December 1, 2013

The cost of convenience

We’ve got the whole world in the palms of our hands now, but what are we giving up?

By Bruce Newman
San Jose Mercury News

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The Moore family, from left, Bill, Dylan, 13, Randy, 18, Sandra and Alyssa, 12, talk about how they use their smartphones, tablets and computers at their home in San Jose, Calif. “We spend a lot of time convincing Bill that it’s easier this way,” said his wife.

Photos by LiPo Ching/San Jose Mercury News

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Bill Moore runs his business from the garage of his home. He calls himself a “digital dinosaur” but recently he opened a PayPal account.

That’s likely because evolution encodes humans with genetic material at an imperceptible pace, but technology’s changes arrive in revelatory, revolutionary bursts. It took millions of years for living organisms to develop eyes, and yet in the six years since the iPhone became the Apple of our eyes, we have turned them increasingly toward our smartphone screens. In a blur that began with the creation of the personal computer in 1977, accelerated with Apple’s three-i’d triclops of convenience – the iPod, iPhone and iPad – technology has removed the points of friction, one by one, that for centuries held us in check.

We can shop for diapers in our underwear, buy a new car in the middle of the night, download “War and Peace” (for free), play the video game “Total War” (for a fee), and create a collage of classic war pictures on Pinterest. All before getting out of bed.

“These devices are extraordinarily compelling,” said Mathias Crawford, 30, who studies digital media in society at Stanford University. “It’s great to have your social network at your fingertips. When you’re on the network, you flow very easily from one nice place to another. The problem with that is, you start to pay attention to the things that are on the network because they’re on the network.”

Those networks are largely controlled by vast corporations, such as Google and Yahoo, that shower customers with conveniences – free email, free applications, free maps – all of which come at a price: They are laden with advertising, turn your personal data into a revenue stream, or both. “Don’t make the mistake of thinking you’re Facebook’s customer,” said Internet security expert Bruce Schneier. “You’re not. You’re the product.”

Still, most of us don’t mind being slightly commodified if it means living in a world in which our phone is transformed into a stock-tracking device, a video camera and a flashlight. A billion people have decided Facebook ads are a small price for watching cat videos in our underwear.

When she was pregnant with their eldest child 20 years ago, Sandra Moore was under orders from her worried husband to call the pager he carried for the occasion, then he would run to a pay phone every time the baby kicked. By contrast, until Alyssa tried calling a radio station to win a prize, she had never gotten a busy signal in her life. “I had to explain to her what that was,” Sandra Moore said.

Unlike her children, who are bewitched by apps, Sandra still thinks of the phone as a phone, not a digital magic wand. She checks in regularly with her family. Staying connected is what makes the high cost of convenience – an average of $3,300 a year for the Moores’ 10-gigabyte AT&T data plan – seem well worth it to them. When Apple’s iPhone came on the market in 2007, average annual spending on telephone service was $1,110 per household, according to Labor Department data.

It’s actually the keening chorus of social media, and the online devices that seem to have no offline, that exacts a higher cost on the family. Bill and Sandra Moore are “driven nuts,” he said, by their younger kids watching TV, talking to friends on FaceTime, while texting others – all at the same time. “The younger ones are getting wrapped up in this technology,” he said, “almost to the point where they’re not sure what to do with their lives anymore.”

Alyssa has a laptop computer and a Kindle Fire that she saved for, although as soon as she bought herself an iPad 3 at 11, the Kindle was retired. You could call her a multi-tasker, but she doesn’t view anything she does on her devices as tasks. Just as breathing out and breathing in are not considered multi-tasking, Alyssa’s generation has adapted so completely to the convenience of technology that they find it difficult to do just one thing at a time.

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