We have developed technology to improve and enrich our lives by connecting with the world around us, automating previously time-consuming activities and generally improving our living standards. Yet, an increasing number of devices and services are being created and optimised to track and hoard our attention. The more time we spend using them, the more data can be collected to target advertisements towards us for profit. Technology should be making our lives better, not invading them with ads at every turn.
When we use a tool, be it a hammer, a vacuum cleaner or a car, we expect to use it as much as necessary and then put it away and carry on with our lives. The tool should serve its purpose and then await further use in the future. We would never buy a vacuum cleaner that does everything in its power to make us use it even when it’s not necessary; that would be bizarre and infuriating. Nevertheless, this is the state of modern technological life. Our phones and computers track our behaviour at the behest of corporations seeking to harvest and monetise our attention.
This kind of relationship with technology is fundamentally twisted, and I think most people feel the same even if they haven’t explicitly thought about why. Traditionally, advertisers would have to pay for space in an environment where people would already congregate their attention, such as newspapers or television. Nobody likes it, but I think we mostly understand that this way of advertising is a fairer compromise between advertiser and consumer than our current model. The user accepts some intrusion in return for seeing new products and ensuring the publisher can afford to stay in business and keep producing tv shows or magazines.1
However, the more recent shift towards building free to use services that knowingly and deliberately attempt to keep our attention longer to make a profit is different. The use of psychological trickery or dark patterns to keep users hooked for as long as possible is profoundly troubling. It’s well known that casinos don’t have many windows or clocks on display to hide the passage of time from guests, so they stay longer and spend more money. With psychological tricks and design choices to maximise user interaction and keep our eyes glued to the screen, we’re turning everyday technology into a casino.
With many services designed to maximise the time we spend using them, dozens of apps on our phones now constantly compete for our attention. Regardless of our preference, we are often subjected to notifications if we haven’t checked our news feed or updates about the latest viral tweet. It is entirely possible that as a user, you may want to see these updates, but it is crucial to remember that these are almost always enabled by default and are frequently very difficult to disable. Moreover, the very design of the service may be intended to keep you online for as long as possible, such as how Facebook prioritises extreme content that is more likely to get your attention. You can’t disable that in the settings.
We need a transformation in how we value our attention, matching the place technology now occupies in our lives. In the past, technology changed how we understand the world around us; it gave us access to staggering amounts of data. This data allowed us to solve our problems more efficiently than ever before. Need to understand your finances? Here is every transaction you’ve ever made. How about the news? Don’t worry; updates will come straight to you within seconds. Keep in touch with family and friends, catch up on that tv show you missed last night, share the photos from your recent trip, don’t forget to review that restaurant. But it never stops. We have long since moved beyond a time when access to data was limited. Now we live in a world of information overload. Now our attention has become a precious resource. We need to move towards technology that respects rather than commercialises it.
There’s something an old French aviator said about designing aircraft: “Perfection is attained not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing more to take away.” To me, this is an attitude we should adopt when designing technology. We should be making machines and software that solve problems as effectively as possible and then stop.
This is the idea of calm technology. Technology should serve us as humans and not the other way around. It should require minimal human attention and communicate with us only when necessary. There is no good reason our phones should be trying to get us to spend more time on them. It’s not good for us. Imagine taking out your phone and using it like normal, but knowing it won’t otherwise interrupt you without good reason. Trusting that it will make intelligent decisions about what is important to you and otherwise defaulting to no disturbances. If something isn’t urgent, then do we really need to know about it right away? Would it not be better for our work, focus, and mental health to simply wait until the user requests new updates for themselves?
While this may seem merely a problem of disabling notifications, it isn’t. The issue runs deeper. The continuous cycle of updates, check-ins and messages builds up over time and takes a toll on our mental health. We need to change the way our devices interact with us to develop a healthier relationship with them. If you don’t believe me, leave your phone in another room and see how long you can last without thinking about it.
This is not an argument against using technology, merely against certain services becoming more concerned with user acquisition and serving ads, creating an addictive dependency at the expense of providing a genuinely beneficial service. Owning a smartphone is almost necessary to function in the modern world, and we should try to be conscious of what effect these devices may be having on us. For example, it is unsurprising that many of us have developed a bit of an addiction to our devices. However, just because we need to use smartphones does nothing to justify why we should accept the model of perpetual tracking, advertisements and distractions for access to the modern world.
Think about the time spent on a plane. We often have no choice but disconnect, using the time to catch up on something that doesn’t require the internet. Some people choose to work, and there are many reports online from frequent fliers who swear by the time spent airborne as their most productive hours. I’m sure many contributory factors help with this, such as having little else to do or the white noise from the engines. But I also think disconnected time plays an essential part in being focused and productive during a flight.2
Likewise, spend some time reading “productivity guides”, and you will inevitably come across advice to turn your phone off or put it in airplane mode. The lure of connectivity is so strong that we advise disabling the primary functions of our devices just to focus. We all implicitly understand this; turning off distractions to get work done is just common sense, but I don’t know that we’ve put enough thought into how those distractions affect us the rest of the time. I also don’t accept that the best we can do is simply choose to turn our device off whenever we want to focus. There has to be a better way.
Earlier this year, the world watched as the NASA Perseverance rover landed itself on Mars. It did this entirely autonomously, as the distance to Mars would take far too long for any Earth commands to arrive in time, even at light speed. It is an incredible technological marvel and demonstrates we can build a robot capable of autonomously landing on another planet. If we can achieve that, then I am confident we can find a way to enjoy the benefits of modern technology without addicting ourselves to the casino of constant distraction.
Maybe I’m wrong, maybe there is no problem here, and we should continue just as we are. Perhaps a growing lack of an attention span and general anxiety when parted from a phone is a reasonable trade-off for connecting to the world these days. But I’m not so sure.
I’m not looking to make a point about the economics of advertising, merely noting that advertising has been around for decades, and it didn’t need to invade our personal lives the way advertisers do today. ↩
Disconnected time is still possible, but thanks to the adoption of in-flight wifi, it is possible to avoid on an increasing number of flights. ↩