Category Archives: smartphones

Saved by a laptop? Bike meets truck on Alexandra Parade, Melbourne

One benefit of an academic career is that a few personal eccentricities are tolerated, and even encouraged as long as we meet our spiralling performance targets, many of which contravene academic freedom. In my case, aside from some strong views on ethical academic practice and publishing, I ride a rather exotic folding bike to work every day at the University of Melbourne, and it ends up folded in the corner of lecture theatres where students fail consistently to marvel at its engineering design and its self-evident contribution to low-emissions urban mobility. In 11 years I have driven to work about three times.  I also prefer that my main means of written communication is a laptop and paper – no smartphones and tablets, which simply overwhelm and frustrate me with their app-based software, size, and provocation to be instantly connected and available. This means writing and preparing teaching materials is done in a concentrated spell in front of a decent laptop screen or monitor, at home, at work, or out and about. The laptop, on which the Journal of Political Ecology is also prepared, is carted about on the bike, as all my students know.

Frankly, my family hate me using the laptop. When we used to have office PCs I stayed late in the office, but now they say the laptop renders me ‘absent’ from family life, while present physically at home. It signifies the type of mismatched life-work balance that infests almost every academic career, as work pushes into the interstices of domesticity (except for those annoying people who are too efficient for that).  In Melbourne’s overpriced inner north where I live, our small house lacks a decent workspace, so I am frequently found at the kitchen table checking emails, grading or editing student papers, running my academic journal or just writing. My laptop ends up co-mingled with dinner, discussions, and school homework tasks. I am a bit better at separation these days, after a sharp telling-off (while my family members then got a smartphone and tablet in 2015, reducing the power of their critique somewhat), but everything I need to do seems to require a screen, and the important stuff can’t fit into an 8 hour work day.  The computer even gets whipped out during meals with friends to resolve idle debate about historical events and personalities, or to provide directions, or to show cute holiday photos – tasks where most would at least use a smaller smartphone.  But for me this would be one giddy step too far and I have no interest in having a gadget with software that encourages checking every few minutes.

But how the tables have turned in the laptop’s favour! Last week I was cycling into work, and approaching a pedestrian and bike crossing that I have traversed a thousand times, opposite an iconic Fitzroy swimming pool. With my head lifted and looking forward, and my memory is fuzzy here, I thought I saw a green bike/pedestrian light to cross three lanes of traffic. Unfortunately I may have been looking at the green light on the far side of the road, where people and bikes were definitely still crossing;  the two traffic light cycles are in fact not linked. I knew this, deep down but a microsecond of inattention was enough. On my side of the road, witnesses said, the light had just changed and I was hit full on by an HGV  truck driving at between 50 and 60 km/h (31-37 mph). I have no memory of this, and I do not know how I was revived, but the witnesses and police say that while my Birdy folding bike went under the wheels (and broke), my body somersaulted and rolled several times before I ended up unconscious in the road. The next thing I remember was the paramedics bending over me, and being lifted into an ambulance. Since then I have been under excellent care courtesy of the taxpayer funded TAC, for 4 rib fractures, a fractured leg and a collapsed lung. Brain intact, after some early doubts. A lot of people must be thanked for getting me get back on my unsteady feet since then.*

So I will live, but the odds were against me given the size and the speed of the vehicle. What accounts for this? When pedalling my leg is the same height as the fender of an Australian truck, and that fracture is understandable and will heal in weeks. But my upper body, next to hit, was protected only by a Berghaus Freeflow hiker’s rucksack with a strong plastic insert, with the infernal laptop, the very object of domestic acrimony, nestled within. It appears it, and a few papers, saved my spine and other internal organs as the truck hit my upper body and I tumbled off down the road. It all acted like a motorbike jacket with its hard inserts around the back and arms.  The computer did not come off too well itself, but its hard drive is still intact and it is permanently bent. My own hard drive suffered only a concussion that lasted for days. Laptop redeemed!SuperHero-with-laptop-web

The moral of this tale is nothing more than needing to keep all road users alert on the road at all times. And, don’t forget the road safety advice that we learn as kids, and then bawl back at them as adults. It is good advice. But of course human behaviour does not always heed it, and I am in no position to be sanctimonious about that. A secondary lesson is to stay true to some core beliefs, regardless of social pressures, but maybe not if they are outrageously dangerous ones. This works both ways, but last week was certainly not a good time for a technological upgrade – and a train to work instead of bike might have helped… My working eccentricities are my curse and in this case, my salvation as well.

The incident could also be used to support or refute numerous ongoing arguments about cyclist and motorist behaviour in Melbourne, and the need for transport infrastructure improvements. Yes, people could drive more slowly and we need fewer carbon-emitting vehicles in total, but it was not the absence of bike-friendly infrastructure that caused this particular accident.  My case has little to do with the contentious Melbourne  East-West link tunnel, that would have sent big trucks right under the site of my accident but has now been scrapped in favour of public transport investment– I could just have well have been hit by a truck on a local journey avoiding the tunnel tolls.  Nor has it much to do with bike helmets, about which Australians also argue because they are compulsory here – it was a journey where I probably would have worn one anyway, and in this case the plastic lid did something, although not enough to stop concussion. But the central role played by the laptop has a nice synergy between form and function. It was multi-tasking, at a time when my brain suffered a split-second lapse of concentration.  This small academic workhorse and instrument of family disharmony became a vital protective shield. The laptop superhero.

The anthropologist Paul Richards has argued that technology is social, and best studied through what he calls technography – the ethnography of technology (Richards 2010).  Inspired by Emile Durkheim, he says technology includes the “technique”  used to master it (like safe cycling on a bike), and we should not “educate the users to fit the machine but … redesign the machine to respond to the way users use (or abuse) it.” (p4). He means that human inventiveness, actions, and innovation should drive technological design, rather than experts building technology without that input, in the hope that it will be used. Vehicles and bikes as machines often clash, as a recent movie illustrates, but the precise modifications to the streetscape required of planners and engineers need to be observed on the ground and then co-designed, not remotely or through blindly applying ‘best practice’ as so may engineers and planners tend to do.  In my case, I do not know what the accident statistics are for the crossing but something must have made me less attentive than the last few hundred times I took it; more warnings or larger signals could have reduced the risk. Bike and ped. tunnels is really what this road needs, but Melbourne builds them almost never. The car lobby is just too powerful privately and in government, followed by the public transport lobby.  More crossing time for pedestrians and bikes would help, reducing the tendency to speed across them to beat the lights. We just don’t get our share, often waiting 2-3 minutes. This is bad policy.

But at the same time, the laptop had an unintended function and was bestowed with additional powers beyond its prime role as a data handling and retrieval device – this was not designed in by me, or even anticipated. Not something to influence policy design perhaps, but nonetheless I will be eternally grateful. If I ever cycle again in Melbourne, it will travel with me.


Richards, P. 2010. A Green Revolution from below? Retirement address, Wageningen University, the Netherlands.

*Thankyou to everybody who has supported me over the last few days and I hope I can return favours. There really are nice people in universities, and outside of course. Things are still a bit raw, I have not yet seen the report or written to the driver.  This post was rejected by The Conversation – on my first ever submission!

My return to work corresponded with the launching of a new university marketing campaign – “Collision”!!


Update Dec. 2017. Injuries healed and I returned to cycling in about 4-5 months. I even managed to rejuvenate the Birdy bike – only the seatpost and wheel was run over, it turned out.  These days, in England, very cautious. My family made me get a smartphone since I could no longer keep up. I hate it. The laptop works fine but it sitting on a shelf in my office, still bent out of shape.



Filed under bicycles, bike accident, folding bikes, melbourne, smartphones

Bonfire of the smartphones – Cathy Davidson vs. Baroness Greenfield?

A call for ‘technography’ on smartphones and other gadgets – or…… Cathy Davidson vs. Baroness Greenfield?

A few interesting posts and articles have emerged in the last few months about the ‘smartphone culture’ – the presence of mobile phones that do a vast number of things, including video, music, internet, email, photos, games and running location-based software. Although you can use one just as a mobile phone, for calls and text messages, almost everybody opts for a full wireless web connection enabling a myriad of features, and an ever increasing number of ‘apps’ – for example for GPS navigation, choosing a restaurant (as you are walking down a street), translating a piece of text written in a foreign a language using the camera, etc. The IPhone vies with Android and Blackberry phones, and the whole debate about what to buy is a bit tiresome. One article  in 2011 (Amanda Bown, Jun 2011, womensfitness magazine) cited a YouGov survey – 33% of the British population had a smartphone in early 2011, and 37% of Australians. In Mid 2013, another article showed the figure was 64.7% in Australia, and a bit less in the UK. By 2015, 66% of UK adults had a smartphone, with 90% of those aged 16-24. 49%  of people aged 18-24 check their phones within five minutes of waking up.

True ‘smart’ phones have been around for several years, but were previously regarded in western countries as a bit special and expensive. They were invented in the early 2000s (by 2007 and 2008, touchscreen IPhone and Android were available). By 2009/10 they just seemed to be everywhere, despite the high network charges to run them in Australia (lower in the UK and USA).

An historical allegory.  We have dealt with sudden gadget arrival before. When mobile phones came in earnest in the 1990s, there were a number of research projects about the social changes they were bringing. As David Harvey said about modern life in general, mobiles ‘compressed’ time and space, making communication and everyday life a little bit easier (and the potential for overexploitation of one’s labour easier too – calls from the boss at midnight, etc.). At the same time, they have been a boon for keeping in touch and for poor households in Africa and Asia, providing knowledge of markets, road conditions, emergencies etc. In London, where I was living at the time, they quickly became an annoyance. Commuting to the city in the 80s and 90s I winced every time a loud phone conversation took place on a crowded train, or when people took a call during a face to face conversation. This sort of behaviour is more accepted in cultures today. Generally, hostility to mobiles has mellowed with time, and a ‘technography’ (to use anthropologist Paul Richards’ phrase – it means research  “on complex interactions between social groups, collective representations, innovation processes, technical artefacts, and nature“)  would show an increase in social acceptance of mobiles over 20 years. In 2011, teaching a class of 120 university students, we did a quick poll –  everybody had a mobile phone! So, while I had reservations, mobiles did not have the power to destroy face to face  communication, which was what the class was doing. The implications of smartphones are somewhat different I think. They are much more powerful. There is a technological leap, such than many everyday electronic activities – including many of the functions of a laptop computer – can be done with a gadget that fits in your pocket and is available  any moment of the day and night.  Location based software is changing things rapidly.  This article from 2010 suggest ownership of a smartphone is inevitable. I disagree. Not all of the implications are good.  The positives, like finding out where you are when lost, are all pretty obvious. Let me focus on the negatives.

  • They are addictive, in the sense that many find it hard to put them down or leave them alone for long periods. Way more than standard mobiles. I recently watched three students sit down for coffee. Having ordered, they did not speak for over 10 minutes – all of them were scrolling and typing on their IPhones. Why meet in the first place? (that was 2011 – in 2013 for friends, even couples, this is increasingly acceptable)
  • Their ease of use can reinforce a belief that online communication is as valuable, and worthwhile investing time in, as the alternative – actually talking face to face or on the phone (it isn’t, in my view). This trend started with computers, of course. Just heard about a guy who messaged he girlfriend in Sydney to break up with her after a long relationship. Impossible and unthinkable 20 yrs ago. (the parents got together about it to get proper communication)
  • Too much reliance on technology – people often say their ‘whole life’ is on a smartphone, and how then ‘love’ them. My friends have them and have expressed this sentiment. They check them constantly and don’t put them down. Many people cannot leave the things alone for five minutes. My son can’t. Perhaps the worst feeling is giving a lecture or a talk, and looking up to see an audience of heads bowed and fingers scrolling on phones. It was bad enough with laptops, and I was guilty of that, but this is worse. This article provides worrying stats on this trend in classrooms in 2013.
  • Rapid technological advance is an issue for theorists of capitalism.  We are become beholden to Apple and their ilk for new tech, and these gadgets become objects of desire for professionals and academics- on a MUCH shorter cycle than 5 years ago when you might just replace your cell phone and laptop  every few years. I am unconvinced by activist friends who spend thousands on resource-intensive Iphones, tablets and gadgets – there is some contradiction there, surely. This was noticed in 2013 when the Fairphone was marketed as a response to Apple and the rest –  they at least check the conditions of production of their components, even if it still uses energy to produce and run.
  • Screen time. I would like to be looking at as screen, as opposed to conducting myself in real life away from one, about three hours a day, max. This also goes for parenting – minimising kid’s screen time, encourage other forms of learning and outdoor activities (we are failing…). These gadgets, along with changing workplace practices, are just helping to make this almost impossible for teenagers in particular.
  • Spatial awareness and navigation – people are losing this basic skill, particularly in the US where smartphones are very present (and navigation skills already leave a little to be desired anyway), because they think they always have mobile Google Maps or a GPS app to help them out. Learn to read a map first. Is that too much to ask? As a geographer, I say let the technology aid the brain, without actually replacing its functions. Those “spatial memory” functions, it appears, atrophy. Evidence for this came in 2015 here.
  • Music, podcasts, video. Why do we need these available 24 hrs a day, and in our ears when we are travelling? Why not take the headset out and listen to the world instead?

Recent postings about this issue that I have made on a couple of academic listservs brought no responses; I think this was a guilty silence from my smartphone-owning colleagues. It is remarkable how little critical literature exists on the topic, but great books were published in 2015. The ‘I hate smartphones’ group on Facebook disappeared in 2016 . I suspect many academics love these things – they can continue working all the time, even if they are just looking up data or sending an email, and they maintain connectivity even when it is manifestly unnecessary to have it. Those spare 10 minutes sitting on a bus or having a cup of tea can now be filled with scrolling.

Baroness Susan Greenfield, the renowned neuroscientist from Oxford, has been one of the first to break ranks. She has been arguing since 2009 that the ensemble of instant communication and social media enabled by new communications technologies (including smartphones) is changing neural pathways, accustoming the smartphone generation to short choppy communication, originally based on texts and Facebook entries but now including Twitter and much more, and reducing the development of extended arguments and reasoning. The latter is particularly compromised by video games, she says (2013 radio debate). Studies at Notre Dame are underway. Ian Price argues in his book  The Activity Illusion  that constant messaging “overstimulates our brain’s dopamine system and neurologists are beginning to recognise this impairs our cognitive ability, reduces our ability to concentrate and often makes us tired and frazzled“. Damian Thompson, author of “The Fix” (2012) worries. He cites a 2010 study of Stanford students. If they are  right, and refereed  papers are scarce (although the New York Times has summaries from 2010), then we are all in real trouble – our kids are growing up with less capacity to concentrate for long periods. It is not just smartphones that does this of course, they are just the medium for the new internet-hungry modes of knowledge acquisition. But  they do enable new styles of social interaction and  learning. Some 2012 research is reported here, and a scale of addiction study here. Again there is no particular reason that everybody falls prey to smartphone seduction even if they have one, i.e. accessing them constantly. My dad, who likes gadgets, had a huge first generation mobile the size of a brick.  Now in his 80s, he has a Samsung smartphone. He does answer emails on it. He sends us one or two photos.  But the point is that it  hardly rules his life. This is the safer way to use technology – sparingly.

At a recent event in Melbourne where artists met climate scientists, I raised the phone communication issue. One person said  that organising a major art festival with multiple venues and events would not be have been possible without  smart phone – needed for hooking people up, emailing images, organising venues and so on. Fair enough. There a major issue here for scholars. For those of use who continues to teach face to face in actual classrooms  (occasionally aided by some multimedia and online resources) and who set standard student assessments- essays, exams, book reviews – we could find poorer student results occurring over time as the new learning styles set in. Already, cribbing other people’s text off the web infests many assignments.  I don’t agree with Cathy Davidson from Duke, author of Now You See It: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn (Viking, 2011)  who argues for  acceptance of the internet age by lecturers, which means modification of academic assessment and learning styles to accommodate it. Some specific technologies can augment learning, for sure – Dr Mike Smith, a geographer at Kingston University  in London, expert on spatial data, advocates use of numeracy apps for schools and is adapts at IT to demonstrate how the planet works.  There are also the protest support programs (countering police harassment of demonstrators with realtime info) and evidence that phones were useful during the Arab Spring demonstrations. But I think our problem generally is now too many knowledge sources for students. We still need to teach about how to  sift through it and  make  judgments, to argue a case and to form opinions (these claims were made when the internet began, too). Knowledge acquisition, Greenfield says, is altering as mobile internet use and video games make massive inroads into everyday life. But if you are a scientist, or a writer, actual work is always required – emailing and phoning does not cut it. A technography of smartphones is well overdue.

personally speaking...For me, phones are for talking on, and computers have replaced typewriters (but not pen and paper) as things to write on. This classifies me as a “Better-Never” in Adam Gopnik’s excellent article in the New Yorker (2011) “The Better-Nevers think that we would have been better off if the whole thing had never happened, that the world that is coming to an end is superior to the one that is taking its place, and that, at a minimum, books and magazines create private space for minds in ways that twenty-second bursts of information don’t.”  But with a laptop and a lot of online teaching materials, and running a web journal,  not sure I fit that profile completely.  I generally re-use second-hand technology, to help cut down the waste stream. I have gone as far as a mobile phone in my life, having first got a second-hand one in 2001.  That is only 15 years ago.  I still use the same sim card when in the UK [2015- I updated to a $20 s/h Nokia with a full keypad but no data]. Mine rings perhaps once a day, if I am lucky. I may get a couple of text messages. And yet I have a very busy job, just like many smartphone people. I can handle communication about meetings, as well as family issues and emergencies, easily.  The last thing in the world I want is any more communication with the office, or any more access to emails in particular. A laptop is quite enough, accessed occasionally throughout the day. On it, you can write on a keyboard that fits your hands, and look at a screen 25cm+, not 4cm across. With 100+ emails a day, why would I want them disrupting me  on a smartphone? Nothing is worth the personal cost of that compression of time and space  into constant scrolling and expectations of instantaneous response.

My logic has not really convinced anybody I know – (except perhaps until the London riots of 2011). The general feeling is that if there is decent  technology about, it must be better, more efficient, and worth buying. I am not all that sure. Admittedly, smartphones have passed through the early product cycle phase where consumer testing can obliterate bad ideas, and they are unlikely to be consigned to a technological dead end, like videodiscs and palm pilots. Their numbers will grow. But if Greenfield is right, the implications for our lives are major, not at all of them positive, and are rolling in on the next consignment of phones from China and S Korea. As Adam Gopnik  says  “Our contraptions may shape our consciousness, but it is our consciousness that makes our credos, and we mostly live by those.”  ……  Tristan Harris is the new guro of spartan phone use (2016) – but he uses an Iphone, pared down to avoid distracting and addictive applications. I hope Gopnik and Harriss are right – in other words, smart people need to manage smart phones carefully and not give into the seduction of their time-wasting addictive character. Will Davidson and Greenfield’s views be properly debated  one day?

—– PS I have not even touched on the issue of ‘conflict minerals‘  in the phone manufacturing process. Mind you, Australian mining would love slave-mined tantalum from the Congo to be banned, since they also hold reserves themselves.  The use of Blackberry messaging systems by rioters in London In Aug 11 is now well documented and may lead to phone networks being shut off, or changes to software to make it less anonymous. Or the cartoons. and videos! My favourite has been taken down, but here is a TED talk


Filed under smartphones