Is Technology Amplifying Human Potential, or Amusing Ourselves to Death?

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes, 0 seconds

WHEELS FOR THE MIND

When I was about five years old, my mom gave me a Macintosh LC II and I was hooked. Not to Facebook or the Internet, they didn’t exist yet. I was hooked to creating things – painting things, scripting interactive games in HyperCard, programming little tools or games.

Like the technology visionaries of the 1970’s and 80’s like Doug Engelbart, Alan Kay and Steve Jobs, I optimistically believed computers could be “bicycles for our minds” and amplify human potential.

And they did empower us. But today, in the year 2015, “empowerment” rarely feels like my day to day experience with technology.

Instead I feel constantly lured into distractions. I get sucked endlessly into email, distracting websites. I get bulldozed by interruptive text messages, back and forth scheduling, or find myself scrolling a website in a trance at 1am.

I feel like I’m caught in a whirlpool of “Amusing Ourselves to Death,” as author Neil Postman predicted 30 years ago. In the book, Postman contrasts two dystopian visions of the future. George Orwell’s 1984, where power is expressed directly through Big Brother, oppressively restricting people’s freedoms. And Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, where power is expressed indirectly, by saturating people with so many delightful distractions that they can’t see their oppression. Where people “come to adore the technologies that would undo their capacities to think.”

In Postman’s own words:

George OrwellAldous Huxley

What Orwell feared were those who would ban books.
What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one.

Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information.
Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism.

Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us.
Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance.

As Huxley remarked … [they] “failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.”

– Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death (1982)

It’s scary how true this feels today. Huxley was concerned about what’s irresistible to our instincts. Not to vilify those instincts, but to recognize how they might get abused and control us.

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Just like we have built-in gustatory instincts for salt, sugar and fat that are incredibly useful for survival on the Savannah but abused by our modern food environmentHuxley knew we have built-in instincts for novelty, curiosity gaps, social approval and fear of missing something important. These instincts are useful to have on the Savannah but our media environment adversarially exploits them to keep us glued to screens.

So why is our experience of the Internet and computing going this way? Towards distraction, and away from empowerment?

It’s because we live in an attention economy.

The attention economy means that no matter what a technology company aims to create – an informative news site like the New York Times, a meditation app to help people meditate, a social network, or an addictive game – they win by getting people to spend time.  What starts as an honest competition to make useful things that people spend time on, devolves into a race to the bottom of the brain stem to maximize the time we spend.

  • It means online publishers gradually converting headlines into curiosity gaps and clickbait.
  • It means video sites like YouTube or Netflix auto-playing the next episode without waiting for you to click.
  • It means businesses sending push notifications and email to pretend you are miss something important if you don’t check.

And we’re vulnerable to these mechanisms. Knowing their tricks doesn’t inoculate us to their efficacy.

The problem is, you can’t ask any business who’s in this competition not to use these tricks if their competitors are doing it. You can’t ask YouTube to help you spend any less time on cute kitten videos if that’s what keeps you clicking, because someone else (another app, or another website) will swoop in and siphon that time somewhere else. Stock prices depend on keeping engagement numbers high. It’s only going to get worse as businesses compete.

We’re not going to get out of this situation until we change the thing for which these companies compete. From the currency of “Time Spent” to something else.

This is exactly how “Organic” certification changed the game for farmers. By defining and standardizing what makes “safe” cultivation practices (no pesticides), the farmers who wanted to do what’s “good for us” no longer got undercut by farmers who used unsafe pesticides to achieve lower prices. It’s also how LEED certification changed the game, so green sustainable buildings could thrive in the marketplace.

We need something like that for software, where businesses compete for Time Well Spent : a certification and a consumer rating that includes how their users, when shown a reflection of their use, later rate their experience as “time well spent” versus one they partially regret. Like Yelp reviews, but for experiences.

Imagine a world where “Time Well Spent” determines your stock price, your popularity in app stores, your ranking in news feeds, your ability to attract talented employees, your media attention, and funding possibilities. It’s a B-Corp movement for technology.

I used to believe we could just ask software designers to take on moral responsibility for how they shape the billions of minutes and hours of other people’s lives. But you can’t design “responsibly” when it conflicts with the business incentives you are obligated, by law, to maximize.

This is a long road, but we can get there by starting a new conversation. Instead of having the old conversation about self-control and waiting for cultural norms to adapt automatically, direct your friends and family to a new conversation.

Let’s set incentives to create a world where the Internet and my devices amplify human potential again, and where we can trust-fall into the whirlpool of technology and know that it is on our team to help us spend our time, and our lives, well.

For more information and get involved, check out http://timewellspent.io and http://empoweringdesign.org

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