When do we fight back against tech’s onslaught?

OCTOBER 19TH, 2016 — POST 289

There’s a change in the air. It might have started with Andrew Sullivan’s admission of his “distraction sickness” in New York Magazine last month, or Alex Balk of The Awl’s response/follow up. Then there’s The Atlantic’s feature on Tristan Harris, founder of Time Well Spent who’s advocating for a different approach to software design as a response to the utter time sinks certain apps on certain devices have negatively become. It’s Harris’ contention that our software diet is comparable to junk food, waiting to be revitalised by a movement similar to organic — a better way of building software to serve users with their utility without digging hooks in to keep a user transfixed. As is written in Time Well Spent’s manifesto:

“We live in an attention economy where products or websites win by getting our time. It’s a race to the bottom of the brain stem to hijack our mind. We’re left constantly distracted.”

And then there’s the books: two of which — Tim Wu’s The Attention Merchants and Wasting Time on the Internet by Kenneth Goldsmith — were reviewed this week by New Republic. So in 2016 — coincidentally the same year the first consumer VR headsets hit the market promising unparalleled primal immersion — we might have just had enough.

Of course, we’ve known for ages how much time can so easily slip away when engaging with one of the top tier apps/services like Facebook or YouTube with seemingly no decision making process entering our minds. It’s frankly baffling how few decisions we appear to be making in dealing with technology. Because, as Harris implies, tech designers know how we work better than we do and have long been exploiting that knowledge to make products that are inexplicably enjoyable and addictive. Last year, Google’s chief business officer announced during their quarterly earnings that the average mobile YouTube session was up 50% to 40 minutes. Nearing the end of 2016 — surely buoyed by longform video like Last Week Tonight’s 20 minute videos — that time seems to be creeping close to 2 hours if my own experience is indicative of anything. If my experience can shed light on anything else, it’s that as a user I don’t feel particularly good after a 2 hour YouTube session.

This malaise that falls out of indulging the dopamine loop apps like Twitter and Instagram are engineered to keep us on has seemed to have been largely explained away. As sceptics such as Nir Eyal in The Atlantic’s piece say:

“With every new technology, the older generation says ‘Kids these days are using too much of this and too much of that and it’s melting their brains.’ And it turns out that what we’ve always done is to adapt.”

We don’t want to admit it’s there. We don’t want to admit that which we’re so invested in is actually horrifically bad for us. That this malaise exists is at odds with the tech utopianism many who are most addicted want to hold. But hearing superstar blogger Sullivan admit of the malaise, or Harris who’s graced the halls of Google as a design ethicist acknowledge that product designers are often striving for something that is fundamentally anti-human is allowing tech utopians to consider other possibilities.

What those possibilities could be are hard to imagine given how integral the series of service interactions are now essentially muscle memory. Harris imagines a suite of paid versions of Facebook or LinkedIn that retain the services utility whilst removing advertising and the “stream” that Harris considers a “bottomless bowl”, one that is difficult-to-impossible to stop eating from. But that the problem is acknowledged to be as much owned by product designers as us mere willpowerless mortals is encouraging. It’s not just me.

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