Regaining our attentional ground: disciplining the smartphone

Last week I attended a conference on design and ethics (curated by colleagues at UAL and the Design Museum) where one of the things under discussion was the ethical no-mans-land that is contemporary technological development. I was already aware – as most of us probably are by now – that something is a little off with much of the hardware and software being pushed at us as the forefront of technology: the nefarious activities of certain social media platforms, the designed-in addictiveness of smartphones, the introduction of ‘helpful’ home devices that are also undoubtedly keeping tabs on us. But – as well as the privacy and trust issues,  and the resource depletion associated with technology manufacture – the discussion made me think again about the personal effects of all this.

While listening to the lectures I was also tweeting, checking my emails, messaging the people I was planning to meet up with that evening, taking photos of slides being shown, checking google maps and citymapper for how I was going to get to the train station later in as short a time as possible, and ducking out in between presentations to take a client call. The act of simply sitting and listening to some interesting talks in an auditorium was constantly being interrupted, my attention being taken elsewhere, and all enabled by this one little device. A fairly normal experience these days I suppose. But what is it doing? We are, as yet, relatively uneducated about this: the effect of our technology diet on our brains and selves. We are starting to be able to diagnose some problems, but the discussion is nascent. While we know we shouldn’t binge on chips and chocolate, we don’t know what the junk food equivalent is with technology. Are we consuming healthily or not?

What we do know is that these things have been designed in an ethical vacuum, and to be horrendously addictive. There is even a methodology (called ‘hook’) that is deployed to design products and services that keep people returning. I’m sure we can all recognise the effects of this: who can resist clicking on an app displaying that little red dot? How many times have you picked up your phone to do something, got distracted by some notification, and put it down again having never done the thing you picked it up for in the first place? Or unlocked it, flicked through your apps, and put it down again? Or found yourself mindlessly scrolling? Rest assured it’s not just you being a scatterbrain: these things have been designed to make you behave in those ways. Everything that is known about addiction in psychology and neuroscience is being deployed to make us want more. If we are gorging ourselves on the tech equivalent of junk food, it is because it has been designed specifically to manipulate and appeal precisely to our bio-psycho-social make up. Our attentional commons, as philosopher Matthew Crawford has put it, is constantly being dragged in different directions by corporate interests (and not only from smartphones of course). We are being disciplined by our devices – manipulated by them – into behaving in certain ways that make money for other people.

Mulling over these facts, I began to wonder exactly how much of my life experience is being affected by this tiny device. I often hear people making comments about how ‘life moves so fast these days’, and I wonder if the constant connectivity, the constant inflow and outflow of bits of information, is part of what creates that sense. Undoubtedly it makes one more distracted and distractable. But what does always being ‘on’ do to our experience of life? What does always having some instant form of entertainment in our pocket do? What does the possibility that one might never be bored, or have nothing to do but look out of a window, or wait patiently for a train, do? (And, in light of this, might we see the contemporary fetish for mindfulness and meditation as a backlash against the condition of never having a moment that is unfilled by some kind of stimulation – whether for fun or ‘productivity’ purposes?)

And then there are the endless representational opportunities: one can’t simply sit in the sun with a friend and enjoy a coffee, now that we have the affordances to photograph the occasion, stylistically edit it, broadcast it to the entire world, and hungrily check and recheck to see how many people like it – the possibility that we could or should be doing that looms over the pure unadulterated experience of having a coffee in the sun with a friend. And perhaps even makes us doubt whether our life is picturesque enough in the first place. A world without selfies would probably be one in which we all felt happier about how we look.

Unfortunately, it seems that no-one at a corporate level is leading scrutiny of this: some whistleblowers from large tech firms are starting to tell us what they have (unintentionally, they might say) designed into their products, but the pushback is probably going to have to come from elsewhere (see e.g. Tactical Technology Collective). And those responsible for regulating barely understand what they’re looking at or dealing with. So while hoping to affect the business strategies of large corporations is an ambitious aim for any one individual, something we can all do is vote with our feet.

Somewhere in the middle of listening to the talk, two things happened. In imagining the idea of not having this pestering little presence in my pocket or handbag, I felt a tiny sense of relief. And in response I found myself thinking ‘oh but I couldn’t live without a smartphone’. But then I thought ‘why not?’ Why do I think that? After all, we lived perfectly well without them until about ten years ago. Do we really need them? Ok, some things probably are useful, but how many are just nice-to-haves that we’ve convinced ourselves are ‘useful’: distraction dressed up as ‘inspiration’ or ‘social connection’. What would life without a smartphone be like? Or, rather, is it possible to find a way of living with a smartphone as a tool that is occasionally used for some things, rather than a device that is constantly mediating one’s experience of everything?

Immediately after this conference I went on holiday for a week, and discussed it with my partner. Once we started paying attention to it we both began to notice the weird effects of the smartphone: look around any café or restaurant, and at least half the people there will be communing with the little tablet in their hand rather than the place they are in and the people they are with. There is a smartphone posture developing, craned neck, hunched over: there is something quite craven about it. I found myself catching my passing reflection to see if I have it too, and sure enough, I am more stooped than I thought I was. Walking down a train, my partner commented on a pronounced generational split: one man in his seventies, sketching, two older ladies knitting and reading sheet music (and talking to each other), and every single person under the age of about 30 staring at their smartphone. Watching over perfect strangers’ shoulders at what people actually do on their phones makes you realise how utterly mindless that engagement can be. You might think you are purposefully checking your Instagram feed, but are you really in control? And once we decided we definitely didn’t want to interact with our phones unless strictly necessary, we began to realise how irritating they are. If a smartphone was a person, we would never put up with such attention-seeking behaviour: a narcissist with no manners constantly tugging at your sleeve saying ‘hey, hey, hey’.

So we decided to do an experiment, for a month. Whilst on the one hand, total uncontactability does hold some appeal, for various reasons we have decided not to go 100% off grid. What we are aiming for is to remove constant connectivity. We discussed replacing our smartphones with ‘dumb’ phones, but then discovered there are quite a lot of things we could do to dumb down our iPhones. So we have stripped them of pretty much all functionality apart from call and text. And we have switched off colour (amazing the difference this makes – turns it from the digital visual equivalent of a sweetie jar, into a grainy photocopy, much less tempting to play with). Of course, there is always the possibility to put things back, but we’re just going to have to try and resist temptation (and if you really don’t trust yourself you can get someone else to put a passcode on the bit that lets you reinstall apps and the internet). There is also a safety net aspect to not going totally dumb: having gotten so used to life with a smartphone, I am assuming there are probably lots of things I haven’t even thought of that I use it for, and I might find myself being caught out. Part of the experiment, then, is to realise what, exactly, I find myself in an ‘emergency’ having to re-install or reach out for. The other part of the experiment is of course to see if life is materially better without one.

So we’re going to keep notes, for a month, about what we are noticing. What is hard? What is great? What is totally impractical? What difference does it make to be unconnected? And is it possible to make an internet-enabled smartphone less addictive, or does one have to go cold turkey? More to follow in a month’s time…

Further reading

Google, Twitter and Facebook workers who helped make technology so addictive are disconnecting themselves from the internet.

Self-Defence in the Age of Attention: How to win back our time and minds

Jaron Lanier: ‘the solution is to double down on being human’

Homo Sapiens Versus the Internet

Matthew Crawford: distraction is a kind of obesity of the mind

Jack White has never owned a mobile phone, and says people’s “addiction” is driven by “competition, voyeurism and jealousy

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