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!

Do Smartphones Cause Panic?

Do social media & smartphones broadcast the coronavirus pandemic

The text spells out the word Infodemic in large bold letters.

Dear Ms. Smartphone: I am working at home this week and curious if my smartphone is part of the panic. From home my co-workers communicate over Slack and email. But I see them on social media more often too. Should I continue to use emails or just ‘slack’ off’ ?! Or, is something else going on? Jamie, San Francisco

Dear Jamie: Since you are at home, you might try a cross-word puzzle or Scrabble, and the key word is InfodemicInfodemic, nine letters down or across, is coined by political scientist, thought-leader and professor David Rothkog. In an opinion piece during the SARS epidemic in 2003 he observes,a few facts, mixed with fear, speculation, and rumor, amplified and relayed swiftly worldwide by modern information technologies, have affected national and international economics, politics and even security in way that are utterly disproportionate with the root realities.

In a nutshell, the word “infodemic” is a metaphor for an over- adundance of information- some accurate, some not- that has the capacity to spread virally. 

Media Environments

It is not the first time this has happened. But back in the time of the SARS epidemic we barely had smartphones, and we used them in different ways. Our national habit of consuming media was about to change, but still tipped towards television. In 2020 we have shifted time spent on media and are collectively immersed “in” social media. Social media is unruly, a wild-wild West, with little editorial control. 

Publically, we know little about the reliability and veracity of individual messages, but individually we are prone to respond quickly and emotionally. The net effect is to augment and spread information which is not fully corroborated. The impact is not always negative: sometimes it accerates ‘facts’ that needs to bubble up.

Going Viral?

But, back to David Rothkog’s nine letter word: He viewed strong similarities between the way a disease spreads through a population and the way an idea ‘goes viral’ on the Net. Here I re-quote Rothkopf from a Wall St Journal column by Ben Zimmer, the infodemic impacted more people that the underlying epidemic that triggered it.”

So here is the concern:  if you and your colleagues are free from the office, but spending more time on social media then you are being exposed to lots of rumors about the corona virus. This rumor mill is particularly virulent here because it’s hard to parse fact from fiction. The medical community does not trust the numbers reported by their government, presumably those originating in China. 

Pooled Info & Global Tides

I used to teach the two-step model of communications,  a cornerstone theory. Today, Slack and Email are often the preferred channel where families, neighbors, and office workers chew over the news of the day and check-in with each other. We coalesce opinions and judgement by sharing with people like us, hence  familiarity (or filter bubbles) through Facebook.

But most of us are also immersed in the larger media and swimming upstream. Twice a day, at the least, we are washed over by a tidal wave, the Infodemic. We sift through the stories for clues, like those on a public beach sorting through the tidal flotsam. 

Dual Phone Dual Life

There is a way to untangle the hot mess of home & work merging together on phones.

A company called bluetach sells little stress balls in the shape of a chair.This is a picture of three of them- one is orange, one is red, one is blue. The phone sits on the red one. Personalized stress chairs on order for stressful lives.

Dear Ms. Smartphone: When I am at work I get calls from my kids and when I am at home my boss calls me. I have different ringtones for everyone, but it is still driving me crazy. And, I don’t want to carry two phones.  How do I bring order to this? Carey, Boston.

Dear Carey: Let me begin with the picture, which depicts three chairs, one holding an Iphone. The chairs are are actually little stress balls and presumably useful when we have to answer a call! Like the three chairs, or the three bears, many of us have trouble filling all our roles. However, there is a technological fix that could help.


Last year Apple introduced a phone that allows users to have two different phone numbers on the same phone, so you can separate your work and home lines. The phone lines can be from different carriers too, say T-Mobile and Verizon. This two-line functionality  is now standard on the iPhone11, but truly, so few people talk about it that it seems like a ‘secret’ feature.

Your contacts and calendar can be configured for either account. You can set the phone that is used for work to go straight to email, say after 6pm or on vacation. No more work-calls buzzing while you are trying to help the kids with their homework.

Sim Not:

Android phones should have this feature too so check the functionality with your phone carrier. In the past this required a device that held two SIM cards, but I don’t think that is the case anymore. 

Working around the clock, whether at home or at the office, seems to be a modern epidemic. While you still have to set the boundaries, e.g., when you must respond to a text from work, the dual phone might help you establish a digital fence around your home and work life. It will be interesting to see whether your boss will agree to pay for the second phone line and I personally think that managers should do so as a modern cost of doing business.