Bending the environment to our technology use

By Svenja Schlachter (s.schlachter@surrey.ac.uk), May 2016:

Recently, I cameshutterstock_228417220 across a newspaper article about Augsburg, a German city, which has implemented traffic lights into the pavement before pedestrian crossings so smartphone users looking down on their device can be made aware that it is not save to cross [1]. I have heard similar stories before. There have been examples of pedestrian lanes designated for smartphone users, for example on stairs in a university in America [2] or on a pavement in China [3] and in Belgium [4]. In Sweden, street signs appeared that seem to caution against smartphone-using pedestrians crossing the street without paying attention to traffic, similar to signs that can be found close to day nurseries, schools or playgrounds cautioning drivers against children running across the street [5].

Usually when I see these newspaper articles, my first reaction is to smile and shake my head: “How ridiculous!” But actually, most of these measures are meant to be ironic, they are meant to hold up a mirror to us to show that, maybe, it is not that ridiculous after all. “Smombie” is another good example of this: this neologism, a combination of “Smartphone” and “Zombie” was announced the German Youth Word 2015 and describes people who walk around staring at their smartphone unaware of their surroundings. Again a smile, a headshake. However, when you walk over campus or on the high street, the smile fades a bit; Smombie actually comes too close to the truth for comfort; it actually is a relatively accurate description. Which leads us back to Augsburg, the German city with traffic lights in the pavement. This measure appears to go a step further than some street signs and a bit of paint on the pedestrian lane which can be taken down or washed off relatively easily; this is a more permanent measure reportedly installed after a deathly accident has occurred [1].

So currently, the solutions of choice against Smombie-like behaviour appear to be to bend our environment to our technology use, rather than change our behaviour. This links to Almuth’s great blog post in which she argues that company-implemented one-size-fits-all solutions are not up for the job of solving the Smombie-problem at hand. Again, the change of the environment in form of external measures (e.g., servers not forwarding e-mails after a specific time like implemented at Volkswagen [6]) appears to be preferred to controlling our own technology use. This discussion has recently become highly relevant again in light of the announcement of the French Government to give French employees a “right to disconnect” [7]. The French Government aims to request companies to implement an official policy or guidelines regarding the availability of their employees, for instance formally stating that there should be no work-related e-mail communication during workday evenings or at weekends.

Although I fully support the idea that companies clearly signal support for taking downtime, both explicitly and implicitly, I do not think that a Government-implemented rule is the right way to do so. Why do I think so? One of the main conclusions drawn from our recent one-day event, the e-Resilience Conference 2016 funded by the Balance Network, was that technology use is something highly individual: people have different preferences, different motives and different approaches to their technology use. This is also illustrated by the differing opinions of the e-mail ban in France. Whereas some people welcome the planned out-of-hours e-mail ban because it presumably gives them a legal right to disconnect, others recoil from the idea of their flexibility being hampered or even taken away by such bans. So how could a one-size-fits-all solution possible cater to everyone?

At the end of the day, I think we should try to take responsibility for our own technology use. We keep blaming technologies for tethering us to work or for destroying our relationships, but we avoid seeking the blame with ourselves, the people using those technologies. Many appear to prefer to give away the baton; to have something technological or externally controlled in place that renders them incapable of using technology or reminding them of their surroundings rather than just not using it or using it in a conscious and purposeful manner.

But why is it so hard for many people to keep their own technology use in check? Why do some prefer being kept from using technology by others, their employers, the Government? Why do many people appear to find it hard to unsnap from their device and pay attention to their surroundings instead? Well, technology use is quite similar to many things that are convenient, but not necessarily good for us, such as having an unhealthy diet consisting of ready-made meals, not exercising enough, smoking, etc. Getting up from the couch to go for a run is hard at first, but after you have done it, it feels great and it gets easier when you make a habit out of it. Giving up checking our devices at all times might be just the same. It is a habit that we have picked up in recent years with technology use getting more and more mobile and convenient. But a habit that has been learnt, can be unlearnt and can be replaced by a more conscious technology use. We just have to make a start, even if it is tough to begin with. But while it is important to make our own choices, it is also very important to be aware and respectful of others making different choices.

e-Resilience conference_Image11

Some tips presented at our e-Resilience Conference 2016


[1] http://www.bbc.co.uk/newsbeat/article/36153741/german-city-puts-traffic-lights-on-pavements-for-smartphone-users

[2] http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/northamerica/usa/11685396/Utah-university-latest-to-introduce-texting-lanes-for-pedestrians-glued-to-their-mobile-phones.html

[3] http://www.theguardian.com/world/shortcuts/2014/sep/15/china-mobile-phone-lane-distracted-walking-pedestrians

[4] http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/belgium/11674215/Antwerp-introduces-text-walking-lanes-for-pedestrians-using-mobile-phones.html

[5] http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/sweden/12139462/Road-signs-warn-pedestrians-not-to-use-smartphones.html

[6] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-16314901

[7] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-36249647

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