On a routine weekday morning I set my alarm for 6-15 to wake up in time for the business bulletin on Radio 4’s Today Programme. I’m a big fan of this 10 minute slot, especially when presented by the excellent Simon Jack. Sadly, Simon was on holiday yesterday morning.
On a quiet day for business stories the bulletin covered Ofcom’s ‘Communications Market 2015’ report. The report found that smartphones have replaced laptops as the UK’s favourite device for getting online. It highlights the success of 4G in driving increased mobile internet usage, with the number of 4G subscriptions having risen from 2.7 million to a staggering 23.7 million in a single year.
So far, so interesting. But with time to fill, the presenter asked the following question of his Ofcom interviewee:
“The research shows that we are now using smartphones, on average, for two hours per day. Is that dangerous? Should we be worried?”
He went on to make a reference to his childhood and parental warnings of ‘getting square eyes’ from watching too much television and wondered aloud whether children today would get ‘rectangular eyes’ from staring at their smartphones.
In posing this question the presenter was joining a long and undignified lineage of proponents of techno-fear. His comments were worthy of those in the Victoria era who thought that people’s heads would fall off as a result of travelling at 30 miles per hour on steam trains, or that regular cyclists would develop ‘bicyclist’s face’ (think facial distortion of someone sky diving).
More specifically, the comments are typical of a long history of fear about media and communications technology, especially its impact on young people. Since the early decades of the twentieth century, the advent of the movies, the talkies, the wireless, the television, the games console, the internet and now the smartphone have heralded talk of a corrupting influence on society in general, and youth in particular.
The proponents of techno-fear tend to rely on assertion rather than evidence. Indeed, it is hard to find authoritative evidence of social detriment caused by technology. Rather, what evidence exists suggests that technological advances have a positive impact on society and individual well-being. Anyone who doubts this might like to look at Trajectory’s work for The Chartered Institute of IT and O2.
It staggers me that in our supposedly enlightened times, intelligent people, in positions of responsibility, can perpetuate such ill-informed, superstitious claptrap about technology’s impact on society. This knee-jerk impulse to assume the worst about technology belongs to the dark ages and has no place in informed twenty-first century debate.