One of the best piece that I have read in the last one year is this article recommended by Manu Prasad on How Technology Hijacks People’s Minds. Tristan Harris, who has been a magician and then “an Ex-Google Design Ethicist”, shares how “attention companies” (companies such as Facebook, Snapchat, Netflix) run their business completely on one metric – “time spent”. They give us an illusion that we are making our own “choice” by spending more and more time on their app, while in reality they manipulate by playing on our psychological vulnerabilities (such as impulses, social approval, fear of missing out etc). The only choice we find ourselves is either be constantly distracted – by interruptions of notifications, chat pings or if we tune out, risk missing out on something crucial (FOMO).
He believes that the onus for helping us exercise truly “empowering” choices lies with these companies, they need to think not only from the prism of maximising profit through “time spent” by their consumers but helping bring back the agency of choice to their consumers, respecting their real needs, aligning to their goals so it’s “Time Well Spent”.
There are some compelling examples that Tristan shares to make his point -
Every time we try to maintain self-control, we forget that there are hundreds of people on the other side of the screen whose job is to break it down
Millions of people check their phone 150 times a day – when we wake up, when we go to sleep and moments of boredom. The average teenager sends 4,000 texts every month, once every 6 mins they are awake. Forget the brain implant, the phone is an implant.
Every time we are interrupted, it takes up to 23 minutes to resume focus, fragmenting our attention and leaving us constantly distracted. It’s harder and harder to focus our attention where we want to put it
This is an idea that strongly resonates with me because I do find myself lost in streams across apps and even as I suspect that I am not benefiting from improved ideas or social relationships, I find myself helplessly enslaved to the streams. It’s impoverishing not just the routine productivity but long term purpose. It’s the same sense that I get when I am at a mall – at the mecca of consumption, suddenly conscious of my fragmented being – not a human being – a “consumer being” if you will. Seductive window displays, fueling inadequacy and a gluttony for consumption and never ever satiating in the end. Even as I look around others engaged in the same pursuit, even as I suspect that this whole thing looks like a grand conspiracy to keep us ‘distracted’ perhaps from our purpose, I am not able to dis-engage from the scenario.
Coming back to the original discussion, this dis-engagement from the enslavement by our devices can happen either by us becoming more aware of the illusion of choice and exercising some self-control (the site gives some tips on how we can “live better with our devices”). Or by escalating the idea to these companies, that in the long-run its better to align to people’s needs and not just their business needs.
Now obviously these “attention companies” have no altruistic reasons to clear out the interruption because they only gain from it. In a different discussion on the problem of fake news, my colleague Rajesh made a similar point -
“Any conduct in a civil society is regulated. If it was not regulated then we would not be a society,” Rajesh Lalwani, founder of Scenario Consulting said. “To expect that we will self-regulate will not happen,” he said, adding that “The only regulation that can and should happen is at a platform level. They have the means, the wherewithal and the responsibility. To expect that the media owners are going to do it is not going to happen. To expect the readers are not going to participate, is not going to happen. We don’t want the government to regulate. The answer is at the platform.”
From MediaNama’s discussion on Dealing with Fake News.
What do you think? Does the agency of choice lie more with the consumer or the platform-owner?