First Click: Google’s Android chief is wrong about technology's role in the family

July 13th, 2015


“Do you see mobile phones heading down a path of social unacceptability? Do we have a problem of overuse?” That was the opening salvo in a line of questions to Sundar Pichai. Conor Doughtery peppered the Google VP of product with questions related to smartphone intrusion for an interview published Sunday in The New York Times. The following excerpt caught my attention:

NYT: I think everyone recognizes that phones free people in ways that weren’t possible before, and have changed our lives. But then people start doing things like checking their email at dinner. Are there things Google is doing to return people to where they are and reduce the temptation to look at their phone?

Pichai: You’re asking questions that have nothing to do with technology. Should kids check phones at dinner? I don’t know. To me that’s a parenting choice.

Wait — wait just one second. As a parent, I take umbrage with Pichai’s absolutist response. Especially since the Android OS he’s in charge of can be found on 80 percent of all smartphones sold worldwide.

Family dinner is sacred. As anyone versed in social etiquette will tell you, dinner is a social event, not an event for utilitarian consumption. It’s the 30 minutes or so carved from every 24-hour day that requires the attention of those involved. To say the distractions caused by smartphones have nothing to do with technology is just untrue.

I get Pichai’s pedantic argument: give users the best experience possible and then let them decide how to apply the technology to their lives. But increasingly the user is a child who needs help making life choices.

September NPD study says that 71 percent of households with a child age 4-14 reported owning a smartphone in 2014. Of those, 35 percent said that their child uses a smartphone, up from 21 percent in 2012. In the UK, an October Ofcom report noted that most children aged 8 to 15 own three or more media devices — with 41 percent of 12-year-olds owning a smartphone, jumping to 67 percent by the time they turn 13.

In the same NYT interview, Pichai relates his own method for controlling smartphone disruptions at corporate dinners. "Before Google I/O we used to go out for dinner the day before the keynote and I would make everyone on the team put all their phones in a basket," said Pichai, "so that we can all have a good dinner together."

How quaint.

You’d think Google’s powerful machine learning capabilities could create a virtual basket. After all, Google knows when all the people from the same dinner invite are located in the same location at the same time. If the meeting was marked "quiet," for example, surely their phones could be silenced for the duration?

Likewise, families with small children tend to eat dinner at the same time each day, especially during the week. The same quieting rules could also be applied automatically to every family member’s Android device.

It’s worrisome when the head of Android states that technology has no responsibilities to temper these types of social intrusions. It's clearly a shared responsibility with the parents. And with more devices presenting more distractions than ever, truly smart technology is a must for parents to do their jobs well.

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