view and then relive the panorama by moving the phone around in the air, the image moving as if the scene was in front of the viewer. It’s a extraordinary feeling, recreating a mural on a screen the size of your hand.

Then there’s something called Spritz, an app that allows you to speed read a book in a viewer no larger than 18 letters. The maker of the app says by shuttling words past your vision at speed 80% of your effort is saved for reading and absorbing. I was pretty amazed; it seemed to work, and makes you think about whether you really need a book-sized screen to recreate the experience of reading a tome.

Then there’s something called Snapchat, where users can send photos to each other which can only be viewed for a few seconds before disappearing forever. It’s hard to see the value in this, until someone pointed out that the value lies in the intimacy of the moment. Users don’t open the picture immediately, preferring to find a quiet, private space to enjoy it. Counterintuitively, by making the photo ephemeral, the app makes the process of viewing it special and the memory of it longer lasting.

Some might say I’m grasping at straws. But I see in these examples the beginnings of a new approach to how we relate to our screens. For sure, some of us will remain their slaves. But for others we may find new ways to derive pleasure from them, whether it’s recreating a vista, reading a tome or viewing a photo.

The Rising Noise of Silence

This is a commentary piece for a semi-regular slot on the BBC’s World Service. It’s not content that appears on Reuters, nor does it reflect the views of my employer. 

I’m here to report a new scourge of the public space: folk who watch video on their tablets in public without a headset. Just the other day someone sat next to me in a coffee shop watching a local soap opera on her iPad quite oblivious to the disturbance she was causing me and, well, just me.

Now this may sound like a small thing, but I’ve canvassed friends and it’s clearly a problem that extends far and wide. I’m told ferries in Hong Kong are abuzz with this kind of noise pollution, as are subways and buses in Singapore, as well as flights into and across the Philippines and India.

Putting aside my own tendency to be annoyed by more or less anything these days, I think we have here an example of a counterintuitive trend: what sociologists might call the reclaiming of public space from intrusive technology.

Think about it for a second. Up until a few years ago our biggest bugbear were loudmouths on their cellphones intruding on our reverie in trains, coffee shops and dentists’ waiting rooms.

This is not exactly yet a thing of the past, but it’s beginning to be, because as we’ve embraced the smartphone so have we preferred to occupy our time communicating via text or playing games on our devices. Take mobile phone usage in the UK as an example: the number of minutes most people spend talking on their mobile phone has fallen by 19% between 2007 and 2012. This, I believe, is a global trend whenever phones go from those basic ones that just do voice and SMS to smartphones, where you can do lots of other things.

The trend, therefore, is less time spent talking on phones, which means less time annoying other people in public.

This is a good thing. It basically reverses a trend we thought was irreversible – namely that technology was always going to intrude further into our lives.
So back to the watching video in public without a headset thing.

We’ve gone through an interesting couple of years on mobile. We’ve seen a lot more people buy smartphones, and we’ve seen smartphone screens get bigger. We’ve also seen a lot of carriers deploy faster networks, and in many cases reduce prices. All of this makes video on a portable device possible.

So it’s not surprising that folk are consuming video on their devices in extraordinary quantities. In 2013 video accounted for about a third of global mobile data traffic, according to Ericsson. By 2019, it will account for more than half.

Driving this are deeper phenomena: a lot of the people with these devices and connections don’t have a lot of space to call their own: they live and commute through crowded sites, sleep in cramped flats or dorms. While I do worry about all the neck problems we’re going to see in the years to come, it’s hard to begrudge people carving out a little private space for themselves wherever they can find it.

In a way, I’m amazed that this revolution hasn’t been more intrusive and irksome. For all the folks who aren’t wearing a headset when they immerse themselves in streaming soap, there are thousands, millions of folks who are.

So I’ll desist from decrying these inconsiderate souls, and marvel at how quickly we’ve adopted these new ways of reclaiming some privacy out of public space. What’s astonishing is probably how seamless this transition has been – and how quiet our public lives have become.