time well spent

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I suspect we’re all aware of the telling story that many of the world’s leading technologists are weaning themselves off their own product and making conscious decisions to send their offspring to elite and very expensive Silicon Valley schools where all tech is universally banned from the premises. In a world where the average US smartphone user taps, swipes or touches their lovely, shiny device up to 2,617 times a day, this is certainly a case of the tech titans not drinking their own kool aid. With the new masters of the universe not getting high on their own supply it raises serious questions of compulsion, coercion and technology addiction. Is the tech industry guilty of forcing us to snort Snapchat, freebase Facebook and gorge on Google?

Whilst it would be a conspiracy step-too far to think these companies deliberately set out to make their products addictive they were designed to reward users and increasingly reward increased usage. The dopamine ding of pseudo pleasure creates a craving and it demands the attention of the user. Furthermore, these organisations were building business models that reacted to the rewards of the advertising economy. The ‘attention economy’ refers to an internet responding to the demands of advertisers who need your attention and boy, do they want your attention. Next time YouTube pushes another autoplay video at you just remember they’ve got you for another four minutes, a further four minutes of prime advertising time. This feature accounts for you still being on the site two hours after you’d only popped on for two minutes’ light entertainment! Well-intentioned social products have led to a raft of unintended consequences.

There’s no denying smartphones are useful things but they can be addictive. The impulse to check for messages, the need to update your status, the temptation to tweet, the lure of a larger LinkedIn network, are all addictive. We don’t know what the tap on the red icon will deliver until we tap it, it’s sooo compulsive. One particular Snapchat function particularly appalled me, Snapstreak, where two users are notified daily of the continuous communication they’ve been party too. If you have been in touch with someone for 186 days on the trot then just imagine the compelling force and peer pressure to continue to do so. I’ve heard of kids giving their password to their pals to ensure the bond continues when they’re away on their hols without t’internet, and of legions of youngsters sending vacuous pictures of blank walls to merely keep-up their daily tally. This is not healthy communication. This is not time well spent. The key is to not let the tail wag the dog and nurture a healthy bond with tech where you are in control.

With this in mind, there is growing concern of a condition referred to as ‘continuous partial attention’. In short, it means we’re all distracted, all of the time. We’re no longer able to focus on any one thing for any length of time. The potential impact on our long-term intelligence, mind-function, relationships and conversation is obvious. If the attention economy diminishes our ability to recall, to analyse, to understand & appreciate, to make decisions, will we know what matters, will we care what matters?

Furthermore, don’t think for one second this is all about youngsters mucking about on Instagram, as it isn’t. Next time you’re on the train, in the pub, outside the school gates or taking a walk in the park have a look around you and you’ll see everyone’s at it. It is an affliction that knows no boundaries, neither age, sex, race, colour nor creed.

Former Google employee Tristan Harris has been described as “the closest thing Silicon Valley has to a conscience” and I cannot urge you strongly enough to watch his TED talk on this subject. He believes that due to the commercial Faustian pact between news media and tech giants we are, bit by bit, losing the ability to control our own minds: a handful of companies are intentionally, and ever-so subtly, steering what millions & millions of people will think about today, and tomorrow. Go watch his vid now, without delay and here’s some real-life advice: It is OK to turn the phone off; It is OK to be without it for a wee while; It is OK not to upgrade; It is OK to not get right back to someone straight away; It is OK not to ‘like’ everything and, to the Snapchat users amongst you, it is OK not to text someone every single day. In a scene reminiscent of a 1980s anti-drug advert, just say ‘No!’