Driving us to distraction

#07 Big tech must do more

Happy New Year!

I’m currently on holidays with my family. We’re staying in a beautiful farmhouse in the middle of nowhere, in Co. Tipperary, Ireland and it’s proving the perfect extension to the Christmas break.

The internet connection is terrible however, and I have had limited time to refine this piece, so please forgive the lack of imagery.

If you’ve been following along, this email is part three of a five part series exploring whether screen technology is a weapon of mass distraction.

If you’re playing catch-up:

Part 1 - Stone Age brains vs God-like technology

Part 2 - Learning to place yourself in airplane mode

Part 3 - Driving us to distraction

“…these wondrous machines, for all their potential, have not been on our side. Our goals have not been their goals. Rather than supporting our intentions, they have largely sought to grab and keep our attention.”

James Williams

Swiss scientist, Conrad Gessner, was the first to herald the dangers of information overload. He argued the overabundance of data was both “confusing and harmful” to the mind.  The year was 1565 and the technology he condemned was Guttenberg's printing press.

Two thousand years earlier, Socrates warned against writing, believing it would “create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories".

Every generation has re-imagined the dangers of technology on humanity: radio lowers the attention span of children, the telephone promotes laziness, texting lowers IQ and so on.

For good or ill, technology is just a tool.  

Like the hammer to the fist or the knife to the tooth, smartphones are an incredible extension of the human capabilities, but they also represent the most socially acceptable addiction on the planet.  As I discussed in part one of this series, digital technology is designed to be this way. Tech companies are incentivised to distract us - by stealing our attention, they command more advertising revenue.

Technology is distracting and in a world of ever-growing Internet of Things (the interconnection of everyday objects via the internet), these intrusions on our attention will only get worse.  

Amber Case, a cyborg anthropologist calls it "the dystopian kitchen.”  This is a place where you can't begin to cook your dinner until you clear the virus from your smart oven.  Meanwhile, the blinking, beeping and buzzing from all of the other devices surrounding you, have you in a constant state of distraction - most of it unnecessary.

For example, the fridge is a great piece of technology.  It keeps my food fresh and my hipster milk at the perfect temperature.

Should I wish, I could upgrade to a smart fridge. You know - the one that tells you when your bananas are going off. But there is already a sophisticated technology built into bananas, alerting humans when it is going bad - it's called browning skin.  Humans are well versed in this pattern recognition.  Any technology that offers such superfluous features, is yet another bloated product we could do without. 

It's a weapon of mass distraction.

Calm Technology

If good design allows you complete a task in the least amount of steps, useful technology must allow you achieve a goal with the least amount of distraction. Technology should follow the principles of "calm technology", where the technology solves a problem with the minimum amount of interuption possible.

The humble kettle could serve as the inspiration for calm tech, one all other technologies could aspire to replicate:

  • It only interrupts when necessary

  • It does so in a non-intrusive way.

  • It doesn't command your full attention, just enough to make you aware but allows you continue what you're doing without feeling distracted. 

  • It's easy to use with a universally understandable interface.

Until we reach that point, as I wrote about in part two there is always the power of mindfulness to combat incessant distraction. But this is not enough.

"It is hard to maintain a Zen attitude in a life filled with temptations. it takes too much energy. In the short run, you can choose to overpower temptation [willpower via mindfulness] In the long run we become a product of the envitronment that we live in".

James Clear, Atomic Habits

But Big Tech must take more responsibility.

Axa Raskin of the Centre for Humane Technology says "We need to move away from just human-centered design to human-protection design."

With Internet of Things, there is so much more distraction coming down the line.  Everything from our fridge to our smoke alarm will be speaking to us (and in many ways, already is).  We must ensure all of this technology amplifiies the best of humanity by designing for people first.

Of course, if you can't quit playing Candy Crush long enough to watch a proper sunset, there needs to be some level of personal responsiblity, but by insisting distraction avoidance is your own problem, sidesteps the fact that our digital experiences have been designed like a metal and glass opiate drip.

Someone might tell you to "ignore the temptation and focus on the breath." Fair enough - this is simple skill can prove an incredibly effective tool. But when surrounded by more and more of this technology, I can imagine the same words coming straight from the lips of Philip Morris: “Don’t fret if you can’t smoke on the plane. The whole toasty pack will be waiting when you land!”

If you wish to learn more about the attentional economy and the profound invisible effects it is having on society, I recommend looking at the work of Centre for Humane Technology, and Design Ethicist Tristan Harris.

That’s all for another week folks!

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Thanks so much.

Until next week.