Note: I’m also experimenting with writing on Medium, so you can find this post there as well!
For years now we have been hearing about the need for people to unplug, toput down their phones, to return to a more reflective rather than reactive mode of existence. Much ink has been spilled describing the social and cognitive damage incurred by our dependence on our phones and computers. While these narratives may ring true on a personal level — after all, who hasn’t looked up from a 45-minute scroll-session on Instagram or Facebook or Twitter and asked, “What am I DOING with my life?” — they unfairly lay blame for our distracted, isolated and addictive behaviors at the feet of individuals, rather than the companies that developed the products and tools that are the source of our addiction.
Authors like Nicholas Carr, Sherry Turkle and others suggest that we need to find ways to resist our compulsion to constantly scroll, click and stare at a glowing screen if we wish to retain our current level of intelligence and even our basic humanity. While many of us can probably agree that this paradigm of technology use is troubling, these narratives imply some moral or ethical failing on the part of…a significant portion of modern society. These authors’ calls for individuals to simply turn around and walk out of the proverbial Plato’s cave of technological dependency completely overlooks the role that technology and media companies have played in crafting tools and experiences that leverage our innate needs and desires to keep us trapped in a dependent relationship.
How did we get here? Over the past few decades we have seen the rapid rise of the “attention economy.” In this system, media and technology companies from the New York Times to Tinder ferociously compete for clicks-throughs and page views. In this war for our attention, design has been weaponizedas a tool to grab our hearts and minds, and ultimately we — the passive consumers are being robbed of our attention through clickbait and listicles and endless notifications — we are the losers.
As technologist Jeff Hammerbacher famously said, “The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads.” Consider this fact for a moment: massive organizations, employing some of the smartest minds in the world, are working year in and out to figure out new ways to keep our eyes on our screen. In this context, it quickly becomes clear how misguided it is to lay the blame for a distracted, technology-addicted society at the feet of individual consumers and their lack of mental fortitude. In this context, the individual personal agency that Carr and Turkle are calling upon barely has a fighting chance.
If we wish to change the paradigm of technology consumption, to move away from addictive, shallow platforms, from clickbait and listicles, we need to be fighting fire with fire. We need to employ an equally massive army of technologists and designers to create apps and platforms and tools that tap into another side of human psychology: our ability for critical thinking; the joy we get when mastering a new set of skills or abilities; our need for deep and rich human connection and community; and perhaps most importantly, our deep-seated need for moments reflection and contemplation, away from the constant flow of information.
This change, of course, first requires us to change the larger incentive structures that currently drive the attention economy. How might we define alternative metrics of success and pathways of revenue? Metrics that don’t depend on shallow forms of engagement and attention like click-throughs or number of shares? Redesigning these incentive structures and the tools we use to measure engagement and attention, then, may be the first step towards actually fighting fire with fire in the war for our attention.