“Wired” wants you to turn off that smartphone

(and what it says about the attention economy)

If you’re reading me on Medium, there’s a good chance you picture what Wired is and represents. This monthly magazine is the gospel of Silicon Valley, and reading it might be the most efficient way to gauge the pulse of the biggest tech addicts in this world.

And if you do read it, you may have noticed this recent trend: a growing number of articles recommend readers to spend less time using their apps, or even to use almost no apps at all.

Earlier this month, a Wired piece advised to switch from Facebook’s Messenger app to its little sister called Messenger Lite. Designed for emerging markets with low-bandwidth connections, Messenger Lite is praised by the author for its distraction-free environment (no GIFs, no emoji reactions, no stickers, no games, you name it) that allows you to stick to the original purpose you had when opening the app. How revolutionary!

In a bolder move, one of their columns recently went viral by encouraging to turn off all notifications on our smartphones.

Their point is that push notifications, invented in 2003 to make our digital lives less of a hassle, have on the contrary become a pain. I couldn’t agree more with the statement, but is a smartphone without notifications smart at all anymore? Is Wired really advocating a U-turn in favor of low-tech, which would sound like The Economist backing a communist uprising?

Just another example: Wired produces a podcast called Gadget Lab. Every week or so, they spend an hour debating software and hardware news in details. This Summer, they dedicated an episode to the podcast hosts confessing they were trying to detox from their phones, and sharing a few tips to do so efficiently (spoiler: none of them has found the perfect solution, or the killer app — pardon the pun). A Gadget Lab episode to learn how to stop using gadgets, in short.

Wired is obviously not the only media doing so — far from it. For instance, most have already mentioned the new quest of Tristan Harris, former design ethicist at Google, for a more responsible impact of tech on our minds. But I find striking to read the advice to shut notifications in a media that could spend hours discussing the slightest new feature announced by Google or Amazon.

The way I see it, there’s no better proof that the “attention economy” has become a major question in the tech industry. If you have never heard of that term or don’t see why it has to be fixed, just watch the trailer for Tristan Harris’ initiative called Time Well Spent:

Attention is the new privacy.

In the coming couple of years, of all the societal issues triggered by tech, the attention economy might very well be the one all of us will have heard of and really thought about. Probably even more than AI, which may sound like the most pressing issue for some but remains science fiction in the minds of many. Because it’s fairly demanding to think of machine learning in terms of concrete, daily consequences for me— but if you tell me about that app that stole all of your spare time by making you endlessly scroll down for nothing, I can totally relate.

In the same way, although few of us really act accordingly, most Internet users have gotten at least a slight grasp of online privacy issues, amid multiplying controversies in recent years.

Exasperation with surveillance and ad targeting led to the birth of privacy by design, an approach to tech that is poised to change the way it is conceived. Likewise, ethics by design may soon become a growing concern for customers, which in turn would be of high interest for businesses and regulators alike.

So far, Tristan Harris’ initiative seems to be the only one willing to fix the attention economy. He won’t stay alone for long.