Essays on Technology and Culture

Gadget Fatigue

Recently, CIO published an article wondering if we’re nearing gadget fatigue. There’s hints of a social backlash against the omnipresence of always-on gadgets in our lives, whether it’s the “phone stack” to keep us from checking Twitter at dinner with friends, or the various places banning Google Glass before it’s even seen release to consumers. It’s true these gadgets are the enabler of a host of behavioral ills, and even I’m guilty of some of them, like checking my email while crossing busy intersections in Manhattan. My stance on Google Glass, is no secret, either.

To understand the frustration, it helps to think about just what the hell we’re actually doing with these gadgets. This list of the ten most used smartphone apps gets to the root of the problem. Of these ten, eight are social networks or messaging apps. They’re either a constant stream that demands our attention to either catch up or fill the void, or they’re interruptions that take us out of what we’re doing. We lose our place in the reality of our meatspace social interactions—or our work. I don’t need to link to studies about texting while driving, or the effect of multitasking at work. We’ve seen them linked enough damn times that we should know what that’s all about by now.

What a lot of us lose sight of is that a smartphone is a tool, like any other computer. We can check Twitter any time we have an Internet connection, so what makes it so important that we have to check it while we’re at dinner with friends, or a rock concert? I see no harm in filling up the dead time in our lives with the prosthetic distractions on our phones. An hour on the subway zips by faster when you’re reading a book, or when you’re playing Dots. It’s when it starts affecting larger aspects of our lives that we have a problem, and where fatigue sets in.

Perhaps gadget fatigue is another form of the way Facebook makes us unhappy. Our passive interactions with our gadgets—catching up on an endless stream of filtered photos of people’s dinners, inane status updates from our Facebook friends, checking our email every time the phone dings from another spam message—they all cause our brain to expect something less hollow and meaningless. So, we get sad. We get frustrated. We ignore the tremendous potential in these amazing devices in our pockets for the banality of passive consumption. That’s about it. Maybe gadget fatigue is a symptom of not tapping the potential of these things to actually change what we do for the better.

The problem with this theory is that not all of us are going to think about the revolutionary ways a pocket computer will change our lives. We think in terms of product features: “I can check my email on the go!” We think in terms of apps: “I can share pictures with my friends! And I can put filters on them!” Just how most people aren’t going to take up programming, most people are happy with what their phone comes with. 68% of people use five or less apps on their phone every week. Of those apps, I’m willing to bet most of them are in the list I linked to earlier. The possibilities of our smartphones are not limitless—the apps available to us define how we use our tools. Even a web browser is limited enough that it can’t do everything we need, no matter how much Google wants to insist otherwise with its Chromebooks.

I have to go back to my theory of how we can’t see the full impact of the technological changes we’re experiencing. Everything happens so fast, and so often that we don’t have the chance to get a sense of perspective before the Next Big Thing hits. [1] We’re still adapting to the idea of the Internet in our pockets. Designers and developers aren’t just trying to find the limits of what we can do with the new tools we get. They’re also trying to figure out the interface standards for a new class of devices, and we’re only just starting to organically figure out which patterns work best. I don’t see it as a leap to think that the social mores around smartphones and their descendent technologies are still being figured out.

It’s always going to be the tech savvy who figure it out first, because we’re the early adopters. 53% of Americans own smartphones. I can’t find statistics on length of smartphone ownership, but it’s always the geeks who are the start of the technology adoption curve. Assuming you bought your first smartphone in 2007 with the original iPhone, you’ve been a smartphone user for six years by now. [2] That’s enough time to develop a sense of when and where it’s acceptable to use it. The rest of the world has to catch up to us. And geeks are notoriously impatient. That’s the real problem. Until the world gets used to having these things in their pockets and hands, we have a mission to demonstrate how to use them right, frustrating as it may be.

  1. I sometimes wonder if this one of the reasons Apple has product announcements on a more-or-less annual schedule. It’s more impactful if a shiny new iPhone with a colorful case is announced a year after the last one, rather than a month or two.  ↩

  2. I also can’t find statistics on people who ditch smartphones, but I imagine it’s a rounding error.  ↩