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M for mobile - transcript

Shreya Gopal

Hello, and welcome to this podcast episode of the A to Z of tech, where we will be exploring the theme of M for mobile. I am one of the hosts, Shreya, and I am joined by my co-host Louise.

Louise Taggart

Thank you, Shreya. In this episode of the podcast, as you said, we are going to be looking at the topic of mobile technology and exploring its many benefits as well as some of its, maybe, dark sides. Thinking about angles like economic factors, technological issues, societal, and also at a personal level as well. Basically asking, are we heading off a cliff, or are we moving towards a technology utopia? I think for all of us, we’ve seen that connectivity has basically become an essential part of our daily lives, and there has actually been some research published that most people in the UK are now dependent on their digital devices, and actually need a constant connection to the internet. Then of course, on top of that, we also need to consider what differences we are seeing as a result of the world now having less mobility, because of the COVID-19 pandemic as well.

Shreya

Thanks Louise, without much ado let’s introduce the guests for our podcast today. Alex Wright is a manager in PwC’s Strategy&, with a focus on the technology, media, and telecoms sector. Rob Freeman is a freelance technology journalist and a lecturer, key areas of his interest are new product creation, social media and strategic planning for long term trends. Finally, we also have Dr Chetna Kang, who is a consultant psychiatrist at Nightingale Hospital in London. She has been involved with raising awareness around mental health and reducing stigma, with a particular focus on technology addictions. Alex, our first question today is to you. Could you start us off by telling a little bit about your role and what you do on a daily basis?

Alex Wright

Yeah, sure Shreya. As you said, I am a manager in PwC’s Strategy&, which is PwC’s strategy consulting house. Most of my clients, in some shape or form, because of the sector I work in, are involved in mobile technology, whether it is mobile operators, mobile infrastructure equipment manufacturers, or tech companies, who provide some kind of intellectual property to the sector. I am pretty excited about this podcast and hopefully having a really good conversation about the industry and the impact as you said at the start that it is really having on all of our lives.

Shreya

Thank you for the introduction Alex, that's really great that you are interested on the impact on how mobile technology is impacting all of our lives. Actually, could we explore that a little further, what are the impacts of mobile technology that you are seeing through your clients and projects that you are working on?

Alex

Yeah, from the perspective of many players in the industry, if we look ahead a little bit, the big technology that is coming online now and creating a lot of excitement, some would say a little bit too much excitement, perhaps, that is 5G. Really one of the big prizes anyway from 5G is really enabling, what’s called the internet of things (IoT). Which essentially means coordinating machines, devices and appliances, over the internet in a mobile way. So, as an example of 5G operators going to invest about a trillion dollars over the next coming five years and about 80% of that is probably going to go into 5G infrastructure, and it really is exciting. Some of the use cases that are coming out are, they sound a little bit sci-fi. I will give you an example, Shreya, one of the use cases that’s actually partly been tested, in a sense, is robotics assisted surgery. This is where surgical robots would be remotely controlled by a surgeon, and that surgeon would be wearing a haptic hand to be able to control movements, and they would be wearing an AR/VR headset, in a completely different location, and 5G enables that, and it could be quite a remote location, hence the mobile aspect. So, 5G enables that by its ultra-low latency connections, it's ultra-reliability, and having a much faster mobile broadband.

Louise

If we put robot surgery to one side for a moment and think, maybe, about some of the more day-to-day implementations of this kind of technology, and then particularly obviously mobile technology. We have probably all had a slightly different journey from original fixed line through to mobile. I remember that my grandparents used to have one of those proper old rotary phones. If you think about the world more broadly in this transition from fixed line to mobile, are different countries at different stages in this development process as it were Alex?

Alex

It is a really good question Louise, and the answer is yes, so different countries are at different stages. The dividing line really is along economic lines, between developed economies and developing economies, and not necessarily in the way you might think actually. Broadly, people in the developing world rely far more heavily on mobile internet data than fixed broadband, that fixed line data that you were talking about. In the developed world, where we are at the moment, it is the other way around. For example, if we take India, it’s a really good example of this. India has the highest consumption levels of mobile data, so things consumed across their mobile phone, per user per month anywhere in the world. They use about 12 gigabytes a month per user, but only 4% of households in India have a fixed broadband connection, which might not be surprising. But if you look conversely at the UK, it is the opposite. Mobile data consumption per user is still high, it is about 3 gigabytes per user per month, so that's what we use in our mobile phones, but 80% of households have fixed broadband.

It is really quite interesting, and Louise you alluded to at the start of this piece, some research by Ofcom and they’ve actually picked up on this point as well. Every year, I believe, Ofcom asked the public in the UK, and Ofcom is the regulator here in the UK, they asked the public, what would be your most missed device, if you didn't have it. Back in 2014, people's most missed device was actually their TV sets, 37% of people said the most missed device would be TV sets, and mobile phones came in second place. By 2019, actually about 50% of us were saying that mobile phones were our most missed device, so it was number one, and TVs had really sunk down to less, they were at about 30% last year in 2019. Interestingly, throughout all of that period, computers, which obviously use fixed broadband, were sort of languishing around 14% or 10% across the whole period. In summary, Louise, it is probably safe to say that in people's minds, people have made that switch from fixed to mobile as you alluded to.

Louise

I think that disparity between different countries is actually really fascinating. If we pick up on some of those economic points that you’ve alluded to, mobile phones now are basically just tiny computers that we carry around with us, they are not just phones anymore. Then if we think more widely around all of the data that we now store on our mobile phones, and therefore now carry around with us all nowadays, presumably, all of that data has a value as well.

Alex

You are absolutely right Louise, it does have value. On the broader economic impact of mobile, in summary, mobile has transformed the economy of the rich world, and is having a really significant impact on developing countries. If we throw out some stats again, mobile technology and services added about just over 4 trillion dollars of economic value globally to global GDP, which is about 4.7% of global GDP in 2019, last year, and about 30 million people's jobs depended on mobile technology in some form or another, as in their job would simply not exist without it. You mentioned again, that point about developing countries versus developed, the impact is probably actually even greater in those developing countries and that's sort of borne out by the figures. If you think of remote villages, for example, in parts of West Africa, they can now access cheap mobile phones with data. What does that mean, that means they can access mobile banking services, which is obviously a critical step to lifting people out of poverty, and meeting those UN sustainable developmental goal, for example. And fixed infrastructure just wouldn't be possible in many of those parts of the world because it is too expensive. Again, this difference between developing and developed countries in parts of West Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa, mobile contributes about 9% of GDP directly or indirectly. In Europe, it is only about 3.5%. There is a real difference there.

Louise

Fascinating, thank you Alex.

Shreya

On that note, if you could turn to society and education a little bit more from the economic, we turn to you Rob, could you tell us a little bit more about yourself and what do you do on a daily basis?

Rob Freeman

Hello Shreya, yes nice to be with you. I work as a technology journalist and researcher. In the last few years, I’ve also moved into education, and I am working with a couple of universities in London and I teach young 18/19/20-year old’s about various aspects of the media, both in theoretical production and in technical and actually doing it. We put them into TV studios, and we put them into radio studios, and we give them kit. They make things, they are creative with them. The move to mobile in this respect, particularly in these times we are in with a global pandemic, I had never expected the uptake of the use of mobile technology to be running as fast as it is, but thank goodness it is, from my point of view because of course, where we are now, we can’t put students into studios, and we can’t put students into TV and the traditional infrastructure that we would normally have.

Shreya

Thanks Rob, that's a really interesting point. Where is mobile technology in your view going in our future?

Rob

It is going to get smaller. It is certainly going to get faster with applications such as 5G, but I don't think we’ve really worked out the creative elements of this. Everyone I listened to, who talks about the increase in speed and capacity for technology, comes at it from a very business centric side, as you can probably understand. I mean I am looking at it from the creative industries. I just don't think we are anywhere near there yet. You are seeing a little bit in what we are getting in Youtubers, and also, in the last certainly 18 months, many more people who have realised that actually the audio part of media is relatively simple to get going and it is relatively cheap, and it's stable and it works. We’ve got so many more podcasters now than we used to have. We’ve barely scratched the surface of the people, who can actually contribute. The fact that if you have an interesting creative idea, you can actually get it out there and it's the mobile technology that is enabling people to do that. Not just from connectivity, although that’s really important, it’s about having a good quality camera that is stable, doesn’t draw too much power, and creates technically a really good picture, also, editing and production capability as well.

I will give you a nice example of this. Around the country, we have got lots and lots of radio and television studios, and they are the hubs for local and regional news across the United Kingdom. Now almost all of them working on technology that was introduced in this country in the 1970s, and it is that issue with big fixed expensive infrastructure that Alex mentioned before, and in the same way that we know from all of the examples, where you’ve got emerging nations and they bypass a lot of that and go straight into wireless telephone and broadband.

The same things happened there with Youtubers. So you could pick up any relatively modern phone, not one that was produced last year, one that was produced three or four years ago, the technical capability of that unit certainly in its sound and its vision will give you something like four times the technical quality that you can get from many of the regional TV regional studios that I am familiar with, and certainly a lot of the academic infrastructure that I work with as well. It’s fascinating you can start a YouTube channel, effectively with a mobile phone, and have four times the technical quality that a big national broadcaster can have. Don't get me wrong they can have it, but that stuff involves changing at the core some large, very expensive infrastructure and you have to get everyone working on the same system first, before we can really switch it on for everyone.

Shreya

Absolutely fascinating discussion Rob, thank you so much for your insight.

Louise

Yeah, that was quite astounding actually, and as I know we’ve touched on some of the business, and economic, and creative aspects of mobile technology, and actually also that touched on even the freedom that mobile technology can enable. This seems like the perfect moment to turn to our final guest for today's podcast, Dr Chetna Kang. Thank you so much for being with us today, before we talk about mobiles and technology in a bit more detail, could you just tell us a little bit about your role, and your research interests.

Dr Chetna Kang

My name is Dr Chetna Kang, as you said, and I am a consultant psychiatrist. I generally focus on adult mental health, that’s from young adults 16 upwards, right through to older persons. A lot of my work is around raising awareness, reducing stigma. Over the last few years, what I’ve seen is like all our guests, an increase in the amount people are using.

Generally, what I am seeing in my clinics is, very few people are specifically coming with ‘I am addicted to technology.’ They are still coming with increasing levels of anxiety, depression, etc., but more and more I am seeing that mobile devices, or certainly use of the internet and social media, is either contributing to exacerbating their mental health problem. But the issue is that when social media or excessive mobile device use starts to become an obstacle, or is overly relied on for our sense of who we are, evaluating what others think of us, and having deep meaningful connection with others, because it is much harder to do all of those things and evaluate those things through digital media rather than in person.

For example, if we look at how digital technology behaves, and how messages behave, how communication behaves, it works a lot faster than real time human emotion. A case in point is, for example, look at instant messaging or something like WhatsApp. If I send a message to someone; however, it  may be practical, it may be emotionally loaded, etc., or they sent me a message, there is some indication of whether the message has been received or whether it has been read. Now, in a normal conversation, there are pauses, there is eye contact, there is an opportunity to think and say I will come back to you. But we have an expectation at the minute our message is seen, you see the two blue ticks, I expect a response, and if you haven't responded to me immediately, one might get caught up in their own internal dialogue ‘oh, why haven't they, why hasn't this person replied, do they not like me anymore, are they not interested, is something else more important. Immediately what comes to mind you may have got a blue tick because it came up on their notifications, they saw it, but they are in the middle of something else and so now don't have time to respond to, or maybe they want a few minutes to think about it. You see this disparity between real time emotions and communication, which is very individual versus what we have expectations on mobile devices. It has skewed things for us. It ends up very acutely shining a spotlight on where our vulnerabilities in our relationships and self-esteem lies.

Rob

Can I just jump in and ask a question, Dr Kang. What do you think about the default of mobile app developers, whenever you install something new, I don't know about you, but it  worries me when they set the default to turn notifications on. Whenever I get a new app, it sits there and nags me, ‘do you want to turn notifications on.’ Whereas I used to do this, I now solidly try and turn them off, because I found I was just looking at the phone all the time, waiting for some lights to pop on and off.

Chetna

Absolutely, yeah, I am the same! I get annoyed by that as well. No, I want to turn my notifications off because those notifications what they do is, they keep us in a situation where we have to be socially switched on all the time, and that is exhausting. When a lot of these apps, these platforms for people to connect were designed, they were designed with a very good intention, they were designed to bring people together and that's wonderful. However, the way they have developed has been that hang on, if we are going to enable your life, we will enable your life, in order to be able to also sell to you, because you can’t have this all for free.

Especially more recently, especially in the last few years, I have become more and more aware. If I do a bit of online shopping, and I happen to leave a page, and I leave a dress or blouse and I just think I will come back to it later. I will go to another website, completely unrelated, and a pop up comes up of that dress or that pair of shoes. I sit there thinking, if I were shopping to an ordinary shop and I found a dress and I decided I will come back and have a look at that, there is no way the shopkeeper is going to grab that dress and chase me down the street to the next store, saying ‘hey look at this, do you remember this dress, why don't you buy it, why don’t you buy it right now, look we'll give you 30% off.’ Do you see what I mean, it's this idea that yes we’ve been given so many things to enable relationships, but in the meantime it is designed to keep us on there to actually sell so many other things to us. This sounds a bit extreme, but it is like the perfect drug.

First of all, it is the perfect drug because it changes according to what our needs are. But think about it, our feed, and it is interesting it is called a feed, we are being fed it literally, is changing, depending on what we like, what we don't like, how many seconds we spend on a particular page, why we move, and what we move to next. So it is constantly changing, imagine I gave you a drug which changed according to your needs, when you need it to be high, it makes you high; when you need it to be low, it made you low; when you needed to laugh, it made you laugh. If I gave you a drug like that, you would come back for it over and over again, even more so if it was socially acceptable.

Shreya

What you said is really interesting Dr Kang, but what is the main crux of the issue here. Is it that people find that device as a comfort blanket or is it knowing that you can be connected at all times, and not wanting to miss out or having a need for online validation?

Chetna

It's both, there is definitely a need for validation and connection. Once your mobile device becomes your primary way of doing that, the danger is, it doesn't become your sole way of doing that or your only way of doing that. Doing anything online you get your results straight away. Because you get your results straight away, you can feel like you are actually achieving. You know, that dopamine fix that quick, ‘oh that I've done something’ and so it lulls you into this false sense of ‘okay, whatever problem I have, whatever difficult feeling or psychological issue I have, at the moment I feel safe. I feel safe in the world I’ve created through my mobile device.’

Shreya

With that in mind, as a final thought, how do we go about finding a balance then between some of the positives that mobile devices and that kind of connectivity can bring to us versus some of those challenges and pitfalls that also come hand in hand with that at the same time, what are your recommendations?

Chetna

My recommendation is, three areas everybody should focus on. First of all, the amount of time we spend on the mobile device. Second thing is the content that we are consuming and what platforms we are using to consume that content. The third thing is, relationships. Where we are using mobile devices to stay connected to others to balance that with actual genuine face to face time. Now I know we have been challenged in the last few months with that and it has been much harder to do, but what I’ve seen more recently is where there has been opportunities for people to meet face to face, they are not, because they’ve got into the habit of the quickness and ease of doing it digitally, not really realising why they are still walking away from those interactions not fulfilled, not satisfied. I just want to go into these three, just a little bit more.

The first one, time. It is not just about the amount of time we are spending on mobile devices, even more key is the time of day. So, for example, there has been for a long time, a lot of talk about blue light and the effects of blue light on our sleep. Now blue lights, they are all the time it's around us, it's actually healthy for us, we need it. It is part of the spectrum. It helps us to know the difference between day and night, and allows our brain to kick in and let us fall asleep. What happens is, when we use mobile devices late at night. It is not so much, just the blue light. I mean if blue light filters make some difference, but not a massive amount, because there are other things to factor it. It is also the proximity how close you are holding the device to face. Your brain is thinking, it is time to be awake rather than asleep. Often if we are using mobile devices close to bedtime, people will often describe that they have disrupted sleep. Why? Because if your brain thinks it is daytime and you fall asleep, the most your body's going to do is like a daytime nap. So, I know there is more and more, an inclination people like to have free apps, free games, free everything, but nothing is actually free, because the price you are paying for it is the bombardment of advertisements and the extraction of your data. So, just be careful of the content that you are using. But if you are having healthy regular human interactions, and you are watching the amount of time and the time of day, that you are using your digital content, then actually, I agree with the other two guests Rob and Alex that we can very much use mobile technology as an enabler. It doesn't have to become an obstacle.

Shreya

Absolutely, I think those are really positive tips to leave us with today. Thank you and I do think at this point, we are going to wrap up. But, a huge thank you to all three of my guests who have joined us today, to Chetna, Rob and Alex. I think we have had actually a really thought provoking discussion there, and around some of the economic and societal angles associated with mobile devices as well as maybe ways that we can think a little bit more critically about how we interact on an individual level with mobile devices and also the content that we view as well. And, I will definitely be thinking about robot surgeons for the rest of the day there! Thank you as always to our listeners, for joining us on this podcast. Do make sure to rate and subscribe to us and listen out for our next edition of the podcast which will be N for nanotechnology.

 

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