Recently I was at Google, at the invitation of the Asian Googlers Network, to talk about Rest, my new work on the 4-day week, and even a bit about contemplative computing. The video of the talk is now up on YouTube:
It was a terrific crowd, and I just hope I did the subject justice!
April 12, 2018 / askpang / Comments Off on “What people are angry about… is that we no longer feel in control of the technology in our lives”
In my book The Distraction Addiction I talked about how humans have evolved to have incredibly powerful relationships with technologies, starting with hand axes a million years ago, and continuing down to the present; how our relationships with technologies are among the most powerful we have; and that the challenge with today’s technologies was not to learn to live without them, but to learn to use them better. This meant recognizing the power of those relationships; thinking more deeply about them; and re-learning how to use them well, rather than being used by them.
What people are angry about, and what’s truly fueling this moment, is that we no longer feel in control of the technology in our lives. That feeling of losing control has been building steadily for the last several years, as our lives have become both more dominated by technology and more dependent on technology. It’s the feeling that the pace of our lives, and the next thing on our to-do list, is no longer up to us. It comes via the endless screens and algorithms we’re immersed in. And we know that the feeling of autonomy is one of the single most important factors in our happiness. But we’re feeling less and less autonomous.
I think this has a lot truth to it, though there is real ill-feeling toward companies, not just technologies and our relationships with them. Control is one of the things we instinctively use to measure the trustworthiness of a technology; it’s also something we need in order to use them well.
So it make sense that the sense that a company is designing its product to elude our control should inspire suspicion and hostility. We’ve coevolved with technologies, and expect to be able to use them to extend our cognitive and physical abilities; and when that relationship is broken, it’s a big problem for us.
JANA Partners and Calstrs have published a pretty amazing open letter calling for Apple to rethink its design of its products, with the aim of making them less addictive to kids.
I suspect it’s published elsewhere, but the original is at Think Differently About Kids, and is the first manifesto I’ve ever seen that requires you acknowledge a disclaimer first.
There are a couple interesting thing here. The first is the argument they make that helping people be more mindful in their technology use, and developing more subtle and useful tools for helping parents control their kids’ device use, would establish Apple as market leader– or rather confirm it as the leader it already is:
we believe there is a clear need for Apple to offer parents more choices and tools to help them ensure that young consumers are using your products in an optimal manner. By doing so, we believe Apple would once again be playing a pioneering role, this time by setting an example about the obligations of technology companies to their youngest customers. As a company that prides itself on values like inclusiveness, quality education, environmental protection, and supplier responsibility, Apple would also once again be showcasing the innovative spirit that made you the most valuable public company in the world.
Later, they argue that Apple should get on this because the zeitgeist is shifting:
It is true that Apple’s customer satisfaction levels remain incredibly high, which is no surprise given the quality of its products. However, there is also a growing societal unease about whether at least some people are getting too much of a good thing when it comes to technology, which at some point is likely to impact even Apple given the issues described above. In fact, even the original designers of the iPhone user interface and Apple’s current chief design officer have publicly worried about the iPhone’s potential for overuse, and there is no good reason why you should not address this issue proactively.
As a parent of two quite technology-happy kids, it often struck me how few good tools exist for helping parents help kids learn to use digital devices and social media well.
At the same time, I think this is one of those things that’s really hard to implement: it’s easy to talk about wanting kids to use technology better or be less attached to it, for example, but hard to design for that. Further, lots of the problems we worry about with “technology” are really social problems, or human ones. And I think that technology companies are just as addicted to persuasive design as their users: it feels like too easy a toolkit to use, and there are too many examples of companies that.
At the time, it looked like it was kind of a failure. Even after they scaled it back from a week to 24 hours (“[W]e couldn’t recruit anybody to take part,” one of the researchers told New Scientist. “We just got empty, horrified stares. And so eventually we backed down to 24 hours.”) Even after that, only about 30 people signed up. (The researchers explained their preliminary findings in a 2015 article.)
However, New Scientist notes, “two-thirds of the participants said they would change how they managed their notifications.” The researchers have gone back to the participants and talked to them about their smartphone use and attitudes towards notifications, and found something really interesting, as they report in a new article (with the somewhat discouraging title “Productive, Anxious, Lonely: 24 Hours Without Push Notifications“).
The New Scientist reports that “half had actually stuck with this goal two years on, suggesting that even a short, enforced holiday is a powerful intervention.” But as they put it in the article,
The evidence indicates that notifications have locked us in a dilemma: without notifications, participants felt less distracted and more productive. But, they also felt no longer able to be as responsive as expected, which made some participants anxious. And, they felt less connected with one’s social group.
It’s really interesting that digital sabbaths can have a long-term effect on behavior.
The other thing I would note is that it’s possible to customize notifications so that you’re still accessible to the people who really matter, but aren’t disturbed by messages about how the online retailer you visited 6 months ago is having 20% off everything. I talk in this article about how to reset your notifications so your phone does what it’s supposed to– keep you accessible to people who count– and not what app makers and retailers want. It’ll help your phone pass what I call the “zombie apocalypse test,” keeping your connected to the people you’d call during the zombie apocalypse, and no one else.
Martin Pielot and Luz Rello, “Productive, Anxious, Lonely – 24 Hours Without Push Notifications,” in Proceedings of MobileHCI ’17 (Vienna, Austria, September 04-07, 2017).
The city of Honolulu has passed a law that “targets ‘smartphone zombies’,” people crossing the street while using their smartphones and not looking where they’re going:
“We hold the unfortunate distinction of being a major city with more pedestrians being hit in crosswalks, particularly our seniors, than almost any other city in the county,” [Honolulu mayor Kirk] Caldwell said.
The ban will go into effect in late October and will run from $15 to $99, depending on the severity of the offense.
I was recently in Hawaii, though on a different island, and was struck by how reflexive checking phones in restaurants, taking selfies, etc. has become. Even in an island paradise, many of us feel the need to keep our phones out and active all the time.
I spent a little time this morning and imported posts from my contemplative computing blog. I’ve been moving things from Typepad to WordPress over the last few months, and realized that it actually made sense to move those posts here.
Also, people often are interested in hearing about how deliberate rest and focused work (or deliberate work?) interact. It’s good to have time for both, but it’s clear from my study of creative lives that when they perform a pad a deux, or are thoughtfully woven together, they’re far more powerful and expressive than if they’re treated as separate.
Tom Chatfield’s short essay, “The attention economy,” raises an interesting question: why do we think of attention as a resource?
For all the sophistication of a world in which most of our waking hours are spent consuming or interacting with media, we have scarcely advanced in our understanding of what attention means. What are we actually talking about when we base both business and mental models on a ‘resource’ that, to all intents and purposes, is fabricated from scratch every time a new way of measuring it comes along?
For the ancients, Chatfield notes, attention wasn’t a resource; it was a relationship.
For the ancient Greeks and Romans, this wooing [i.e., getting other’s attention] was a sufficiently fine art in itself to be the central focus of education. As the manual on classical rhetoric Rhetorica ad Herennium put it 2,100 years ago: ‘We wish to have our hearer receptive, well-disposed, and attentive (docilem, benivolum, attentum).’ To be civilised was to speak persuasively about the things that mattered: law and custom, loyalty and justice.
In this understanding, there is no such thing as “attention” as something that exists outside a relationship. It’s not like energy, or a pint of blood: it only exists between the person giving their attention, and the person trying to hold it. Indeed, Chatfield points out,
In Latin, the verb attendere — from which our word ‘attention’ derives — literally means to stretch towards. A compound of ad (‘towards’) and tendere (‘to stretch’), it invokes an archetypal image: one person bending towards another in order to attend to them, both physically and mentally.
I think there’s still some value in the attention-as-resource model, if only because we can demonstrate that humans have only a certain amount of attention they can “pay” in a day; in that respect, it’s like self-discipline or decision-making. But the notion that it can be treated as essentially interchangeable with coal or wind, does bear some rethinking.
One of the things you always, and I mean always, hear about Internet of Things and smart home devices is that they “just work.” They’re all like these magic autonomous robots that’ll connect themselves to your wifi, then go do their thing, yet also be totally unobtrusive and intuitive (whatever those two words mean). Sounds cool, right?
Of course, the reality is very different, as this essay from IoS explains. The light went on sometime around the point when the author’s Internet-enabled thermostat stopped working whenever the wifi connection was lost (and “The only way to control the gadget is via the app, so when it breaks you’re really screwed”), and it came time to update their Philips Hue light bulbs: “When the first firmware update rolled around, it was exciting, until I spent an hour trying to update lightbulbs. Nobody warned me that being an adult would mean wasting my waking hours updating Linux on a set of lightbulbs, rebooting them until they’d take the latest firmware. The future is great.”
In other words, things work great until they don’t, at which point all the wheels come off. Further, as we’ve learned recently, connected devices are “connected” to the fates of their companies, in a way that “dumb” devices are not. If the company that made your hammer or pants goes belly-up, that doesn’t affect your ability to pound nails or cover up your naughty bits. But that’s not the case with smart home devices.
A one-time purchase of a smart device isn’t a sustainable plan for companies that need to run servers to support those devices. Not only are you buying into a smart device that might not turn out to be as smart as you thought, it’s possible it’ll just stop working in two years or so when the company goes under or gets acquired.
The Internet of Things right now is a mess. It’s being built by scrappy startups with delusions of grandeur, but no backup plan for when connectivity fails, or consideration for if their business models reach out more than a year or two — leaving you and me at risk.
Just another indicator of how technologies of the future could turn out to be really distracting.