Many of us interact with technology throughout the day for both personal and professional reasons, and the frequency with which we do is increasing. It appears it’s time we look very closely at our individual and collective relationship to technology. What you do for work, your age, and where you live are all factors of course, but no one is fully exempt from the implications of the enormous changes in technology in the last 13 years. I say 13 years because this is when the first mass produced smartphone was released, the Apple iPhone.
All of us have seen people driving their cars while simultaneously glaring into their phones. Plenty of us are guilty of this ourselves. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration NHTSA found that in 2017, that “distracted driving” claimed 3,166 lives in the US. I wonder how many of those were a result of fiddling with a phone… 50%? After learning this, I started to either put my phone in my trunk to break any habits or turn on Do Not Disturb While Driving, which is an iPhone feature. Since I listen to music that streams from my phone, I started using an old iPhone and although connected to the car, it sits in my glove box. This was obviously a multi-step process and illustrates how much one has to do just to disengage from a device in one very important way.
A few years ago I worked for a tech company in San Francisco where we were tethered to either a laptop or phone (or both) all waking (and for some non-waking) hours. In fact, this was an unspoken cultural expectation. Not only were we expected to be available more or less 24 hours per day, but we’d appear to leadership that we weren’t invested if we didn’t respond within a very short period of time to an email, text, or Slack message. (Slack’s slogan is “Where Work Happens,” but could be replaced with “Where Interruptions Happen!”) We’d often receive Slack messages at all hours of the day and night asking questions that were rarely just quick yes/no responses. Yes, startups require long hours and many of us know this going into it, but too many tech companies have zero boundaries and expect their employees to be available 24/7/365. That “unlimited vacation policy” they told you about during the interview process likely included working while out of town. Believe it. I, and hundreds of people I know have experienced this at numerous companies. Anyway, I digress…
Over the years while working at various tech companies I started to realize my own relationship to technology. I was listening to the product teams (these are the people who decide what happens and what doesn’t with the apps we all use) and our CEO’s talk about this feature and that feature, and I was helping sell these products who’s main objective was to get it’s users to spend as much time as possible on our app liking, transacting, reviewing, messaging and interacting with it as much as possible. Terms like sticky and slippery/frictionless are thrown around proudly when users stay engaged with the app, or when transactions occur arguably too easily. #gross. When I finally fully woke up to what was going on around me, I decided I needed to get out of the industry and head in a completely different direction, and I simultaneously finished my mindfulness teacher training at UCLA. Now, I spend much of my time going into tech companies and talking about mindfulness, the importance of being able to better allocate our attention, and carefully conveying how important it is to build what Tristan Harris calls “Humane Technology”. Don’t know who Tristan Harris is? I recommend you look him up. Especially if you have a smartphone (81% of Americans now have one as opposed to only 35% in 2011). Or children. Or care about your well-being.
Tristan’s TED talk from 2017 titled, “How a Handful of Tech Companies Control Billions of Minds Everyday” is illuminating. In 17 minutes he breaks down how the big tech companies such as FAANG – (Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix and Google) are all competing for one thing – our attention. He points out that “these companies prey on our psychology for their own profit”, and he’s calling for a design renaissance in which our tech “encourages us to live out the timeline we want.”
An easy example of how companies prey on our psychology would be the Facebook feed. A few individuals at Facebook discovered that people will scroll endlessly and that they’d stay engaged much longer with this design, and so the “feed” was born in 2006. (If design is interesting to you, you can look into what’s called UX – user experience and UI – user interface and see how much goes into it.) Many have copied this model since. Another example of preying on our attention is to play into our innate sense of curiosity by creating little red notifications to dot our screen when we open most any social media app. We can’t help ourselves but to click on them. See how long you can last from not clearing out those little notifications, and notice the disquiet in your body/mind. Behind that red notification lies something we feel we need to know about immediately. We’ll even check all 5 of those notifications while driving 70mph on the highway!
Prior to founding the Center For Humane Technology, Tristan Harris was a design ethicist at Google. Who knew that even existed, but the fact that such a position does exist ought to make one wonder what this means and what such a role is responsible for, and ultimately what is (and isn’t) able to be shut down for productization. I have to imagine they only have so much influence. If it’s going to generate users or revenue, ethics may fall to second place.
At one point, Stanford University had a research group that was called the Persuasive Technology Lab overseen by a behavioral scientist named BJ Fogg. This lab was once described as “a hub for the study and promotion of persuasive technologies” and taught the following principles to it’s students which you can learn about in the Purple Path Behavior Guide (conveniently located on Stanford’s website) – 1. Increase the number of triggers leading to desirable behavior; 2. Enhance ability to perform the behavior (make it easier to do); and 3. Amplify motivation for doing the behavior with intrinsic and extrinsic motivators. Fortunately they’ve since shifted their focus to creating positive change and building ethical technologies but this wasn’t always the case. As Wired points out in an article named The Formula For Phone Addiction Might Double As a Cure, “some of the class’ teachings are in the crosshairs of our society-wide conversation about phone addiction.” To add, the scientist that led this effort has allegedly said, “No one is forcing you to bring the phone into the bedroom and make it your alarm clock. What people need is the motivation.” I’m not sure I agree with him. Do you?
The time is now to get as informed as possible, then start talking about this with friends, colleagues and if you’re a meditation teacher, those who you teach and practice with. It’s time we help ourselves by learning what’s really going on behind the screens, then help others not only discover their relationship to the technologies they use, but to become aware of this “attention economy” that has been built in our blindspot by behavioral psychologists, designers and engineers that have little or no ethical training or anyone to answer to. Many of us (mindfulness facilitators) got into this field to free ourselves from incessant thinking, notice whats really happening in our minds and in our environment(s), then help others do the same. While there are other areas of high importance to work on, this one seems to be at or close to the top of the pile.
See below for some relevant links:
- Center For Humane Technology
- Podcast – Your Undivided Attention
- Podcast – Sam Harris & Tristan Harris – What Is Technology Doing To Us?
- Tristan Harris & Yuval Noah Harari Interviewed in Davos 2020
- TED – How a Handful of Tech Companies Control Billions of Minds Every Day
- Homo Deus by Yuval Noah Harari – An excellent book talking about what we might encounter in the future
- 21 Lessons For The 21st Century by Yuval Noah Harari – A fascinating book on today’s biggest issues