25 October 2017
Author: Victoria Buchanan
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.