Teletopia or Infodemic?

This is an abstract image: first a word bubble about tech on the left and a picture of a teletubby doll on the right. It is titled teletopia 1 and teletopia 2/

Dear Ms. Smartphone: The weekly report for my phone shows that I spent less time this week using it- about 1 hour less. Why am I using my phone less during the quarantine, and should I worry that I am not connecting enough with what is going on outside? Hugh, Woodside

Dear Hugh: It’s actually great that you use a screen report and protect your time. There is little doubt that TELETOPIA will triumph when the pandemic ends. We will all be spending a lot more time on our devices, whether for telemedicine, teleshopping, telework or more….and 5G networks will diffuse rapidly. Perhaps you, and others, are experiencing the final days of simplicity and minimalism before a near-future upheaval. I don’t mean to imply that the future is dystopic. It will just be different.

Less is More

But, back to present and the fact that you are using your phone less in these troubled times. This can be positive because continual monitoring of the news and breaking headlines can  make you feel helpless and fearful. It’s good to know what is going on out there, but it is not good to internalize it, easy to do when we spend run-away time on media.

POTS (Plain Old Phone Service)

You might want to pick up your phone more, but in an old-fashioned way. Use it as a telephone, to make and receive voice calls. POTS was the term we used to use at the phone company. I have personally found over the past week that the best ‘comfort-food for the soul’ has been to pick up the phone and call a friend or relative, or get their incoming call. It is much better than a text. I am not sure if I would feel as excited by a video- call on Zoom or Skype; that might feel too much like work.   

Third, let’s talk about the device itself. There have a proliferation of posts about people cleaning up their homes and organizing closets and drawers. Marie Kondo is back in the news. That is a reminder that we should do a parallel  ‘wipe down- swipe down’ of the info-detritus cluttering up our electronic lives. Consider cleaning out the photos, files and the apps that no longer ‘spark joy.’ For example, if you are like most people and only used the download for the meditation app, the home gym, or free delivery service once send the app to the trash-bin (and also do a full delete under ‘Settings’). Going forward, you want to be mindful of what your device links to and organize your free time around really useful apps. 

Clean Out Deadwood…Get Ready!

So, enjoy this break, clear out the deadwood, and get ready for the upcoming TELETOPIA.  John Eger, a lawyer and prof, says that the term teletopia was coined by Japanese Ministry of Posts and Telecommunication around 1980, to describe a future broadband communications infrastructure. You are holding it in your hands!

Corona Virus, Smartphone Transmit ?

Will touching an infected user’s smartphone help spread the Corona Virus?

Photo serves as metaphor: a doll with say eyes has a a facemask partially covering her visage. This raises a question about the hygiene and safety of using the touchscreen on our phones.

Dear Ms. Smartphone: With the Covic-19 virus spreading, should I be worried if someone shares a smartphone with me? I was looking at some pictures my friends had on their phones,  and I had to touch their screens to scroll. Meanwhile, it seems like my kids are always passing their phones back and forth to look at YouTube.  And, how about those TV screens on airplanes?  Lance, San Francisco.

Dear Lance:  I am a doctor of social science, not a medical doctor, so I cannot fully give you the advice you seek. But, on the social science side of things, some years ago Stephen King wrote a thriller called ‘Cell.’ Phones were at the heart of the pandemic. It was the signal, not germs, that spread the illness.

But, what is spreading COVIC-19? The Center for Disease Control (CDC) site says it might spread by touching the surface of an object that has the virus on it and then touching your own mouth, nose, or eyes….but they don’t think that’s the main way. Still, it’s good practice to be careful if you have a shared phone that passes among people you do not know well. This is not uncommon among groups of itinerants, the homeless, and poor. They are more likely to share a common phone and might be at a higher health risk to begin with.

Assuming you have a personal phone, you will likely touch it up to 2000 times a day. Good hygiene, in any season, says keep your phone out of the bathroom. Also, make it a regular habit to wipe down the screen with a soft cloth (not soap and water). A Web-MD story says ultra-violet light might be a way to eliminate airborne flu viruses, but other experts, like a clinical professor of pathology, says these effects are superficial.

Time-tested sage advice from the CDC is to routinely wash your hands with a 60% + alcohol based cleaner, or with soap and water for at least 20 seconds.

That said, transmission is not only about germs.  This gets us closer to social science and to the pandemonium Stephen King predicted. Speed of information and fragmented, half-truths can also broadcast fear and panic.

Fake News and Smartphones

A prankster creates Fake Road Traffic with a set of Smartphones…

A quirky picture of a red kids wagon that is as big as a car and has a motor.
A Street Ready Wagon found on Ebay built by John Davis of Cornelius, OR.

Dear Ms. Smartphone: I saw on social media that you can use your phone to create a fake news traffic jam? I live in a neighborhood that gets a lot of traffic and I could use my phone to divert it. What do you think? Hani, Cambridge.

Dear Hani,

Let me start my saying that I don’t know how to reverse engineer it, but your phone is always used to monitor traffic. Most people don’t know this, but services like StreetLight data collect location data from your phone. Then they aggregate it and sell it to cities and towns that need to report traffic patterns. 

You can take steps to minimize what your phone sends by turning off GPS and Bluetooth. Most importantly, look through your apps and turn off permissions for location-data. You will be surprised how many apps are sending location data: apps  for cooking, meditation, shopping, etc.

Maps Need Data- You Need Maps

That said, you must allow location data when you use your phone for navigation, say when you open Google Maps or Waze. 

The incident you are referring to on social media was one I did not want to draw attention to for fear that it would spread through more channels. But, since you asked here is a brief summary. I will not add more fuel by gracing it with a picture!

Little Red Wagons

A performance and installation artist in Germany took a red wagon (think Radio Flyer) and filled it with 99 smart phones. Each one had the GPS activated so when he pulled the wagon on a side street  the color coded traffic map ‘summed’ 99 pings and registered “red” for traffic congestion. 

Google quickly issued a response (Yes!). It begins, “whether via car or cart or camel, we love seeing creative uses of Google Maps as it helps us make maps work better over time.”  They add that they will be improving the algorithm to detect wagons versus cars.

Circle the Wagons too..

There are a few ways to look at this fake news story. First, kudos to Google for being polite and responsive to the wagonneer. Next, get on the wagon with your GPS turned off…or perhaps, GPS turned on, mindfully.


*9to5Google is not an official Google newsletter. It is a blog written about Google and other technology. This can be confusing (almost fake news!)