Attention crisis in the age of digital technology

Technological advancement, particularly the advent of the high-speed internet, smartphones and social media, has revolutionized the world. And it continues to do so, rather aggressively. In just about a decade, we have seen unprecedented changes in the way we work, relate to each other or live our lives. It is also seen as a blessing to boost business, enhance governance and create jobs.

However, there is something about smartphones and social media applications that most users are unaware of – the deliberate design considerations to steal away our attention. It’s a common sight today to find people glued to their phones; some must be doing useful work but many are trapped, in a cycle of activities as varied and endless as the samsara. A study conducted by a group of doctors in 2017 found that at least 40 percent adolescents in Bhutan are addicted to the internet which is amongst the highest internet-addiction rates in the South East Asian region (Kuensel, 13 Nov. 2018).

We advise our children or office subordinates to reduce their social media time. Some parents regulate the number of hours each day their children get to use their smartphones. Some offices block certain social media sites. Training organizers and meeting moderators often require participants to switch off their phones or to put them in silent mode. In general, there is a lot of advocacy against the excessive use of smartphones or social media. We do all this because it has become extremely difficult for many to pay undivided attention to important matters in life without being distracted. We are having an attention crisis triggered by digital technology.

Attention is a focused mental engagement in something. And as American writer Matthew Crawford puts it, “Attention is a scarce resource and a person has only so much of it”. With the unimaginable quantum of information and content available online, attention becomes even more scarce. “Acknowledging the value of attention provides the framework for the argument that we should be more aware of what we focus on while using digital technology” (Matthew Crawford).

We are experiencing the real dynamics of what economists and social scientists call the “attention economy”. We are living through times where there is an overwhelming flow of information and content, and proportionate demand on our attention. But because our attention stock is as limited as the number of hours in a day, or lesser, the information over-load increases the risk of people choosing breadth over depth, rendering us half-baked experts or Jack of all trades. We read too much and learn too little.

This “breadth over depth” phenomenon affects everyone but it assumes special relevance and importance for students. His Majesty The King always emphasizes on the need for our youth to work hard, become knowledgeable and talented, and to strive for excellence in whatever they do. If most of our attention is consumed by whatever the internet, smartphones and social media have to offer, with little or no attention to spare for the more important things, we risk becoming a society with a high literacy rate but lacking in deep knowledge, expertise and talent. We need to reduce distractions, and learn to invest our attention wisely. We need awareness.

At the root of the attention crisis is economics, and a great deal of psychology. Digital technology developers, platform providers and content designers, know very well that the success of their product depends on the kind of user experience they are able to create or on how much attention they are able to persuade users to afford to their product or platform. Because, at the end of the day, that is where the money comes from.

“Big tech now employs mental health experts to use persuasive technology, a new field of research that looks at how computers can change the way humans think and act. This technique, also known as persuasive design, is built into thousands of games and apps, and companies like Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat, Amazon, Apple, and Microsoft rely on it to encourage specific human behaviour starting from a very young age. Some health professionals believe children’s behaviours are being exploited in the name of the tech world’s profit” (Chavie Lieber, Vox, Aug 2018).

Further, tech companies today have access to data pertaining to the behaviors, preferences, choices and trends of billions of users which helps them craft new strategies to retain old users and attract new ones. Users, for the most part, are completely oblivious of this fact. “There is also a lack of awareness about the digital distractions designed with persuasive psychology to trap our attention” (Kristen M. Liu, 2019).

That most people, particularly youth, do not have the awareness that technology developers are after their attention is the missing ingredient in our advocacy efforts against the excessive use of the internet, smartphones or social media. If we know the reasons behind, the likelihood of being able to show restraint could be higher. More Bhutanese youth then are likely to spend lesser time on Instagram or TikTok.

Another important aspect of digital technologies that makes users inseparable from their gadgets is the User Experience (UX) design considerations employed by the developers. Aided by User Interface (UI) design features, UX design is focussed on enhancing the overall experience and satisfaction of the user. American researcher and professor, Don Norman who coined the term User Experience wrote, “Products were once designed for the functions they performed. But when all companies can make products that perform their functions equally well, the distinctive advantage goes to those who provide pleasure and enjoyment while maintaining the power” (Don Norman, 2020).

While ethical, well-intended UX/UI designs can make our experiences in today’s highly digital world purposeful and pleasurable at the same time, there is a growing concern over what London-based UX designer Harry Brignull termed as “Dark Patterns”. Dark patterns are deceptive UX/UI design features used in websites or Apps that mislead or trick users to do things they don’t mean to, or want to, do – like making a purchase or subscribing to something or sharing personal information. “In order to generate more sales, get subscriptions and hit target numbers in transactions etc., designers and business associates started creating deceiving user interfaces to manipulate users” (Arushi Jaiswal, The UX Collective, 2010).

Companies as prominent as LinkedIn have been sued in court and made to pay compensation to affected users for using dark patterns. Lawmakers in the US introduced a bill in the Congress to prohibit dark patterns because such deceptive practices are becoming a little too rampant in the tech world. There is increasing concern around dark patterns given the exploitative intentions of its usage for profit-making by businesses at the cost of the user’s interest, attention, security and privacy. The website www.darkpatterns.org gives a very good understanding of dark patterns.

Websites, Apps and social networking platforms today offer a plethora of contents, adequately punctuated by advertisements placed strategically to divert our attention. 

And it’s often hard to ignore them because they are designed to attract our attention in the first place, willingly or otherwise. “When individuals give their attention to advertisements and branding, intentionally or unintentionally, they become a part of a digital labour force. By viewing and interacting with content, one is giving power and authority to the platform that released it” (Matthew Crawford).

And that is how it works. In cyberspace, clicks, likes and views are all that matter. Because users who click, like or view your advertisement, or your postings for that matter, are either customers or potential future customers, fans or followers. With about 2.7 billion active users on Facebook, 1 billion on Instagram, and 330 million on Twitter worldwide every month, online platforms are not only huge marketplaces but also great avenues to showcase oneself. And once we are on such platforms, everyone is after each other’s attention; attention is the currency that keeps the cyberspace marketplace running.

The fact that designers behind websites, smartphones and social media platforms are exploiting human attention by designing immersive and distractive features is a growing concern around the world, particularly amongst insiders of the tech world. 

Tristan Harris, a former Design Ethicist at Google, is one such activist fighting to bring reforms in tech world that is increasingly creating platforms with extractive business models to capture human attention. In 2013, Harris created a presentation titled “A Call to Minimize Distraction & Respect Users’ Attention” and circulated amongst a few co-workers within Google. “The 141-slide deck was eventually viewed by tens of thousands of Google employees and sparked conversations about the company’s responsibilities long after he left the company”. (Wikipedia). In one of the slides, Harris wrote “Distraction matters to me because time is all I have in life”. He also wrote “Never before in history have the decisions of a handful of designers, working at 3 companies – Google, Apple and Facebook – had so much impact on how millions of people around the world spend their attention”.

Jeff Orlowski, director of the documentary “The Social Dilemma” describes the attention crisis created by digital technology as a “climate change-scale problem”. “The Social Dilemma, explores and animates a philosophical shift in Silicon Valley: that the tech industry’s tools, most predominantly social media, aren’t promising tools but too-powerful entities fragmenting attention and rewiring brains by design; that addiction to phones and social media is a function of their business model; that this divisive, degrading status quo is driving us straight to dystopia” (The Guardian, 8 Sept. 2020).

With the raging coronavirus pandemic showing no signs of subsiding, hundreds of millions of people around the world continue to be confined to their homes. And with business, education, politics and communication now happening increasingly over the internet, the concerns emanating from the ill-effects of digital technology are escalating. And there is increasing pressure on tech companies to reform. “Now is the moment for tech platforms to step into the public responsibility that the present emergency demands. The pandemic gives us a chance to convert online lawlessness into humane and regenerative technology” (Milken Institute, April 2020).

There are many important things in life, and more purposeful goals to pursue, that need our time and attention. The internet, smartphones or social media should be treated and used as tools that can make our lives more enriching, and help us achieve our individual and collective goals, rather than allowing ourselves to be consumed by them. If we are unaware, and unmindful, some of these tools can render us completely oblivious of the real world outside, the challenges we need to tackle and the goals we need to accomplish.

“Nobody on their death bed ever looked back and said I wished I’d spent more time on Facebook”, says design ethicist James Williams, in his Ted Talk “Stand Out of Our Light”. We need to (be able to) differentiate between what is important and what is not, or what matters and what doesn’t, and accordingly invest our attention. We need to leverage technology to its fullest potential of bringing good to human society by being aware, and by paying attention to where attention is most needed.

 

Contributed by 

Chewang Rinzin

The writer is the Director of the Royal Institute for Governance and Strategic Studies, Phuentsholing. Views expressed in this article are that of the writer’s unless otherwise cited

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