Wasting Time is New Divide in Digital Era — A Response

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NOTE: This post is a response to the ideas expressed in Matt Richtel’s New York Times piece, “Wasting Time is New Divide in Digital Era” and not necessarily a critique to the article itself.

The article opens by describing the phenomena as an “unintended” “surprising” and “troubling” side effect of technology. I don’t know about you, but I am not surprised that people are using technology primarily for entertainment purposes. “Wasting time” has been going on for while. What I think is different is that modern technology has magnified it.

Prior to computers, mobile devices and the Internet, people were using other technologies — Atari, Game Boy, Nintendo NES, Sega Genesis, the phone and the like —to waste time.  I clearly recall in high school when the Apple LCII was the computing device of the day, students would spend hours, not doing research on Netscape or typing papers, but rather playing Lode Runner.

What is different now is that people are finally admitting (or can no longer deny) that the same technologies that provide substantial benefits have substantial shortcomings.

Describing this as surprising gives the impression that technology is neutral, when they are not. For example, Facebook is designed to entice users to revolve all of their activities–professional and private–around the platform. The fact that it is “surprising” to researchers exemplifies the one-sided view of technology as positive that is often portrayed.

In addition to stating that “the new [wasting time] divide is such a cause of concern for the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) that it is considering a proposal to spend $200 million to create a digital literacy corps” (DLC), the article states that the government wants to fix the problem and implies that parents are to blame for children’s use of technology to waste time.

I disagree with Richtel’s claim that  the purpose of DLC is to decrease how much time people waste. Rather, I posit that it is to help people develop the ability to use digital tools to accomplish an array of tasks including conduct research, find employment, locate social services and protect themselves against Internet fraud.

Next, I am troubled by the fact that the “government” wants to fix the time-wasting trend that technology promotes. Although the government can play a role, I think this requires a continuous conversations with all stakeholders. The stakeholders include technology companies who undoubtedly aid and in some instances encourage what is being described as a widening in the waste-time gap, users, educators and parents.

Bringing the stakeholders together can increase the chances that other negative effects, not just wasting time, that the presence of technology permits can be addressed. An approach that can ensure this is called value-sensitive design.

While hinting at the fact that parents are to blame for youth’s wasting of time, the article suggests the solution is monitoring use. A more effective strategy would be to teach responsible use in combination with monitoring. Furthermore, I think if you are going to blame stakeholders, the corporations should be identified as well because many define success by how long users engage with their technologies.

Although this article focuses on middle and high school aged youth’s waste of time, it is not unique to them. I believe this is an issue that is plaguing all age groups. Like the academic future of high school youth, marriages are torn a part because of a spouse wasting time on these platforms.

Until now, researchers, non-profit organizations and others have been reluctant to include in grant reports and scholarly articles the negative impact of technology out of fear of being censured, it seems they are becoming more bold. Furthermore denying it does not negate the fact that there are those negative effects.

I think we can expect to see more articles and research that pushes back on the notion that technology is everything positive. Myself and some colleagues at the University of Washington’s Information School have discussed this in our weekly tea and discussion sessions. We (at least I do) believe that people are being more vocal, pushing back on the idea that being connected all the time is good.

Lastly, discussions about the possible “unintended”, “surprising” and “troubling” impacts of technology paints a more holistic picture and can be valuable as we try to decide where technology should fit in within our lives.


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