Thursday, June 28, 2012

iFive - What makes a smartphone 'smart'?

The iPhone turns 5 today, but then, you probably already know that if you own a 'smart' phone.

On my previous sabbatical, I did more flying than this time and in a much shorter time span, i.e., 6 or 8 weeks compared to 6 months. I flew from Auckland to Sao Paulo via LA, then Brazil to Fairbanks, AK via Washington DC, then across the US with stops in Seattle, Champaign-Urbana, Ithaca, NYC and on to Berlin and Perth on my way around the globe. Incidentally, it was in Perth, Australia in 2005 that I came up with the term 'requisite connectivity.'

I travelled alone that trip and recall packing my trusty BlackBerry (the classic one), a Nokia 'candy bar' style mobile phone for voice calls and SMS messaging (data plans in New Zealand punish you for making voice calls), an iPod, and an analogue camera.  I loved and needed all this stuff and happily carried it along with me -- all that connectivity required a lot of devices.

Of course, that was before the iPhone appeared in 2007, changing the way we think about and use mobile connective technologies.  Though technically BlackBerrys and Palm Pilots were 'smartphones,' the revolution in mobile technology really took off with the introduction of Apple's iPhone.

This is not a technology blog, so I won't go on about the techno-features of the iPhone.  Rather, I am thinking about what makes a smartphone 'smart?'  For me, it is not that the phone is so smart, but rather that it makes me--the user--feel smart, or at least not dumb!

All too often, electronic consumer goods (still) confront us with unintelligible jargon and complicated menus.  By contrast, the arrival of the iOS (Apple's mobile operating system) put our primate opposable thumbs to work, not just typing, but pinching screens, along with poking and swiping things in and out of view.

'Apps' actually behave like agents for us, dashing off into the Internet like a Golden Lab eager to please and happily fetching just what we wanted to know... a weather forecast, an exchange rate, a cafe nearby, a local map, etc.  How clever we feel when our dog grabs the information frisbee in mid-air.  It is the smartphone's ability to please us while making us feel like we did it ourselves that make it so indispensable and so endearing to us, like a dog at our feet, always ready to please.

The problem with smartphones is that they make other technologies look 'dumb' by comparison.  Maybe it's just me, but I look at TVs now and no longer feel it is me who is at fault for their inability to deliver.  I am embarrassed for their thickheadedness, not mine.  Apps have made their namesake, 'applications,' look Baroque.  Where our impatience with the old and fascination/liberation with the new will lead us is hard to say.

Below are a few visions of the future of 'smart,' seamless computing.  Of course, these visions have been around for a while and we all know that infrastructure (e.g., bandwidth) is the big disconnect that still looms large over our technological future.  The other question that comes to mind is how will we disconnect from technologies that increasingly wrap themselves around us?  As discussed in previous posts, sometimes 'smart' must be replaced with 'wise.'

Google glasses (highly-integrated, personal, unobtrusive connectivity in action)

Microsoft's vision (highly-integrated intersection of personal-professional-family)

Corning's vision (very 'sociomaterial,' but which came first, Microsoft's or Corning's vision of basically the same thing)

i2050 (spoof of iPhone phenomenon)


PS. Thanks to Christoph for the Google glasses clip.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Something wrong with the way we work?

Harvard Business School recently started a blog thread that asks, "Is something wrong with the way we work?"  

The 39 comments illustrate how passionate many feel about the need to find the right balance between connecting and disconnecting in our personal/professional lives (note that the slash here indicts a fine line between the two).

A thematic summary of those posts suggests that in relation to hyper-connectivity and work/life balance:

1. Technology is not the main culprit here, it is primarily a personal, social and/or organizational issue.

2. Corporate culture (like the one Leslie Perlow studied) plays a role in promoting a 'cult of constant availability' and workaholism.

3. National culture also plays a key role.  In particular American culture is compared to European culture, which still values more or less taking holidays and keeping weekends work-free.  A common observation is that Americans simply don't have (or take) enough vacation time to even understand its full value in terms of re-creation, regeneration, and resilience.

4. Individuals have to make choices, but such choices are not easily made given such socio-cultural pressures to be connected anywhere and all the time.  Balancing connects and disconnects is not for the faint of heart.

5. Leaders are implicated in all this for being overly focused on short-term goals and for not establishing boundaries in their own work behaviors--i.e., for setting bad examples.  Thoughtful and healthy work settings require thoughtful leadership.

There is a bias in the HBR blog commentaries. The majority of comments--many of which are actually from executive coaches and academics--are focused on highly educated professionals in industries for which it is difficult to be overly sympathetic.  Bankers, lawyers, consultants and executives have to work long hours for their massive salaries.  Oh, what a shame.  As mentioned by some commentaries, perhaps the hyper-connected sleep with their smartphone to demonstrate their self-importance? Or, as others suggest, they drive others out of their lives, so that there is no one else to sleep with?  

On the other hand, the HBR blog on this subject highlights how pervasive (mainstream) the issue of hyper-connectivity has become in corporate life.  For the curious, HBR previously sponsored a blog on 'multi-tasking' in late 2010.

On a personal note, this week I had a catch up meeting with my friend and mentor, Allan Lind at Duke.  

I also spent some time with someone who illustrates how Twitter can level the playing field, allowing individuals without traditional qualifications make their mark on the world. More on that later...

Have fun!

Friday, June 15, 2012

Hamlet's Blackberry

I predict a swelling market for books on the subject of 'how to' manage ubiquitous connectivity, or how to have a smartphone and a life.  Better books may be coming around the corner, but in my opinion, the best book on the subject so far is William Powers' Hamlet's Blackberry.  Powers is a journalist, who developed his ideas on smartphone use while a Fellow at Harvard.  Besides being very well crafted, the reason this book (also available as an e-book) is so effective is that Powers is not prescribing a diet approach to the use of 'screens' (handhelds, desktops, TVs, everything with a screen), i.e., 'e-mail free Fridays.'  

Rather, Powers considers 'busy-ness' and distraction as part of the human condition and demonstrates how philosophers from Plato, Seneca, Shakespeare, Thoreau and Franklin managed busy, yet contemplative lives.  Powers invites us to develop a personal philosophy--what Michel Foucault called 'technologies of the self'--for a digital age.  Such philosophies could be extended to teams and organizations to improve resilience and the way we work.  

Powers observes, 'Thus far into this new era, we've followed a clear-cut approach: we've set out to be as connected as possible, all the time. For most of us, this was not a conscious decision.  We did it without really thinking about it, not realizing there was any choice in the matter.'

'We did have a choice and still do.  And, because how we live with these devices is a choice, this conundrum is really a philosophical one. It's a matter of the ideas and principles that guide us.  If we continue on the current path, over time the costs of this life will erase all the benefits.  The answer, therefore, is to adopt a new set of ideas and use them to live in a more thoughtful, intentional way' (p. 209).

Like Thoreau, seeking to 'live more deliberately,' philosophical choices lead us to more lasting solutions to hyper-connected, fragmented lives. As Powers continues...

'I am not just a brain, a pair of eyes, and typing fingers. I'm a person with a living body that moves through space and time. In letting screens run my life, I discount the rest of my existence, effectively renouncing my own wholeness.  I live a lesser life and give less back to the world.  This problem is not just individual and private; it's afflicting all our collective endeavors, in business, schools, and government and at every level of society. We're living less and giving less, and the world is the worse for it' (p. 210).

Whether the world is better or worse for all our increased connectivity, we must still come to grips with its impact on humanity.  In his 2009 commencement address at the University of Pennsylvania, Eric Schmidt, Chairman and CEO of Google, reminded graduates that as a connected generation, from time to time, they still should, 'Turn off your computer. You're actually going to have to turn off your phone and discover all that is human around us.'

On a personal note, being on holiday this week, I had the privilege of reconnecting with dear friends in Charlottesville, VA and Maine, which reminds me that, though we are always close to those we care about, nothing beats being able to put our arms around them and tell them we love them.  Summer vacations are a perfect time to think about your personal philosophy of connectivity and to re-discover the mysteries of life.  

Friday, June 8, 2012

Sociomaterial girl

A girl steps onto a train. Earbuds in place, it looks like she is 'tuning out' the world. A humanist sees the girl first and the device second. A technologist sees the device and what its features 'afford' the user. A social scientist wonders about the family, friends or other networks she is communicating with.  A science fiction buff sees a prototypical 'cyborg,' a human that is part machine, or vice versa.  

This week I attended Michael Barrett's Roundtable discussion at the Judge Business School with one of most influential persons in our field, Wanda OrlikowskiBeginning with her seminal work on adaptive structuration theory, Wanda has contributed key strands of thought leadership in the field of information systems for two decades, and continues to do so.  Her work (with Martha Feldman) on 'Theorizing practice and practicing theory' forces us to think about how we think about technology in practice, i.e., the girl on the train.

Orlikowski's most recent work, with Susan Scott, is also having an impact on our field. It is the notion of 'sociomateriality,' where the social (girl in her social network) and material (iPod or smartphone; train, wifi) are an 'enacted' reality, essentially one thing, not a bunch of separate things. For example, a smartphone app may be telling her what music her friends are listening to, thereby influencing (even offering to buy) her choice of music, which shapes the 'reality' of the train ride.  

My only concern with the emerging attraction (though not without dissent) to the sociomaterial viewpoint is that human agency (choice, free will) not get lost as a consequence.  Meaning always has a social element to it, but action--sociomaterial as it is--usually, if not always, involves an element of individual choice. 

As the train moves on, the girl pulls out the earbuds, closes the screen and looks out the window.  The end. (?)