There were various forms of radio phones before but the first commercial cellular phones in the UK were launched in 1985, only 32 years ago. Vodafone held its first press conference in January 1985 in St Katharine’s Dock with comedian Ernie Wise making the first official public call to Vodafone’s Newbury Headquarters. I had my first in 1988 when I joined Sony as Managing Director of its UK Consumer Products Company. My company car was a Jaguar with a Philips phone built in. It was mobile in the sense that it went around in the car but it stayed in the car. Its purpose was that I could be reached when out and about visiting dealers.
The market stayed a primarily business user market for a few years. Sony made a short foray into the market with a Philips sourced analogue phone but unsurprisingly it made little impact. But then in 1992-3 we developed the Liberty Project. There were then still only two networks in the UK, Vodafone and Cellnet, the forerunner of O2, then owned by BT and Securicor. Vodafone had the lion’s share of a still primarily business user market and Cellnet saw an opportunity to open up the consumer market. Sony and Cellnet negotiated a deal where Sony would sell a phone through consumer channels with a pre-loaded subscriber number. For every phone connected to the Cellnet network Sony would receive a bonus. It took long hours of negotiation in Tokyo to close the deal but we did.
At the same time we designed the phone and unlike the bricks mostly still on sale it was much more compact, about the size of a Mars bar which I had sold in an earlier phase of my career. So I dubbed it the Mars bar phone and in a short time we sold over 500,000 phones, not a huge number today but then quite colossal.
We introduced Cellnet to Dixons, our largest customer. Dixons had not previously sold mobile phones but soon after formed a joint venture with BT to open a chain called The Link. I should have received commission. Now of course Dixons has merged with Carphone Warehouse. For the next few years we enjoyed success selling a sleek range of ever smaller phones, riding the introduction of GSM with ease and even setting up our own service provider, later sold for a considerable sum.
The point of this anecdote is to confess that I played a considerable role in the transformation of the mobile phone market into a consumer market in the UK. But I had no idea what would eventually be the outcome. Now the mobile phone, often a so-called smart phone, is ubiquitous. And its impact on its users and society at large is profoundly disturbing.
Even some of those operating today in the industry are beginning to wake up to the issues. At the recent Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, an annual jamboree I used to attend, it was reported that the unifying trend among the conversations was that the technology was accelerating beyond the point at which humans can understand it.[i]
While most continue to demonstrate the latest unfathomable gizmo at least Nokia, one-time market leader, recognised the need for a simpler phone with the relaunch of their famous Nokia 3310[ii]
, though the effect of a retro appeal may be slightly spoilt by the fact that it has internet access and a camera.
Elsewhere there is growing concern about the features baked into these phones and especially the apps now commonly downloaded to them. “Are companies recording what we say? The simple answer is yes”, says Jacob Silverman, author of Terms of Service: Social Media and the Price of Constant Connection.
“Always–on internet-connected devices could be recording us at almost any time. We simply don’t know what data is collected, where it goes, how it’s passed on, or to whom it’s sold.” Mike Gilkes, senior electronics editor at US consumer organisation Consumer Reports, points out: “the sticking point – what makes smartphones smart is because they do know a lot about you. It knows where’s the local eatery, where’s the traffic jam, it knows you’re late and it knows who you call frequently. But the apps that bring this to you ask for privileges that some people don’t deem necessary.”
The range of apps that ask access to our microphone and camera might surprise you. Twitter and Instagram request access to your Wi-Fi information, your camera and mic, your photos, your SMS, your location, your contacts and your calendar – meaning the apps can take photos, videos and use your mic, access everyone you know, read your messages, remove accounts and track every movement.
Facebook requests all of the above plus device ID and app history. Facebook denies that it listens to its users’ conversations or uses your phone’s microphone to inform ads. That may well be true but companies sell your data to data brokers in a fraction of a second. So when you buy from Amazon on your mobile, a rapidly increasing behaviour, it’s not just Amazon and your credit card company who know what’s going on. Data brokers know everything you’ve bought and, with identity data, what sort of person you are.[iii]
But of course if this is happening it’s largely your fault because you read the terms and conditions before signing up to them didn’t you? Well if you did you’re a rare bird indeed. Tom Rodden of ESPRC[iv]
told me the other day of a piece of research they had done. The average time it took people to click agreement to Terms and Conditions was 1.6 seconds. The average length of the Terms and Conditions was about half a Shakespeare play. And the ease of understanding of the language used in these terms and Conditions was equivalent to Beowulf, the epic poem written in Old English. There are stories, which may be apocryphal or may be true, that the geniuses in Silicon Valley who write these Terms and Conditions like to demonstrate their power by including clauses like “You give us the right to sell your soul to the devil” and “We have access to all your children including those not yet born.”[v]
No doubt a case can be made for the good that smartphones do but it certainly isn’t improving our productivity. The following piece was originally posted anonymously by a disgruntled New York City restaurateur on Craigslist[vi]
, highlighting the disruptive effect that ubiquitous mobile phone use has had on restaurant service.
“We are a popular restaurant for locals and tourists alike. Having been in business for many years, we noticed that although the number of customers we serve on a daily basis is almost the same as it was 10 years ago, the service seems super slow, even though we added lots more staff and cut back on menu items.
One of the most common complaints on review sites against us, and many restaurants in the area, is that the service was slow and/or they needed to wait a bit too long for a table.
We decided to hire a firm to help us solve this mystery, and naturally the first thing they claimed was that the employees needed more training and that maybe the kitchen staff were not up to the task of serving that many customers.
Like most restaurants in NYC we have a surveillance system. Unlike today, where it’s a digital system, 10 years ago we still used high-capacity tapes to record all activity. At any given time we have four Sony systems recording via multiple cameras. We would store the footage for 90 days in case we needed it for something.
The firm we hired suggested we locate some of the old tapes from just before the system was replaced and analyse how the staff behaved 10 years ago, compared with how they behave now. The date stamp on the old footage was Thursday 1 July 2004. The restaurant was very busy that day. We loaded up the footage on a large monitor, and next to it on a separate monitor, loaded up the footage from Thursday 3 July 2014. The number of customers was only slightly greater than 10 years previously. I will quickly outline the findings. We looked at 45 transactions to determine the data below:
§ Customers walk in.
§ They get seated and are given menus.
§ Out of 45 customers, three request to be seated elsewhere.
§ Customers spend on average eight minutes before closing the menu to show they are ready to order.
§ Waiter shows up almost instantly to take the order.
§ Food starts getting delivered within six minutes. Obviously more complex items take much longer.
§ Out of 45 customers, two sent some items back that we assume were too cold.
§ Waiters keep an eye out for their tables so they can respond quickly if a customer needs something.
§ Customers are done, cheque delivered, and within five minutes they leave.
Average time from start to finish: 1:05
§ Customers walk in.
§ Customers get seated and are given menus. Out of 45 customers, 18 request to be seated elsewhere.
§ Before even opening the menu they take out their phones. Some are taking photos while others ae simply doing something else on the phone.
§ Seven out of the 45 customers had waiters come over right away. They showed them something on their phone and spent an average of five minutes of the waiter’s time. Given that this is recent footage, we asked the waiters about this and they explained that those customers had a problem connecting to the wifi and demanded the waiters try to help them.
§ Finally the waiters walk over to the table to see what the customers would like to order. The majority have not even opened the menu and ask the waiter to wait a bit.
§ Customers open the menu, place their hands, holding their phone on top of it and continue doing whatever they are doing on the phone.
§ The waiter returned to see if they are ready to order or have any questions. The customers ask for more time.
§ Finally they are ready to order
Total average time from when the customer was seated until they place their order: 21 minutes.
§ Food starts getting delivered within six minutes. More complex items of course take longer.
§ Twenty six out of 45 customers spend on average three minutes taking photos of their food
Ross Douthat recently wrote in the New York Times,[vii]
admit it, “you are enslaved to the internet.” If you’re like most Americans, your existence is increasingly dominated by a compulsion to check email, Twitter, Facebook, and/or Instagram “with a frequency that bears no relationship to any communicative need.” Our devices and the wondrous functions they can perform are "built to addict us” – to give us little dopamine hits of outrage, ego reinforcement, arousal and distraction. In return, we sacrifice our privacy, our attention spans, our focus on our families and our awareness of the natural world. “The smartphone is in the saddle, and it rides mankind.” What we need is a “social and political movement – “digital temperance, if you will” – that will seek to use custom and law to restrain our use of this intoxicating technology, and enable us to take back some control. Let’s start by creating more spaces where smartphone use is strictly “taboo”, such as restaurants and museums, or in business meetings. Let’s banish the devices from high schools and remove all computers from elementary schools. If this sounds extreme, please note that our “Silicon Valley overlords” are already sending their children to schools that ban all tech. “Only a movement can save you from the tyrant in your pocket.”
I agree with Mr Douthat. I’m tired of walking the gauntlet of zombies looking at their phones rather than the way ahead. The police now know that a driver on his phone is more likely to cause an accident than one over the drink-driving limit. But is that point about the Silicon Valley overlords fair? Well, the great Steve Jobs, founding father of the smartphone, when he was asked what his kids thought of the iPhone, said, “Are you kidding? I don’t let them anywhere near one.”