Tuesday, September 25, 2018

The war for our attention - an existential threat.

I want to pass on some edited clips from an article by Casey Schwartz on fundamental threats to individual and societal well-being posed by the new “attention economy.”
Earlier this month, Facebook and Instagram announced new tools for users to set time limits on their platforms, and a dashboard to monitor one’s daily use, following Google’s introduction of Digital Well Being features…In doing so the companies seemed to suggest that spending time on the internet is not a desirable, healthy habit, but a pleasurable vice: one that if left uncontrolled may slip into unappealing addiction.
James Williams, a technologist turned philosopher has written a new book, “Stand Out of Our Light.” During a decade-long tenure at Google, he worked on search advertising, helping perfect a powerful, data-driven advertising model...Mr. Williams compares the current design of our technology to “an entire army of jets and tanks” aimed at capturing and keeping our attention. And the army is winning...This is us: eyes glazed, mouth open, neck crooked, trapped in dopamine loops and filter bubbles. Our attention is sold to advertisers, along with our data, and handed back to us tattered and piecemeal.
”In the same way that you pull out a phone to do something and you get distracted, and 30 minutes later you find that you’ve done 10 other things except the thing that you pulled out the phone to do — there’s fragmentation and distraction at that level,” he said. “But I felt like there’s something on a longer-term level that’s harder to keep in view: that longitudinal sense of what you’re about.”
The constant pull on our attention from technology is no longer just about losing too many hours of our so-called real lives to the diversions of the web. Now, they are telling us, we are at risk of fundamentally losing our moral purpose.
Tristan Harris, a former design ethicist for Google…has been playing the role of whistle-blower since he quit Google five years ago…he notes that the constant pull on our attention from technology…is changing our ability to make sense of what’s true, so we have less and less idea of a shared fabric of truth, of a shared narrative that we all subscribe to…Without shared truth or shared facts, you get chaos — and people can take control.
…a whole industry has sprung up to combat tech creep…HabitLab, developed at Stanford, stages aggressive interventions whenever you enter one of your self-declared danger zones of internet consumption…Like Moment, an app that monitors screen time and sends you or loved ones embarrassing notifications detailing exactly how much time has been frittered away on Instagram today, HabitLab gets to know your patterns uncomfortably well in order to do its job. Apparently, we now need our phones to save us from our phones. 
Researchers have known for years that there’s a difference between “top-down" attention (the voluntary, effortful decisions we make to pay attention to something of our choice) and “bottom-up” attention, which is when our attention is involuntarily captured by whatever is going on around us: a thunderclap, gunshot or merely the inviting bleep that announces another Twitter notification.
At Tufts University, Nick Seaver, an anthropology professor, just finished his second year of teaching a class he designed called How to Pay Attention…Dr...Seaver, 32, is no Luddite… “Information overload is something that always feels very new but is actually very old..It is the 16th century, and there are so many books; or it is late antiquity and there is so much writing...It can’t be that there are too many things to pay attention to: That doesn’t follow...But it could be that there are more things that are trying to actively demand your attention.”
Sherry Turtle, M.I.T. sociologist and psychologist:…there is not only the attention we pay to consider, but also the attention we receive…Rather than compete with their siblings for their parents’ attention, children are up against iPhones and iPads, Siri and Alexa, Apple watches and computer screens…A generation has grown up that has lived a very unsatisfying youth and really does not associate their phones with any kind of glamour, but rather with a sense of deprivation.
We’re starting to see people inching their way toward ‘time well spent,’ Apple inching its way toward a mea culpa…And the culture itself turning toward a recognition that this can’t go on.

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