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Do we need to start designing for digital resistance?

"We have lost control of our relationship with technology because technology has become better at controlling us." 

Victoria Buchanan, strategic researcher, The Future Laboratory

On 13 April 1942 Simone Weil wrote to her friend, the poet Joë Bousquet, to tell him that ‘attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity’. She wrote beautifully of attention as a contemplative practice through which we reap the deepest rewards of our humanity and said that attention is the same thing as prayer, describing it as the ultimate tool of self-transformation.

Fast forward to 2017 to the age of behavioural addiction, when the current race for attention is causing an epidemic of distraction.

Instagram shows new likes one at a time to keep us checking for more. Our media turns events into breaking news to keep us watching. Tinder keeps us swiping right in the belief that the love of our life could be just around the corner. The typing dots in Facebook Messenger, the ping of a Tinder match – these have unique identities that heighten the anticipation of the next notification hit. We have lost control of our relationship with technology because technology has become better at controlling us.

This addiction is no accident. Thanks to the internet, captology – the study of computers as persuasive technologies – has never been more relevant. ‘You crave constant attention online because if you don’t get that attention you somehow don’t exist,’ says Baroness Susan Greenfield, a British scientist who has been researching the effects of technology on our brains.

As former Google design ethicist Tristan Harris says, we’re in a situation in which we are bulldozing each other’s attention. There is a serious cost to this. As Harris says on his Time Well Spent website: ‘It’s changing the very fabric of society. It’s changing political discourse. It’s changing our children.’

"Instead of unplugging from technology entirely, we need to design ways to engage with it in ways that support our attention."

The consequences go far beyond our attention spans. ‘Human relationships are rich and they’re messy and they’re demanding,’ says social psychologist Sherry Turkle. ‘And we clean them up with technology. When we do, one of the things that can happen is that we sacrifice conversation for mere connection.’

Research suggests that devices are disrupting sleep patterns, affecting the formation of high-quality friendships and sabotaging our emotional wellbeing. We are on the brink of a mental health crisis.

But, like most addicts, we are in denial. When I recently told a friend that I felt our attention was becoming trapped inside our phones she became strangely defensive. At first, I couldn’t work out why, but I realised that we now find it normal to conduct the most intimate aspects of our personal lives via our devices. Of course, we can all be defensive about the role we have allowed them to take on.

We urgently need technology designers to create more thoughtful products that demand less of our attention. At The Future Laboratory we call this a Focus Filter.

Designer Skylar Jessen offers a vision of what digital resistance could look like. He has created a smart lamp with an in-built microphone that disables smartphone notifications when it hears spoken conversation for more than 30 seconds. It’s a context-aware digital filter that prioritises human relationships. In fact, 44% of smartphone users think that voice technology could help them interact more with each other, as they won’t be looking down at a screen, according to a report by JWT.

Another concept blocks users from switching between text conversation and other apps during an active conversation since, as Jessen says, you would never leave the room while a friend was talking to you in person.

I like this because it recognises that switching off entirely is unrealistic. Instead of unplugging from technology entirely, we need to design ways to engage with it in ways that support our attention. Whether the poison can become the cure will be a defining factor of our future.


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