Weapons of mass distraction

#5 - Stone Age brains vs God-like technology

Hi there,

If you've been following this weekly newsletter since I started publishing five weeks ago, you'll have noticed the subject matter has been a little ad hoc.

This week, and for the next few weeks, I’d like to change tack and narrow my focus, into an area of great interest to me - design ethics from a technological context.

"How do you ethically steer the thoughts and actions of two billion people's minds every day?”

Tristan Harris

I felt inspired to follow this path, after working on a documentary for Irish television, in which the programme asks the question:

Are mobile phones weapons of mass distraction?”

Looking at the numbers, it seems pretty clear: we’re hooked.

  • 2,617 times per day the average person touches their phone.

  • 150 times per day the average person checks their phone.

  • 38% said they use their phone to much.

Over the next five weeks, in an attempt to define the issues more clearly, I will take a deep dive, exploring the question: Is screen technology a weapon of mass distraction?

I hope, by applying a bit of wit and wisdom, to illuminate this fascinating and vitally important subject for you.

The format will be as follows:

  • Part 1 - Stone Age brains vs God-like technology

  • Part 2 - Empowering the individual

  • Part 3 - Big Tech: Must try harder

  • Part 4 - Whose problem is it anyway?

  • Part 5 - Regulation: A dirty word?



The real problem of humanity is...we have paleolithic emotions...and god-like technology.

E.O. Wilson

I have a challenge for you: Try get through this article without being distracted by a screen.

I failed miserably by making a rookie error while writing this.  I put my phone on silent but forgot to turn it face down. Naturally enough, when the blue light started flashing, I couldn’t resist the urge for social validation.  

“Who's messaging me?” I wondered.  

This post is all about how our Stone Age emotions have been manipulated by screen technology. 

Yes, I'm sorry to be the bearer of bad tidings this festive season, but you’re essentially a caveman with a smart phone and denim jeans! 

Ok, I exaggerate - it’s not quite true.

Humans think of themselves as rational animals with agency to make their own decisions, but we have vulnerabilities that are being exploited by technology’s God-like powers. The impulses of our Paleolithic brains have not yet evolved to cope with such an intrusion.

Impulses, such as the need for social validation, our lack of self control, and the allure of the hunt, are examples of all-powerful, human behaviours, product designers have used to hook us to our devices.

True story

Barbara is a severe narcoleptic. She falls asleep in random places - when driving, having sex and in meetings.  Anywhere and everywhere, with one exception - Barbara never succumbs to her illness when indulging in her favourite game - playing the slot machines at her local casino.  

And she’s hooked.

Like the narcoleptic gambler, we too are hooked - hooked to the slot machine in our pockets - our mobile phones.

There’s something alluring about both activities - the way they modulate our awareness and are so compelling.   In the race to steal your attention, these actions have been engineered to habitually alter your everyday behaviour and keep your brain distracted. It's like undergoing anesthesia - you are so absorbed by the experience, when you eventually emerge from your screen-based distraction, you can feel a loss of time. 

And it’s costing us dearly.

It’s like Night of the Living Dead, a film about people possessed by a mysterious force, compelling their every action.

What kind of vulnerabilities are product designers playing with, in the race to grab your attention?  

Here’s three of many:

Vulnerability #1 - Variable Rewards

Your phone is an attention casino and it’s stealing your time.

Our hunter-gatherer ancestors stalked their prey using a technique known as “persistence hunting.”  They would track and chase its much larger and faster prey for hours, driving the animal to exhaustion, so it could be caught more easily.  

Driven by the pursuit itself, the hunter gather’s mental hardwiring, provides a clue as to the source of today's insatiable desires.

Like gambling, screen technology leverages the rewards of the hunt:

The infinite Facebook, or Twitter feed is the perfect example.  This stream of limitless information stimulates the anticipation of a “win." Be it a funny tweet, captivating post or something else, it’s the pursuit that's intoxicating and the fact your “find” is always something different.

When you swipe down with your finger, you are essentially playing a slot machine.  In search of a dopamine hit, both “games” command your attention and endlessly distract, because you are not sure of the outcome.  

Variable rewards encourage the most addictive behaviour.  It’s why slot machines are the biggest cash cow for casinos.

Vulnerability #2 - Lack of self-control

Your phone is a chess game but it’s tricked you into thinking you're winning.

Full disclosure - I like funny cat videos.

The other day, my wife sent me a link to “the funniest cat video ever.”  I was busy at the time, but the clip bait headline sucked me in.  "What harm" I thought, "the clip is only 30 seconds long?”

I lost an hour of my life to cat videos that day.  

Like the domino effect, I clicked on video after video, completely unchecked.

So what the hell happened?

Think of this scenario like a chess game.  

In this chess game, where I insist I will only watch one short clip, I can only see one move ahead. Meanwhile, my opponent, YouTube, can see many moves ahead . Why?  Because it has practiced playing this exact same chess move, with billions of other human animals beforehand. 

I may have confidently promised myself just one video and no more, but what I failed to consider, was the fact I had a super computer pointed at my brain.  By launching the Youtube app, I activated billions of dollars of supercomputing power, behind which reside, the best psychologists, engineers and marketeers in the world.

Remember, the key metric for social media companies, is time spent on screen.  YouTube knows exactly how to manipulate you to keep you watching as do most of the other apps you use.

They know how to win, and do so almost every time.

Vulnerability #3 - FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out)

“People are frugal in guarding their personal property; but as soon as it comes to squandering time, they are most wasteful of the one thing in which it is right to be stingy”


Humans are social creatures. We long to feel a connection to others and hold status within our tribe.  Social media plugs into these core desires and our Stone Age instincts cannot resist technology’s gifts.  We have been this way since time immemorial, but today, our desire for social validation online, is expressed in the form of retweets and likes.

Following other people’s lives on social media, can trigger anxiety and insecurity.  This can stem from a fear of missing out on an experience, lifestyle or opportunity.  If you can relate, you recognise FOMO.

Instagram is a FOMO factory.

It is a visually led community, where where posts go viral based on positivity. On face value, it’s the friendliest social network ever, so what’s not to like?   Ironically, it's the positivity factor of Instagram, its incessant promotion of “perfect” lifestyles, that's causing anxiety and low self-esteem issues among young people.

I don’t use it because I will bombarded by an endless feed of friends, family and celebrities, all having the time of their lives, doing incredible things, but without me. Meanwhile, I’m at home in my slob-wear, gorging on M&Ms, scrolling endlessly through my social media timelines. 😞

Know Thyself

"The attention economy has turned us into a civilisation maladapted for its own survival.
Tristan Harris

“We are now hackable animals”

Noah Yuval Harari

Let’s face it - technology has outsmarted our brains.  As the algorithms become evermore sophisticated, the world is becoming more addictive.  

Without intervention, it will get worse.

By having greater access to the web through our various connected devices - smartphones, tablets, televisions, game consoles, and wearable technology - we are giving companies even greater ability to affect our behaviour.  With the capacity to collect, mine, and process customer data at faster speeds, we are at the mercy of Big Tech and becoming even more distracted.

These companies are well aware of the dangers. Apple CEO, Tim Cook said he didn’t want his nephew on any social platforms. Steve Jobs and Bill Gates raised their kids tech-free  Many of the tech giants offer mindfulness courses to their staff because they recognise it’s power to boost resilience to stress and improve mental focus.

Mindfulness teaches us that the quality and nature of our attention has a direct impact on our wellbeing. As screen based technologies are by definition attentional technologies, they are therefore wellbeing technologies too.  

There are ways these technologies can support positive wellbeing.  The algorithms could be turned around to serve the user - the apps on our phone could tell us if we are spending too much time watching cat videos.

In the absence of regulation, or companies taking on more responsibility, what can be done on an individual level?

We need to follow Socrates' advice, the oldest Maxim in the book - Know Thyself.  

Society could afford not to heed this sage advice for the last 2,500 years and gotten away with it.  Not in the 21st century!  Technology is, in many ways, able to understand you better than you can understand yourself, and it is only getting better at it.

"In a growing attention economy where our attention is being farmed for commercial gain, mindfulness is one of the few tools available for returning our sense of agency and control."

Rohan Gunatillake 

We need to develop our emotional intelligence - mainly self-awareness, self-regulation, and motivation.

This is the first battle ground in protecting our paleolithic emotions from this God-like technology.

In next week’s post I will to explore the power of mindfulness as an antidote to the problem of mass distraction.


That’s it for this week.

I hope you got enough out of this piece to get you to tune in again next week!

As usual, if you’d like to get in touch, you can reply to this email or find me on Twitter.