Article on the Seriously Concerning Health Detriments of Smartphones

This type of article deserves to be read much more. Smartphone addiction has also been previously suggested to be linked with mental disorders in the young.

Chris Marcellino, who helped develop the iPhone’s push notifications at Apple, told The Guardian last fall that smartphones hook people using the same neural pathways as gambling and drugs.

Sean Parker, ex-president of Facebook, recently admitted that the world-bestriding social media platform was designed to hook users with spurts of dopamine, a complicated neurotransmitter released when the brain expects a reward or accrues fresh knowledge. “You’re exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology,” he said. “[The inventors] understood this, consciously, and we did it anyway.”

Peddling this addiction made Mr. Parker and his tech-world colleagues absurdly rich. Facebook is now valued at a little more than half a trillion dollars. Global revenue from smartphone sales reached $435-billion (U.S.).

Now, some of the early executives of these tech firms look on their success as tainted.

“I feel tremendous guilt,” said Chamath Palihapitiya, former vice-president of user growth at Facebook, in a public talk in November. “I think we all knew in the back of our minds… something bad could happen.

“The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops that we have created are destroying how society works,” he went on gravely, before a hushed audience at Stanford business school. “It is eroding the core foundations of how people behave.”

None of the Bay Area whistle-blowers have been louder than Tristan Harris, a former star product manager at Google. He has spent the past several years of his life telling people to use less of the technologies he helped create through a non-profit called Time Well Spent, which aims to raise awareness among consumers about the dangers of the attention economy, and pressure the tech world to design its products more ethically. Judging by the momentum his movement is suddenly building – he receives hundreds of requests for speaking engagements a month – his message is being heard.

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If we have lost control over our relationship with smartphones, it is by design. In fact, the business model of the devices demands it. Because most popular websites and apps don’t charge for access, the internet is financially sustained by eyeballs. That is, the longer and more often you spend staring at Facebook or Google, the more money they can charge advertisers.

To ensure that our eyes remain firmly glued to our screens, our smartphones – and the digital worlds they connect us to – internet giants have become little virtuosos of persuasion, cajoling us into checking them again and again – and for longer than we intend. Average users look at their phones about 150 times a day, according to some estimates, and about twice as often as they think they do, according to a 2015 study by British psychologists. .

Add it all up and North American users spend somewhere between three and five hours a day looking at their smartphones. As the New York University marketing professor Adam Alter points out, that means over the course of an average lifetime, most of us will spend about seven years immersed in our portable computers.

These companies have persuaded us to give over so much of our lives by exploiting a handful of human frailties. One of them is called novelty bias. It means our brains are suckers for the new. As the McGill neuroscientist Daniel Levitin explains, we’re wired this way to survive. In the infancy of our species, novelty bias kept us alert to dubious red berries and the growls of sabre-toothed tigers. But now it makes us twig helplessly to Facebook notifications and the buzz of incoming e-mail. That’s why social media apps nag you to turn notifications on. They know that once the icons start flashing onto your lock screen, you won’t be able to ignore them. It’s also why Facebook switched the colour of its notifications from a mild blue to attention-grabbing red.

App designers know that nagging works. In Persuasive Technology, one of the most quietly influential books to come out of Silicon Valley in the past two decades, the Stanford psychologist B.J. Fogg predicted that computers could and would take massive advantage of our susceptibility to prodding. “People get tired of saying no; everyone has a moment of weakness when it’s easier to comply than to resist,” he wrote. Published in 2002, Prof. Fogg’s book now seems eerily prescient.

The makers of smartphone apps rightly believe that part of the reason we’re so curious about those notifications is that people are desperately insecure and crave positive feedback with a kneejerk desperation. Matt Mayberry, who works at a California startup called Dopamine Labs, says it’s common knowledge in the industry that Instagram exploits this craving by strategically withholding “likes” from certain users. If the photo-sharing app decides you need to use the service more often, it’ll show only a fraction of the likes you’ve received on a given post at first, hoping you’ll be disappointed with your haul and check back again in a minute or two. “They’re tying in to your greatest insecurities,” Mr. Mayberry said.

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The devices exert such a magnetic pull on our minds that just the effort of resisting the temptation to look at them seems to take a toll on our mental performance. That’s what Adrian Ward and his colleagues at the University of Texas business school found in an experiment last year. They had three groups of people take a test that required their full concentration. One group had their phones face down on the table, one had them in their bags or pockets and the last group left them in another room. None of the test-takers were allowed to check their devices during the test. But even so, the closer at hand the phones were, the worse the groups performed.

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Maybe it’s best for children to learn young that their parents frequently find their phone more absorbing than them, because they will learn sooner or later. Catherine Steiner-Adair, a clinical psychologist and research associate in psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, interviewed 1,000 kids between the ages of 4 and 18 for her 2013 book The Big Disconnect. Many of them said they no longer run to the door to greet their parents because the adults are so often on their phones when they get home.

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Billions of people continue to be distracted and turned away from loved ones thanks to their smartphones. And untold billions of dollars, wielded by some of the world’s biggest companies, are devoted to keeping it that way. In fact, every financial incentive spurring the flanks of these firms is telling them to make smartphones more compulsively usable and therefore more damaging, not less.

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The lesson we’re slowly beginning to learn, though, is that they’re not a harmless vice. Used the way we currently use them, smartphones keep us from being our best selves. The world is starting to make up its mind about whether it’s worth it and whether the sugary hits of digital pleasure justify being worse, both alone and together.

Harvard Study Shows Why Big Telecoms Are Petrified by Community ISPs

Monopoly pricing leads to monopoly profits, and that’s the reason for big ISPs attempting to limit competition. If democracy is such an important value, then why shouldn’t ISPs — which control access to the key infrastructure known as the Internet — be run democratically by regional communities?

A new study out of Harvard once again makes it clear why incumbent ISPs like Comcast, Verizon and AT&T are so terrified by the idea of communities building their own broadband networks.

According to the new study by the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University, community-owned broadband networks provide consumers with significantly lower rates than their private-sector counterparts.

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A lack of competition in countless US broadband markets consistently contributes to not only high prices and slower speeds, but some of the worst customer service ratings in any industry in America. This lack of competition is another reason why ISPs can get away with implementing punitive and arbitrary usage caps and overage fees.

Harvard’s latest study found that community-owned broadband networks are not only consistently cheaper than traditional private networks, but pricing for broadband service also tends to be notably more transparent, more consistent, and less confusing.

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ISPs also have a nasty habit of trying to make direct price comparisons impossible as well, lest the public realize what a profound impact the lack of competition has on broadband pricing. It’s a major reason why the FCC spent $300 million in taxpayer dollars on a national broadband map that completely omits pricing data at incumbent ISP request.

“Language in the website “terms of service” (TOS) of some private ISPs strongly inhibits research on pricing,” noted the Harvard study. “The TOS for AT&T, Verizon, and Time Warner Cable (now owned by Charter), were particularly strong in deterring such efforts; as a result, we did not record data from these three companies.”

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To retain this status quo, ISPs have spent decades writing and buying state laws that prohibit towns and cities from exploring community owned and operated broadband networks. More than twenty-one states have passed such laws, which not only hamstring municipal broadband providers, but often ban towns and cities from striking public/private partnerships.

It’s also why ISPs like Comcast pay countless think tankers, academics, consultants, and other policy voices to endlessly demonize community-run broadband networks as an automatic taxpayer boondoggles, ignoring the countless areas where such networks (like in Chattanooga) have dramatically benefited the local community.

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ISPs like Comcast could nip this movement in the bud by simply offering cheaper, better service. Instead, they’ve decided to buy protectionist laws, spread disinformation about how these networks operate, and sue local communities for simply trying to find creative solutions to the broadband monopoly logjam.

As we’ve noted previously, community owned and operated broadband networks are a fantastic alternative to the broken status quo. For those outraged by the Trump administration’s attempt to kill net neutrality (and soon all remaining oversight of the nation’s entrenched monopolies) building or supporting local broadband networks is one practical avenue for retaliation.

Black Mirror Warns of Technology Usage Gone Wrong

Technology basically has no moral imperative — it may be used for both good purposes and bad purposes. There’s little inherently good or bad about most technology, as it’s how the technology is used that matters.

That being said, the show Black Mirror provides a number of warnings for a possible dystopian future. It’s a reminder that countries should now be devising ways to ensure technology is used in the public interest.

THERE’S NO REAL plot in the “Metalhead” episode in the new season of “Black Mirror.” The star of the episode is a small, uncommunicative black robot that walks on all fours and is armed with a pistol stored in its front leg. Who controls the robot, if anyone, is never divulged. The four-legged mechanical creature operates seemingly on its own and for its own purposes. Over the course of the 40-minute episode, it hunts down a woman desperately fleeing through a forest, as she tries in vain to evade its sensors.

For those unfamiliar with the show, “Black Mirror” is a science fiction series on Netflix about a near-future in which new technologies reap terrible unintended consequences on our lives; they strip away personal independence, undermining our societal values and sometimes letting loose uncontrollable violence. As terrifying as they are, the technologies depicted in the show are not outlandish. Like the autonomous robot in “Metalhead,” they reflect easily conceivable, near-term advances upon currently existing technologies, such as drones.

Since the first detonations of atomic bombs in the 20th century, pop culture has been morbidly fascinated by the realization that humanity has developed tools powerful enough to destroy itself. But the malign technologies depicted in “Black Mirror” are more subtle than nuclear weapons. Most of the show’s episodes deal with advances in robotics, surveillance, virtual reality, and artificial intelligence – fields that happen to be key areas for tech companies in the real world. The creators of the series demonstrate how, left unchecked, the internal logic of these new technologies can bring about the destruction of their owners.

“Black Mirror’s” slick production values and acting have won wide critical acclaim. But its social commentary also seems to have struck a nerve with a public that has begun evincing confusion, fear, and alienation over the consequences of new consumer technologies. A 2015 study by Chapman University found that three out of five of the top fears Americans have were related to the consequences of emerging technologies. The potential of automation to wipe out millions of U.S. jobs and artificial intelligence’s potential to undermine democracy have been well-documented.

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Even if the most dire warnings about rogue artificial intelligence programs destroying humanity never come to pass, we have already sacrificed much of our personal autonomy to technologies whose underlying philosophies were unclear when they were introduced to the public. There is a growing backlash to this kind of corporate authoritarianism. Calls to break up tech companies under federal antitrust laws are increasing, while disillusioned former Silicon Valley executives have become increasingly vocal about the negative social side effects of the programs they helped develop. Technological utopianism is slowly giving way to an acknowledgement that technologies aren’t value-neutral, and it’s the role of a functioning society to govern how they are utilized.

Pitfalls of a Cashless Society

The “death of cash” is a worrying phenomenon. It’s obvious why financial corporations are pushing it though — people have been found to spend more money using credit cards compared to paying with physical cash.

“Sorry we’re not taking cash or checks,” said the clerk at the Fed Ex counter over a decade ago to an intern. “Only credit cards.”

Since then, the relentless intensification of coercive commercialism has been moving toward a cashless economy, when all consumers are incarcerated within a prison of corporate payment systems from your credit/debit cards to your mobile phone and very soon facial recognition.

“Terrific!” say those consumers for whom convenience and velocity of transactions are irresistible.

“This is nuts!” say a shrinking number of free-thinking consumers who are unwilling to be dragooned down the road to corporate captivity and coercion.  These people treasure their privacy. They understand that it’s none of any conglomerate’s business – whether VISA, Facebook, Amazon or Google – what, where, when and how consumers purchase goods and services. Or where and when they travel, receive healthcare, or the most intimate relationships they maintain. Not to mention consumers’ personal information can be sent to or hacked around the globe.

Cash-consumers are not alone in their opposition to a cashless economy.  When they are in a cab and ask the driver how they prefer to be paid, the answer is near-unanimous. “Cash, cash, cash,” reply the cab drivers in cities around the country. They get paid immediately and without having to have a company deduct a commission.

Back some 25 years ago, Consumers Union considered backing consumer groups to sign up Main Street, USA merchants who agreed to discount their wares if people paid in cash. For the same reason – merchants get to keep all the money on sales made with cash or check. Unfortunately, the idea never materialized. It is, however, still a good idea. Today, payments systems are much more comprehensively coercive.

Once you’re in the credit card system, lack of privacy and access to your credit are just the tip of the iceberg. That is why companies can impose penalties, surcharges, overcharges and a myriad of other corporate raids on your private treasury. They get immediate payment. If you object, you could see a lowering of your credit score or your credit rating. Besides, you don’t even know you agreed to all of these dictates – banks have over 300 different special charges for their revered customers – in fine print agreements that you never saw, read or even possessed to sign or click on. What’s the likelihood that banks would continue to surcharge you if they had to bill you instead of debit you?

The sheer pace and brazenness of corporations when they have instant access to your credit is stunning. The recent crimes of banking giant Wells Fargo, including selling auto insurance and assigning new credit cards to millions of their customers who had no knowledge and gave no consent for these charges, which resulted in damage to these customers’ credit scores and ratings, can only be committed when consumers are turned into economic prisoners. There are still no criminal prosecutions of the bank or its bosses. Wells Fargo bank stock rose to a year high last month. To their credit, the CFPB imposed a $100 million dollar fine on Wells Fargo, which barred them from deducting the fine as a business expense.

Coercive fine print contracts rob you of your consumer rights by preventing you from going to court, imposing fines as high as $35 fines for  bounced checks (which typically cost the banks less than $2), and decreeing that you agreed in advance to all kinds of unconscionable abuses, so long as you are in a “customer” status with them. Some companies are even charging customers for quitting them.

The rapacity inflicted on cashless purchasers prevails across the economy – insurance, mortgages, telecommunications, healthcare, stock brokerage, online buying and, of course, requirements to use electronic payment systems.

The more consumers become incarcerated by the companies that purportedly serve them, the more lucrative commodity consumers become. This leads to, among other problems, massive computerized billing fraud in the US. In the healthcare industry alone, billing fraud amounts to ten percent of what is spent, according to Harvard applied mathematics professor Malcolm Sparrow, author of License to Steal. This year’s expenditure of ten percent of the $3.5 trillion expected to be spent amounts to $350 billion. A cashless economy further facilitates these larcenous practices.

A computerized economy is one where fraud can easily be committed on a massive scale, according to Frank Abagnale who, after serving his time in prison for identity theft, has become an impassioned educator (serving institutions ranging from the FBI to AARP) on how to detect and avoid such crimes, which he estimates to cost people about one trillion dollars each year.

What it comes down to is whether consumer freedom is worth more than consumer convenience or whether the points earned for future purchases (assuming the costs are not passed on in hidden ways) are worth minimizing impulse buying, avoiding big data profile manipulations, keeping personal matters personal and requiring your affirmative consent to transactions where you decide what you want to buy and how you can pay.

However, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to pay by cash or check. Try renting a car or occupying a hotel room or buying a snack or drink on an airline without a credit or debit card.

In the latest example of such coercion, new boutique eateries like Two Forks, Dig Inn, Dos Toros or Pokee in New York City operate entirely through payment systems that reject all cash purchases. “But isn’t cash legal tender?” you might ask. How could they reject cash on the barrelhead? Simple, says the Federal Reserve, so long as they notify you in advance. It’s that fine print again.

The New York Times, reported these rejections and noted: “Not surprisingly, the credit card companies, who make a commission on every credit card purchase, applaud the trend. Visa recently offered select merchants a $10,000 reward for depriving customers of their right to pay by the method of their choice.” The nerve!

Cash consumers of America arise, band together and organize a National Association for the Preservation of Cash Purchases. You have nothing to save but your freedom, your desire to push back and your precious, affirmative and personal right to consent or not to consent, before you are forced into contract peonage.

Interested? Let’s hear from you at info@csrl.org.

Discovery from Last Year: Device to Pull Water Out of Thin Air Developed

This discovery has immense potential to help people in areas that lack water. Only 3 percent of the world’s total water is freshwater — the rest is saltwater, with inadequate desalinization advances — so access to water indeed looks to become a more major issue in the years ahead.

Scientists have developed a device that can suck water out of desert skies, powered by sunlight alone. They hope that a version of the technology could eventually supply clean drinking water in some of the driest and poorest parts of the globe.

The device is based on a novel material that can pull large amounts of water into its many pores. According to a study published in the journal Science on Thursday, a kilogram of the material can capture several liters of water each day in humidity levels as low as 20 percent, typical of arid regions.

The technology could help address a big and growing problem. A report last year in Science Advances found that four billion people, nearly half in India and China, face “severe water scarcity at least one month of the year.” That means water shortages affect two-thirds of the world’s population. These shortages—and the resulting conflicts—are only expected to become more common in large parts of the world as climate change accelerates.

A team at MIT developed the technology with Omar Yaghi’s laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley. The key component is a promising class of synthetic porous materials called metal-organic frameworks, composed of organic molecules stitched together with metal atoms, which Yaghi pioneered (see “A Better Way to Capture Carbon”). The size and chemical character of the material’s pores can be customized to capture particular types of molecules or allow them to flow through. The material also has a massive surface area, on the order of a football field per gram, enabling it to bond with a large quantity of particles.

In this case, the scientists employed a previously developed version of the material that Yaghi optimized to efficiently capture water molecules. The prototype bonds with water at night or in shade. But during the day, sunlight hitting the material adds enough energy to convert the water molecules into vapor. In turn, they slip out of the material’s pores and into an adjacent acrylic enclosure. A condenser at the bottom of the vessel collects the water droplets and funnels them into a chamber below, from which clean water can be collected.

The process is completely passive, with no need for solar panels, batteries, or additional energy. Previous water-harvesting technologies have been limited to areas with fog or other high-moisture conditions.

Though they plan to continue refining the technology, they’re “not that far away” from a viable product, says Evelyn Wang, head of MIT’s device research laboratory. She notes that materials of this type are already being mass-produced, at increasingly affordable prices, by the German chemical giant BASF.

Yaghi says the technology could be paired with solar panels or other equipment to boost water production for industrial or agricultural purposes. But the big hope, he says, is that these devices could become household fixtures in poorer parts of the world. That would allow families to reliably produce their own water instead of rationing whatever they can carry, or whatever is available, from community wells.

Research Develops First Reliable Method for Websites to Track Users With Multiple Browsers

Either legal or technological defenses will be required to stop this tracking that so invades personal privacy.

Researchers have recently developed the first reliable technique for websites to track visitors even when they use two or more different browsers. This shatters a key defense against sites that identify visitors based on the digital fingerprint their browsers leave behind.

State-of-the-art fingerprinting techniques are highly effective at identifying users when they use browsers with default or commonly used settings. For instance, the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s privacy tool, known as Panopticlick, found that only one in about 77,691 browsers had the same characteristics as the one commonly used by this reporter. Such fingerprints are the result of specific settings and customizations found in a specific browser installation, including the list of plugins, the selected time zone, whether a “do not track” option is turned on, and whether an adblocker is being used.

Until now, however, the tracking has been limited to a single browser. This constraint made it infeasible to tie, say, the fingerprint left behind by a Firefox browser to the fingerprint from a Chrome or Edge installation running on the same machine. The new technique—outlined in a research paper titled (Cross-)Browser Fingerprinting via OS and Hardware Level Features—not only works across multiple browsers, it’s also more accurate than previous single-browser fingerprinting.

Fingerprinting isn’t automatically bad and, in some cases, offers potential benefits to end users. Banks, for instance, can use it to know that a person logging into an online account isn’t using the computer that has been used on every previous visit. Based on that observation, the bank could check with the account holder by phone to make sure the login was legitimate. But fingerprinting also carries sobering privacy concerns.

“From the negative perspective, people can use our cross-browser tracking to violate users’ privacy by providing customized ads,” Yinzhi Cao, the lead researcher who is an assistant professor in the Computer Science and Engineering Department at Lehigh University, told Ars. “Our work makes the scenario even worse, because after the user switches browsers, the ads company can still recognize the user. In order to defeat the privacy violation, we believe that we need to know our enemy well.”

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Cross-browser fingerprinting is only the latest trick developers have come up with to track people who visit their sites. Besides traditional single-browser fingerprinting, other tracking methods include monitoring the way visitors type passwords and other text and embedding inaudible sound in TV commercials or websites. The Tor browser without an attached microphone or speakers is probably the most effective means of protection, although the researchers said running a browser inside a virtual machine may also work.

Big Tech as the New Predatory Capitalism

Big Tech has become corrupted with the immense power it wields, and there is growing awareness of the side effects of this phenomenon. I am personally a little too pedantic to agree with all of the article here, but it is definitely the type of analysis worth linking to in an era where corporations such as Google and Facebook are largely unregulated monopolies.

The five largest global corporations by market value are the five tech firms named above. Google has near-total dominance of the search market. Facebook welcomes two billion monthly users and manages six of the top ten social media apps globally. Amazon controls nearly half of e-commerce and over two-thirds of the emerging voice-activated digital assistant market. Apple and Google share control of the operating systems for mobile phones and tablet gadgets; add Microsoft and Amazon and you’ve covered virtually all electronic computing devices. Facebook and Google dominate digital advertising. Amazon is increasingly the only player for cloud services.

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The effects of tech monopolization have been detailed, at book length, over the past year (see companion book review essay by K. Sabeel Rahman, page 104). We already know these firms have crippled entrepreneurship, by either buying out competitors or copying their features and using overwhelming market share to destroy them—tactics that would be familiar to the authors of the Sherman and Clayton antitrust acts. We already know they’ve concentrated economic gains in a few small enclaves, leaving large swathes of the country behind. We already know they religiously avoid taxes and cut special deals with intimidated public officials, burdening the rest of society. We already know their surveillance capabilities rival any in history, handing over a comprehensive profile of your every waking moment for advertisers and behaviorists to exploit. We already know the addictive qualities of their products have undermined social relationships, expanded divisiveness, and transformed what it means to be human. We already know their drive for profits ignores how their platforms can be weaponized, scarring millions and undermining democracy.