A Digital Detox is Not Enough!?

(Inspired by a discussion of “Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention” by Johann Hari on the Australian Broadcasting Corporations Late Night Live Feb 2022 with Phillip Adams. We note Hari's record however others are suggesting attention and other issues with our always connected world. See for instance Dr Fiona Kerr's Neuro Tec Institute)

Over the last billion years nature has evolved a supposedly intelligent wise ape (homo sapiens) on our Earth to develop a global web of information and algorithms used by smartphones.

Over the most recent billion seconds we have built an infrastructure that risks downgrading our species to mental midgets with the attention span of a gnat on speed with ADHD, addicted to the next Snapchat message, Tiktok video, Instagram Reel, Meta post, Google search result or a Tweet that may or may not be true. (interestingly research on the impact of Reddit suggests that its tendency to self-moderate by diverse viewpoints in discussion threads – the impact of Gamestop sub-reddit thread and its driving up of a share price is a countervailing example however).

The current torrent of claims, fudged facts, fake news, deep fakes and just lies also make the job of truth tellers that much harder with the Bullshit Asymmetry Factor of Brandolini’s Law. What’s more the interruption and switch costs involved in changing between tasks and our devices prompted Professor Miller to say we are living “a perfect storm of cognitive degradation”. Driving or operating machinery while under the influence of alcohol or drugs is illegal but the cognitive effect of our attention disruption is the same or greater and yet we still do work or attempt an education while having our smart devices pinging us for our attention.

Jaron Lanier says the current environment is a BUMMER (‘Behaviours of Users Modified, and Made into an Empire for Rent’) rather than early more cyberutopian view of the web visions and the Emmy award winning film The Social Network provides a fascinating overview of where we have ended up with our world wide web.

The Matrix film series may tell of a dystopian future where machine intelligence harvests us for our energy (violating the second law of thermodynamics but that’s a different story) but a much more insidious harvesting of our attention is going on everyday to sell and build Lanier’s Empires for Rent from Soshana Zuboff’s surveillance capitalism with algorithms exploiting the human brain’s hormonal system and the human negativity bias remaking us as mental midgets. This is increasingly being realized to have widespread individual and collective harm.

There also seems to be a (too slow) realization of the need for more national and international regulation, transparency and restriction or reversal of anticompetitive activity along with more effective transnational taxation so we can prompt, engage with as well as support public policy debate and formation as countervailing forces to the FANG’s (and others) enormous lobbying power (arguably far greater and insidious than the previous rounds of big tobacco, big oil and bankers - after all their product is free we are told). 

We don’t want to ban social media nor the many advantages of the web but we do want to deal with the specific aspects harming our attention.

“When it comes to this aspect of tech that is harming our attention the solution is very simple. We need to ban the current business model, a business model that is based on figuring out the weaknesses in your attention, hacking them and selling them to the highest bidder. Its just immoral, inhuman and we will not tolerate it… They will move to a different business model” (Listen to Late Night Live Feb 2022 about 42 min:30 sec in for Johann’s analogy of cholera and ownership of sewerage pipes vs information pipes)

Aza Raskin, Co-Founder - with Tristan Harris, of the Center for Humane Technology

So what can we do? Firstly just raise our consciousness of the issues, problems, lessons from the past (eg lead in paint, fluorocarbons) and the available solutions by actually reading books (a shocking statistic from Johann Hari’s interview revealed 57% of Americans do not read even 1 book per year. (What is it for you, or your household, or your country?).

Mr Hari, Dr Fiona Kerr (www.lookup.org.au), Tristan Harris, Cathy O’Neil and many others have many practical things we can do. Perhaps, like NASA in Houston, in recognizing we have a problem then with enough skill, will, effort and duct tape we can resolve the issue of business models honed to near perfection as attention harvesters and turn away from being networked serfs surfing the web.

Johann Hari carries the message from many saying we need to change the business models to have the networks to deal with us as customers NOT products. We may yet then be able to reclaim cyberspace as a place of promise, for ensuring information availability for good and a human-centered cyberphysical (cy-phy) world per the goals of, for example, the ANU’s 3A Institute (led by Professor Genevieve Bell). You may say we are dreamers but, to paraphrase the (highly evolved) Beatle John Lennon, we are not the only ones! Let’s continue to upgrade our knowledge and humanity rather than be harvested and composted into a morass of mediocre mundanity, mendaciousness and murky untruths.

Gandhi – “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win

{See also our related post on the SOMBIE design – inspired by Dr Fiona Kerr’s Look Up organization related to the Neuro Tech Institute}.

See our the Alltheus Social Media related designs here

 

Having written the above it is only fair to also mention some of the controversy re: Johann Hari as a person and his book. A summary is encapsulated in an Unherd.com commentary here and an interesting article about Maryanne Wolf - an expert on reading - in Slate here.

 

Some related Podcasts – Let us know of other related podcasts, Youtube videos or other public forum material at contact@alltheus.com.

Big Ideas – Tech Reshaping Society: Online Privacy and Technology Reshaping Society

Big Ideas – How Useful are Mindfulness Apps?

Big Idea – Can We be Free in An Age of Constant Surveillance

Big Ideas – How Human Evolution Has Made Us Unfit for the Modern World

Big Ideas – Marshalling the Troops For Change

A podcast by the Neuro-Tech Institute’s Dr Fiona Kerr regarding the importance of lifting your head out of the screen world is  here

 

Center For Humane Technology Your Undivided Attention podcast

Professor Marcus Raichle on the Default Network Mode – What Our Brain Does When You’re Doing Nothing

Next Billion Seconds with Mark Pesce – Has Social Media Turned Us All Into Conspiracy Theorists

Next Billion Seconds With Mark Pesce  - Who Bears The Responsibility For making Our Smartphones So Addictive?

Next Billion Seconds With Mark Pesce - How Social Media Has Been Weaponised

Next Billion Seconds – How Hate Spreads Online And What Can Be Done About It

Next Billion Seconds – As Everything Physical Vapourises What Happens to the News Media

2020 The Massey lectures – Reclaiming the internet for Civil Society An excellet series of 6 lectures with Ron Deibert. He is founder and director of Citizen Lab, a research centre based at the University of Toronto, which studies technology, surveillance and censorship. His 2020 Massey Lectures examines the societal impact of the internet and social media

Science Show Communications Skills Fall With Excessive Screen Time Nov 2018

Science Show How The Internet Influences Politics and Democracy Nov 2017

 

OTHER BOOKS ON THE SUBJECT

Deep Work: Rules For Focussed Success In A Distracted World” Cal Newport

“Always On: Hope & Fear In The Social Smartphone Era” Rory Cellan-Jones (podcast discussion here, book link here)

Teen Brain:  Why Screens Are Making Your Teenager Anxious, Depressed and Prone to Lifelong Addictive Illnesses – and How To Stop It Now” David Gillespie here

(As Mr Gillespie is a lawyer with no formal scientific nor medical qualifications there is some controversy about his claims per discussions in The Conversation here and on an Australian Broadcasting Corporation (relatedly called) Conversations podcast here)

Smoke and Mirrors: How Hype Obscures the Future and How to See Past It

Gemma Milne

Youtube discussion with Gemma Milne

Youtube discussion with Gemma Milne SBS Strathclyde

The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. Nicholas Carr (2010)