Waiting for a GFC in the Attention Economy
Social Media has made an entire industry out of your attention and it’s growing exponentially.
The average person checks their phone 150 times a day. The first time I read that statistic I had to pull out my phone and Google it to check it. (That was the 151st time that day I’d pulled out my phone.)
I remember, as do many millennials, the days before we all had a slot machine in our pockets. On the whole, people weren’t particularly more mindful, but there certainly wasn’t that eery feeling of walking around a zombie wasteland that I get walking the streets of Manhattan today.
— Before I go any further, I want to be clear; this isn’t another ‘People on their phones are terrible’ rant. I am just as guilty as anyone of being glued to their screens and becoming Derpamine fiends. I am merely recognising the nature of human willpower and that we are all, no matter how enlightened, vulnerable to the very deliberate methods of hacking our brains by those on the other side of the screen.
So. This is my home screen*. It doesn’t use icon colours, I turn off notifications, and for the most part, my phone is on silent (or vibrate.) I don’t have Facebook or Twitter on my phone, only Instagram; and I have a time-limiter that shuts it after 15 minutes of use (this resets after 24 hours).
Despite all of those triggering protocols being disabled, I still use my phone all day. By 5pm, I’m on about 2% battery — and it doesn’t seem to be getting any better. I keep thinking about maybe taking a digital detox once a month, but then I get an email about a new shiny thing my phone can do, and I forget what I was thinking about.
I do often think to myself, ‘What would I do if I didn’t have my phone for a day? A week? Would all of my triggers and bad habits just reset after a brief period of jonesing for phantom vibrations?” I don’t know the answer. Perhaps it’ll take an unfortunate slip of my phone into the toilet to find out, but until then I can’t see myself extricating myself from my device.
I think a lot of people are the same now. They’ve invested so much reliance on so many everyday things into their smartphones that they’d be convinced of utter helplessness were they to be parted with their device for more than a few hours.
The companies making money from your diminishing willpower, and devising new ways of hijacking your attention, resulting in increased ‘time-spent’ numbers, are not going to slow down. Their profit models (and shareholders) rely on their ability to grow those numbers.
The phone designers themselves are also designing the features according to what you use the most, to keep you on the device longer. If you use the camera the most, they’re going to invest millions in trying to invent the very best digital smartphone lens on the bleeding edge of technology. It’s just good business sense. The broader ethical arguments of whether it serves society do not factor into these design decisions.
Without some kind of ethical body outside of Silicon Valley regulating the ethical standards of design and manipulation these companies employ, I can’t see a way out of this endless loop.
I keep fantasizing about an Attention Economy version of the GFC, where we hit peak attention, and everything collapses.
Until then, please clap this article so I get another drip of Derpamine.