One night I awoke to a bright flash. As had happened many times before, I rolled over and groggily eyed my phone - even face-down it still rudely illuminated the room. With the full intention to turn it off and roll back to sleep, I checked what had set it off. Just to be sure, of course.
As I glanced at the screen a wave of anxiety washed over me. Eight unread emails about sales, stocks, and startups. A few push notifications from Twitter and other assorted apps. Two text messages from an important business associate. Ugh. As I scanned through the noise, I came on an singular important email, by this time wide awake. I was selected for an important pitch competition!
This was great news that could help the success of my startup. My anxiety abated and excitement took over as I reveled in this moment. Unfortunately it was still the middle of the night, and excitement and sleep don’t mix. Drawn out of my cozy hibernation, I tossed and turned for much of the night. Peace was out of reach until the first pink and orange hues of the morning peaked over the horizon.
After a number of nights like these I’ve long since discovered the critical “do not disturb” function on my iPhone. Setting it to my sleeping hours can necessarily prevent these kind of night-time interruptions, (life force renewed!), but while my sleep is now distraction-free, my days are not. Unfortunately, most of us are interrupted daily by email, texts, and content notifications. These interruptions and distractions are fueled by evolutions in software user-experiences that vie to exert control over our watching, reading, money, and time. In fact my nighttime frustrations were just a singular battle in an ever increasing daily war with technologic interruptions. Most troublesome is that whether we know it or not, we’re fighting against software and technology that is willfully distracting — software consciously designed to manipulate our focus.
This is the War on Attention, and according to the latest research, we’re losing.
Battle lines drawn
In the technologically-prehistoric 19th century nothing was instantaneous. People held conversations in person, communicated by letter, and engaged with lengthier and more detailed content like books and newspapers.
Then there was the telephone, a radical advancement that brought instantaneous, two way communication into our lives. For the first time communication was time-sensitive, but mostly proximity agnostic. Society quickly evolved, and we were indentured to answer the shrill ring of the telephone, regardless of distance to the caller. Telephones quickly became ubiquitous, and and along with them a new form of distraction.
Arguably, this was a major inflection point in our technological evolution and a great example of technology induced distractions. The following technological progress in communications can be broken down into three evolutions:
The First Evolution
The first evolution was a change in communication delay, from time-agnostic forms of communication (physical writing) — to instantaneous, increasingly urgent and interruptive methods. Initially there was the telephone with delayed urgency voicemail, then instantaneous email with a delayed urgency inbox, then fully urgent text and messengers. The speed of communications has maximized, and along with it, urgency.
The Second Evolution
The second evolution was a change in the required communication proximity, from only being able to talk in person to those physically around you, to being able to communicate across the world. Meanwhile, physical proximity to communication devices has decreased as well, from landline phones which require you to be in a certain space, to personal cellphones carried with you sometimes, to smartphones with internet connectivity which are compulsory to carry and always have internet access.
The Third Evolution
The third evolution is in content delivery, from traditional sluggish and low-saturation content delivery mechanisms like newspapers, printed books, and theaters, to instant content delivery like internet articles, ebooks, and video/audio streaming. Along with changes in the type and deliverability of content, new vectors have been developed to transport this content. Traditional content vectors like libraries, bookstores, and newspaper delivery have been replaced by newsfeeds and push notifications.
Our lives are markedly different with these evolutions. The Jetsons would marvel at the technology in a smartphone or laptop. Ancient philosophers would faint at the depth and breadth of knowledge available on a single Wikipedia page. We have access to a world of premium streaming and written content at our fingertips — Viral videos, New York Times articles, and Reddit posts to wallow in for eternity. Pocket sized video-chatting-photo-taking-food-ordering computers are not only possible, they’re compulsory, enabling multiple forms of instantaneous communication on the go. What we’ve built is nothing short of miraculous; the brave new world is connected and open and humanity should rejoice in it’s collective success. Unfortunately for us, technological improvements have a funny way of having unintended consequences.
- Instantaneous communication from real people demands more and more of our time. Our friends and acquaintances text message, Whats App, or Messenger us randomly throughout each day. Instead of being able to respond on our own time, these services use tools like read receipts and timestamps to manipulate us into action. They demand attention in the name of relationships.
- Emails from employers late in the evening disrupt us from employers who know that your job is more valuable to you than finishing dinner with your wife, pull you out of your relationships and into the mental workspace (regardless of physical environment). They demand our attention in the name of your job.
- Facebook feeds full of content with catchy headlines distract you from tasks and productivity. They bombard us with headlines we “won’t believe,” top-10 lists, or polarizing political content in order to keep you clicking. They demand attention in the name of curiosity and controversy.
- Coupons and deals emailed to us or sent via mobile notifications incite us to spend and distract us. We’re bombarded with flash sales and 20% off coupons, deals so good we can’t help but look. They demand attention in the name of spending and “saving” money.
- Social apps distract us from human interactions, even in the direct presence of another human . We have Snapchats and Instagrams that fill our phone with content so meaningless you don’t even want to save it. They demand attention in the name of distraction.
The world is now full of content, software, and communication tools that all want our attention. Emails. Notifications. Posts. Reminders. Text messages. Alerts. Our phones and computers are full of app-tamagotchis that need to be fed and watered to keep them from withering away. “Look at me!,” they say.
Technology is only the weapon
We know that among the massive technological evolutions we have built instantaneous communication software, eliminated the need for communication proximity, and massively accelerated content delivery.
In a vacuum, these improvements are positive and with a historical lens they are almost magical. However these evolutions are driven by companies with financial responsibilities. Simply put, software and hardware companies need to make money. Consequently, in the pursuit of revenue our clicks, activity, views, and time are directly monetized. Monetization is not inheriently malicious, but unfortunately being bequeathed for profit means companies are incentivized to negatively draw your attention. The more time you spend on software, the more money these companies make.
The common denominator in monetization is attention, and the result is that software companies are driven to get you using and keep you using their software and content producers are incentivized to make content addicting and compelling. That our attention is monetized is not new — it is a familiar pattern across forms of advertising over the past several decades. But with technology’s now ever-present reach into our lives, thousands of content producers, thousands of software companies, thousands of marketplaces, — not to mention hundreds of friends and employers— are all vying for your limited time, and all armed with instant tools, we end up with a big problem:
When everything wants our attention, how do we focus on anything?
The consequences of these technologies influence on attention are sometimes glaringly obvious and sometimes more subtle. We can anecdotally attest to being distracted by our phones in certain interactions, or distracted at the workplace by emails (or Facebook!). These are obvious behavioral changes. More quantitatively, science is just starting to scratch the surface of the cognitive changes we are experiencing as a species.
Some preliminary research has focused on attention spans. Correlating with the rise in mobile internet, our attention spans have plummeted. Over the last 15 years, our attention spans have declined from 12 seconds to 8.5 seconds, which is a terrifying 30%. Perhaps more suggestive -from research on computers and human behavior we find that specifically mobile internet usage, which is the most accessible, proximal version of internet access, directly correlates to significantly lower attention spans. Researchers tested participant’s mobile phone and internet use and found that it directly correlated to significantly lower self reported attention spans. Again, correlational, but strongly suggestive of a problem in a causative direction.
We’re also starting to realize that our behaviors with technology may affect others as well as ourselves. Phubbing (checking your phone instead of interacting with a real life person) is visibly becoming more common and may be related to the quality of our relationships. Research has showed that couples that phubbed more often fought more with their partner and were less satisfied with their relationships. This finding is correlational, sure, we don’t know if phubbing is hurting the relationships or those in poor relationships “phubb” more. But if you accept that phubbing is becoming more common, it’s undeniably a problem.
Finally, even if you use a macro lens and argue that technological changes are a net positive for our economy, it’s probable that our reduced attention spans and increased distraction may counteract technology’s benefit to the economy. For instance, email is a massive boon to the workplace. But the average number of times an office worker checks their email in one hour? A massive 30 times. That’s probably 29.5 times too many, and that’s indicative of a software enabled attentional problems.
Researchers are just starting to scratch the surface of how attention relates to technology. But taken holistically the research is starting to paint a picture that technology (and probably the specific technological changes I’ve implicated) impacts our attention, or at the very least enables those of us at the highest risk for attentional problems. While attention might not seem as destructive as global warming or as important as healthcare, there is danger here. Decreased attention makes it more difficult to do the things we do as healthy, happy, productive humans. It makes it more difficult to work, more difficult to read, more difficult to learn, and more difficult to create.
Technology as the enabler
To be clear, technology is not the enemy; technology simply enables or exacerbates our own attentional deficits. Unfortunately much new software and hardware is designed to be compelling to the point of addicting. They’re designed to be digital crack, opportunistically targeting our own natural human cognitive shortcomings. Below are a few examples of the way technology influences our behavior and attention:
Notifications are designed to be simple negative or positive reinforcement loops. Checking the notification is a positive experience as well as simply removing the red indicator is a positive experience, or in technical terms negative-reinforcement. Leaving a red notification indicator creates creates anxiety and negative feelings.
Headlines are designed to produce maximum clicks by taking advantage of your strongest emotions: fear, anger, disgust, love, curiosity (e.g. the much maligned “curiosity gap” headline), greed, etc. Furthermore, headlines feed the same simple reward pathways as notifications; clicking a curious story, for instance, makes you feel like you are finding the answer to a question and causes positive emotions.
Social pressures have evolved around new technological methods of communicating. With instant communication via SMS, Slack, Messenger, etc. we expect instantaneous responses. “Read receipts”, “time-stamps”, and “notifications” give the people you are communicating with the ability to track your actions in real time and thus judge those actions. Social pressures and norms that guide how we respond to messages are already in place for most types of technological communication.
Recommendations, likes, and shares are also make use of human’s social nature. We value things that our friends and family like, so by building these features into software, that content and software becomes more likely to demand our attention.
We are social creatures and technology takes advantage of our desire to connect. Apps like Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook, and Tinder make us feel more connected to each-other. However, unlike in person interactions that have a discreet beginning and end these applications enable an addictive “always on” state for human connection.
Advancements in person-like vibration and haptic touch are new touch-based experiences designed to get your individual attention without bothering or alerting those around you. Ringtones and other auditory notifications are stigmatized because they bother those around you. Because haptic touch is personal, more things can be reason to tap you on the wrist and get your attention.
Winning the fight
As technology becomes more and more tethered to our daily life, we might be fighting to adapt or die. Die in the sense of a creative, productive, educated, social, and curious species. Daily functioning is becoming more and more difficult with the massive deluge of distractions we are subject to, and the problem’s not going away; the future could be much worse. When (not if) we have virtual reality, bio-implants, and other unknown technologies, companies will still demand our time and attention while the technologic stakes will be much higher. Think about the difference between a notification that goes to your phone and a notification that is projected directly on your retina.
We already struggle to take a second to be present without the distracting addiction of Instagram or Snapchat, struggle to work without interruption from email and Slack, and struggle to consume high quality content because of overwhelming choice and saturation. There should be some rational fear for a future where we are so distracted and where we crave instant gratification so much that we are unable to think for ourselves.
Unfortunately, because the War on Attention wasn’t created with a specific purpose but simply as a product of companies pursuing their own best financial interests, the solution is complicated. Peace likely can’t be brokered with siloed regulations, scientific advancement, or rhetoric. And to be sure, shunning technology is not the answer; technology is an general positive. The only way to win the War on Attention is through mindfulness. We must make the choice to focus, be present, and to ignore the ever growing cacophony of technologic distractions piped into our screens and software. Maybe we can turn on the “do not disturb” mode for our lives, for just one small part of our day. Maybe we can choose to be mindful and reject overly distracting technologies, those that begin to insidiously seep into our lives. Because If we lose the War on Attention, we might lose what makes us human. But if we win, we will be rewarded with massively helpful and innovate technology, enjoy rich and inviting content, and create meaningful, deep human connections with each other across the world.
Alex Mark is a UI/UX designer residing in Boulder, Colorado. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.