Smartphones and Slacking

Mall kiosks being almost intentionally avoided…

I’ve been traveling off and on for the past month and I’ve noticed something pretty distinctive.

If you know about malls or plazas where there are a lot of different stores you might notice kiosk vendors. Usually these vendors have a product that their selling or their offering some sort of niche service. Maybe they want to sell you on the latest (really cheap) smartphone offer. Or perhaps they’re going to fix your watch for you.

Whatever the case may be these vendors often don’t get too much attention. Or, I should specify that in my experience they don’t seem to get a lot of attention. Even in fairly affluent malls that tend to cater towards the middle class or higher these vendors often seem to get the short end of the stick.

I’m not sure how this worked in the 90s or before and whether these types of vendors got much attention. It’s possible due to the lack of internet for more people that they may have gotten more interest. They may have not even been around then, I’m not sure.

But what’s important here is that in more recent times there’s been this great invention.

It’s a handheld device that can be a calculator, a music player, a compass, a map and so many other things.

Given the title and my description it’s obvious enough that this is a smartphone. And having one myself I can’t tell you how much it has helped my life. It’s given me the ability to live much more effectively, keep in touch with friends much more quickly and find my way around more easily.

As someone with aspergers that last part is especially important to me as I have a terrible sense of direction.

I don’t have a 4G or anything, I just have Wi-Fi because the SIM card won’t work with the phone. But even though I don’t have the full experience of a smartphone this easily portable device has improved my life by orders of magnitudes.

In particular, it’s helped me at my last job (and for some of the job before that I think) when I needed something to do. You know, other than my job.

It was an alternative soundtrack to the music around me, it was a way to access the internet and it was how I ended up having time to read The Problem of Political Authority. And thus it was also how I was able to write my reviews (second part forthcoming) of the book for C4SS.

Throughout my travels I’ve noticed that a lot of these benefits seem to be doubly true for the sorts of vendors I’ve mentioned before. Why? Well, think about the situation I described for these vendors before. They’re doing something that’s giving them money, that gets little to no business and what would they have to keep them busy otherwise?

Sure, they could’ve used a book or maybe if they were feeling adventurous they could use a laptop or something. But both of these options are rather bulky and not very casual. It’s much easier to just bring your phone with you, go online and lazily pay attention to possible customers.

I remember when I got the first idea for this post I was in Philadelphia and in the middle of the station (or around there anyways) was a vendor who was selling something. I don’t remember what it was anymore but I think it was phone-related. At any rate, the person working there was just staring at their smartphone. They weren’t even trying to get other people’s attention or trying to sell the product that they’re being paid to do.

And this was a fairly big area in Philadelphia that caters to all sorts of people. There were different classes of people, different races and different ages. It was a big transportation hub that, from a sociological perspective, was pretty interesting. Especially in the sense that within the time I was there (maybe around 45 minutes) I hardly saw anyone go up to the stand to talk to this person about their sales.

Granted, the transportation hub has a lot of busy people. People who are, presumably, in a rush to get somewhere. They likely don’t have time to make small chat about whether they want a given phone or not. And admittedly, neither did I so maybe I missed some customers coming up to her.

But I still found it striking that this person was basically being paid for standing around and using the internet. It’s obviously not just limited to this particular type of vending. To a limited extent this still rather new technology is impacting all sorts of workers and industries. As such it’s helping all sorts of workers reclaim their own time as opposed to the bosses.

I want to be careful in engaging in romanticism though, as I’m well aware that the smartphone also has its downsides.

I’ve written before about time poverty and cited, specifically from The Economist:

New technologies such as e-mail and smartphones exacerbate this impatience and anxiety. E-mail etiquette often necessitates a response within 24 hours, with the general understanding that sooner is better. Managing this constant and mounting demand often involves switching tasks or multi-tasking, and the job never quite feels done. “Multi-tasking is what makes us feel pressed for time,” says Elizabeth Dunn, a psychology professor at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. “No matter what people are doing, people feel better when they are focused on that activity,” she adds

Luckily, I’ve never had the sort of job that puts me in this sort of situation. I’m more likely to spend unwarranted time on doctor’s appointments or therapist emails than my job. But it’s quite possible I’m one of the lucky ones or that retail workers tend not to be as flooded with work-related emails.

Whatever the reasoning, I don’t aim to make smarphones out to be the savior of the slacker.

It’s not only possible but currently the case in some areas that smartphones are doing more harm than good for our ability to slack. This isn’t some sort of intrinsic point against technology though. People who say that this somehow “proves” that technology is an oppressive tool are missing the point.

Yes, technology is of course a tool. But it can be used as liberation and oppression within the same society. That’s often how tools work in modern society where the state, capitalism and other oppressive systems shape much of our lives. They end up distorting possible liberatory tools for their own purposes. Not in some grand conspiracy but rather through mutual self-interest in being able to maximize their personal benefits.

But whatever the current state of affairs may be, we must try to harness these technologies the best way possible.

For me, that means keeping myself from not getting depressed at work. It means connecting with friends, reading interesting books, listening to good music and doing whatever I can to at least vaguely disassociate myself from what I’m doing.

Another thing that helped was when I did useful things with my time that made me feel like work was actually productive. Sure, getting the money is nice and all but the actual process of getting the money wasn’t exactly thrilling. So if I could finish a book or work on a book review, write some jokes down for a stand-up routine or whatever, then I felt at least a little better about me being at work.

To that end, and it’s a reformist end to be sure, smartphones definitely helped me.

Past reformism and ameliorating the effects of state-capitalism I’d suggest that both the state and capitalism can often sow the seeds of its own destruction. These new technologies (with smartphones being among them) have aided us all keep more connected with the ones who matter in our lives. They’ve helped us coordinate on strategies or tactics to undermine those aspects of our lives we oppose.

It’s helpful to frame smartphones as a platform from which more liberatory tools can come from. Applications in particular can be crafted towards aiding workers coordinate strikes through PGP encrypted chats on the go. I can also imagine an application that monitors where you are in relation to where your boss is through a sort of Waze system.

What I mean by that is that you would be connected to various other workers on an encrypted channel. Within this channel there may be an IRC or some way to ping each other and communicate that if you’re doing something (working to rule, practicing a slow down or something else) that the boss is coming.

There might also be an application built specifically for slackers at work. An application that might cater to your interests and give you certain websites, articles, forums, videos, music, etc. This combination of things would have the goal of trying to make your time at work feel less meaningless. Another ameliorative tactic to be sure but still an important one.

Because, in the end, having a smartphone has done a lot for me at work, while I get to do next to nothing.

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