How do productive people use their smartphones to their advantage? In the second instalment of The Spinoff’s Home Screen series, we ask Marianne Elliott from The Workshop how she uses her smartphone to make the most of her busy day.
As a single mother of a toddler, co-director of a research business and member of two non-profit boards, Marianne Elliott certainly knows what busy means. She understands the importance of utilising technology to assist her in the many roles she has, and the influence of a career in human rights law has given Elliott a unique perspective on the ethics of digital media use.
Her business The Workshop, which she co-leads with Jess Berenston-Shaw, is a non-profit research agency that helps create communication strategies, with a particular focus on social justice issues. It’s still a relatively young company, with only a small staff, which means Elliott takes on many different roles, from research to managing employees, drafting employment contracts and searching for office spaces.
On a typical day, Elliott will use her phone for a few hours. She considers her relationship with it a healthy one, which she puts down to a number of things, including the new demands of parenting.
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“I feel like you become really aware of it when you have a kid and they’re watching your every move. It’s around a lot and I’m really aware that it’s around a lot because he is really interested in it and always wanting to get it, so I’m always thinking is that weird and wrong that my kid wants to get this thing?”
To combat that, she’s conscious of how she uses her phone in front of him, but isn’t worried about the effect of technology on his development. He mostly uses the phone for video calling his relatives and listening to music.
“I play music through the phone to a little bluetooth speaker for my son to dance to or play to, I use it to take photos of him, to Facetime my mum so he can see his grandma.”
Rather than checking her phone when she first wakes up, Elliott keeps hers at arm’s distance, which she says is out of necessity rather than habit. Before her son is sitting in his high chair with breakfast at the ready, Elliott doesn’t have much time to check her phone. When she does the first app she opens is Twitter, where she’s put together a group of news sources to catch her up on daily happenings from around the world.
Luckily Elliott says her job now doesn’t usually require her to check emails until she’s started work for the day. In the meantime she listens to music or the RNZ app and will pop on a podcast for the walk to daycare.
“I’ve worked in the past in what I consider ‘rapid response’ jobs, where I have to be on top of things in a kind of state of urgency, that’s not really the case in this job,” she explains.
Her phone is still an important tool once she’s behind her computer and her work day has started. While she usually will use her phone to tether to her laptop, giving her access to the internet basically anywhere, she still uses a few key apps on her mobile to stay in touch with colleagues and plan her day. “Slack, which we use for our main source of internal comms; Asana, which is where we manage our projects, so that’s where we go in the morning to see where my projects are; and Timely, which is where we track time.”
If she has time before she picks up her son from daycare, she’ll use her phone to track a run on Strava.
Elliott’s background in human rights has had an influence on the way she uses her phone. A piece of research she conducted a couple of years ago looked into the impact of digital media on democracy, and some findings were concerning – particularly the extent to which metadata was used to target advertising.
“These technologies can be useful to people who have good faith purposes – organisations such as the SPCA might be able to target an ad at people who like dogs; that’s not harmful – but it probably has been used more often and more skilfully by people with bad faith intentions, and that’s made me way more conscious.”
She’s talking about all the advertising and messaging that preys on people’s vulnerabilities, all of which are implanting themselves deeper into modern culture via these targeted posts. This has made her very aware of the apps she uses and of what they’re serving her. Elliott says people are often too hard on themselves when it comes to trying to pull back on digital and social media use, not aware that these apps and sites are specifically designed to create dependency and addictions.
“The people who are designing these interfaces in apps, their professional work history before they came to Facebook were designing the slot machines at casinos, so they have a background in design for addictiveness – it’s not an accident. I think it’s useful to be aware of that and not beat ourselves up about it.”
The onus, she says, needs to be placed on governments to better regulate these online spaces, rather than individuals.
“I think the solution to the ways in which those apps are behaving unethically has to happen at a higher, more systematic level than individuals using them. I think we’re going to need better regulation at a governmental level.”
For this reason, Elliott doesn’t think it’s helpful to give “advice” for people to better use their phones. She still uses Instagram to check in with what her friends are doing, and finds using the app a pleasant way to spend her time. She wants people to understand that social and digital media use isn’t something that individuals should feel ashamed about, because we all use it for different reasons.
“If the driver is ‘I’m just really sad,’ then I might need to think about the kinds of personal connection that I need, but if the driver is ‘I’m super anxious about world events and I need to know what Trump is doing every day because if I know then I feel a tiny bit less out of control,’ that’s really different,” she says.
“What I don’t find useful is generic ‘do this’ approaches to our shared cultural challenges around social media.”
Elliott uses her phone as a tool, in place of a diary, calendar, radio, clock, internet router, run tracker, map and messaging platform. She’s not particularly concerned about her screen time, and hopes one day people stop being ashamed of theirs.
“What we should ask is whether my use of this doesn’t feel good to me. That can be the measure of whether it’s a problem or not, it doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks. If it’s helping you survive in this weird old world we have then don’t let anyone say it’s a problem.”