Man walks into a column, no.25: Technology

Data from a web analytics firm released earlier this week suggests that (in the US at least) a possibly momentous threshold has been passed: people are now, for the first time, spending more of their ‘online time’ using mobile apps than browsing the web.

Based on data that apparently accounts for one third of all US mobile app activity, our North American (non Canadian) cousins (or those who go online at all, one assumes) seem to be spending an average of 81 minutes daily on mobile apps, compared to 74 minutes daily on the web. The positions were almost exactly reversed (in terms of percentage difference) just six months ago: this is happening fast.

Like many, I’m very interested indeed in how technology drives behaviour, but even more interested in how we preferentially adapt to one new set of technology more happily, naturally or quickly than another. It took us a long, long time to get used to web browsing, but we’re taking to apps like a duck to water.

Personally, I think aside from the mobility advantage itself, the biggest reason for this is that apps help us to overcome the stress and confusion caused by intense information overload. There’s a really excellent post by US author Nicholas Carr in which he argues that because ‘The great power of modern digital filters lies in their ability to make information that is of inherent interest to us immediately visible to us’ we are increasingly powerless to switch off:

As today’s filters improve, they expand the information we feel compelled to take notice of. Yes, they winnow out the uninteresting stuff (imperfectly), but they deliver a vastly greater supply of interesting stuff. And precisely because the information is of interest to us, we feel pressure to attend to it. As a result, our sense of overload increases.

I don’t know about you, but this resonates with me. SPAM is one thing, the answer is to ignore it and that’s easy to do. But time and again I’ve felt a sense of frustration at not being able to give everything that it looks like it might be interesting in my Twitter timeline due attention.

And this is where apps come in. The latest generation of apps in particular – something like Flipboard for iPad is the best example – present (just) enough information to allow you to make a more informed decision about whether or not to engage more deeply with a post or update but, absolutely crucially, make the experience of moving between ‘information item A’ and ‘information item B’ not only bearable, but actively pleasurable. It’s as simple as being able to flick, rather than fiddle around with different keys/mouse buttons to scroll, and it’s no surprise that further new technology looks set to replicate the ‘app feel’ on normal websites. The closer that ‘being online’ begins to feel to something we’ve felt comfortable doing for decades – reading a magazine – the happier we are.

This is not to say that behaviour change and technological advance are in perfect lockstep, one need look no further than Anthony Weiner (a familiar friend from last week’s column) to know that. With rather purple prose, The Economist sums up some other challenges with adaptation to technology:

Social media, texting and e-mail all make it much easier to communicate, gather and impart information, but they also present some dangers. By removing any real human engagement, they enable us to cultivate our narcissism without the risk of disapproval or criticism. To use a theatrical metaphor, these new forms of communication provide a stage on which we can each create our own characters, hidden behind a fourth wall of tweets and status updates, of texts and pings. This illusory state of detachment can become addictive as we isolate ourselves a safe distance from the cruelty of our fleshly lives, where we are flawed, powerless and inconsequential.

So here’s my argument, in a nutshell: the web makes you feel powerless in the face of information overload, but apps can set you free.

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