Today’s New Currency: Your Attention

I regularly use public transport as a means of getting to work. I find it amazing to witness how “plugged in” we, as a human race, have now become. Nearly every single person I can see on the train has their face well and truly planted into a smartphone. Swiping, scrolling, checking, validating, commenting…completely absorbed into the virtual world, leaving very little space for the here and now. I know the daily commute is anything but entertaining and smartphones offer an entertainment channel while on the move, but I think there is something deeper going on here.

With the relentless rise and rise of smartphones, apps and the on-demand economy, the race is on for your attention. The big tech companies have invested significantly in techniques designed to pull your attention back to their products again and again and it is working.

The engineers of the now infamous Facebook “like” button have described its use as “bright dings of pseudo-pleasure” that can be as hollow as they are seductive.

The origin of the like button was well intended – in a single click – to “send little bits of positivity” across the Facebook platform. When it launched in 2009, it was wildly successful as the user base took to it like moths to the light and enjoyed the short-term boost of dopamine it generated in our brains as we affirmed each other’s posts and photos, and in the process, Facebook gleaned very valuable insights into its users’ preferences. Since then, people have claimed to be addicted to the like button, to sending likes but especially to the receiving of this tiny affirmation from their peers. In a virtual world like this, addictions like this are becoming more and more common but most people assume it is their fault, they don’t realize they are being manipulated.

When we deliberately look closer at the popular social media platforms, it is easy to see how LinkedIn exploits a need for social reciprocity to widen its network; how YouTube and Netflix autoplay videos and next episodes, depriving users of a choice about whether or not they want to keep watching; how Snapchat created its addictive Snapstreaks feature, encouraging near-constant communication between its mostly teenage users.

How the “pull down to refresh” feature of Twitter feels a bit like pulling down on the arm of a slot machine and waiting to see what pops up in the latest feed.

Last April, software designers, programmers and tech entrepreneurs from across the world gathered at a conference center on the shore of the San Francisco Bay. They had each paid up to $1,700 to learn how to manipulate people into habitual use of their products, on a course curated by conference organizer Nir Eyal.

Eyal, 39, the author of Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products, has spent several years consulting for the tech industry, teaching techniques he developed by closely studying how the Silicon Valley giants operate.

“The technologies we use have turned into compulsions, if not full-fledged addictions,” Eyal writes. “It’s the impulse to check a message notification. It’s the pull to visit YouTube, Facebook, or Twitter for just a few minutes, only to find yourself still tapping and scrolling an hour later.” None of this is an accident, he writes. It is all “just as their designers intended”.

I am part of the last generation of people that will remember life before the smartphone when phones used to be plugged into walls. Today’s children that will grow up in a world where the smartphone, iPads, tablets, smart TVs, smart homes are all the norm. The pull for their attention is very very strong. It can lead to constant distraction, a lack of focus, an inability to concentrate for any longer than a few seconds, anxiety, addiction and even depression. It is very concerning, especially given that schools are now introducing iPads for use in the classroom. Personally, I think this is an ill-informed decision to appear to be progressive and keeping pace with technology when in fact it will have a detrimental effect on children’s capacity to focus.

I have three kids and I regret every minute that I am not paying attention to them because my smartphone has sucked me in.

Parents and children of this generation need to be aware that all is not lost, that we are in fact in control. Once you become aware of these pulls, you have a choice to uninstall that app, disable those notifications that constantly pull for your attention, start using tools that will help you stay focussed and minimize these distractions.

Remember the most important button on your smartphone?
The OFF button. Now you can breathe…


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