Can Tech Companies Really Un-Distract Us?

Google, Apple, and Facebook all seem to think so, but here’s why we shouldn’t let ourselves off the hook just yet.

Illustration by Margarida Mouta

Every year for the last fifteen years or so, one item on my list of New Year’s resolutions remains unchanged: “Spend less time on screens.” So permanent is its presence, that I imagine my great-grandchildren, unearthing these lists from the family’s archive, will scratch their heads in complete bewilderment and finally conclude that this motivational sentence must have been simply a part of my family business’ letterhead.

It’s embarrassing but it’s true that I’ve never managed to cross this item off, and I bet it’s true for the large majority of the population. And while it’s easy to feel ashamed about it, we have to remember that we’re fighting an uphill battle here.

While we desperately want to take control of our tech habits, tech companies big and small are fighting over who gets more of our finite time and attention. And unlike us, they have highly effective systems in place to achieve their goal.

Distraction by design

This is what Tristan Harris, the founder of the non-profit Time Well Spent, wants us to understand: technology companies consciously and unconsciously exploit our minds’ weaknesses in order to get us to spend more time using their products. They achieve this “mind control” through various design decisions: controlling the menu of options we can choose from, providing immediate rewards, among many others.

Your phone and the apps on it are distracting and addicting by design.

A document leaked from Facebook last year revealed one of the creepiest examples of these tactics: the company actually had the tools to identify and target teenagers who feel insecure or “worthless”. Worse, this was not the first time the company was blamed for attempting to alter users’ emotions without their consent.

But you don’t have to go that far to find an example of subtle, yet highly effective manipulation. Facebook’s notification icon, which lets the user know of any “likes”, friend requests, and any other activity, was originally meant to be blue but no one used it. The company quickly changed it to red, a known trigger color, and immediately saw a spike in engagement. As users of many apps themselves admit, the need to make the red notification badge go away feels compulsory even if they know they’re not interested in the content.

The pull-to-refresh feature in many apps, which has actually been made completely redundant with the advance of the push notification technology, is alive and well precisely because of its addictive qualities. In fact, it has been compared to the lever on slot machines which produce random, and therefore highly addicting, rewards.

So what do we do about it?

Do we admit that we’re powerless in the face of technology, go live in the woods, and decide to communicate exclusively by pigeon post? Tristan Harris, who has been called the closest thing Silicon Valley has to a conscience, thinks that it doesn’t have to be this way. According to him, technology also has the power to save us from…itself?

Just as companies have designed their apps around grabbing as much human attention as possible, he says they can refocus instead on truly serving the user’s needs and helping us spend our time well.

Harris compares the imagined future of ethical tech with the booming market for organic food. Like organic food, there could be a separate category of attention-conscious apps that users might be asked to pay a premium for. Harris is convinced that if there is enough user demand for ethical technology, companies will respond. With time, he’s hoping to develop a Time Well Spent certification that is given to tech companies that design their product ethically.

Is it really that simple?

On the one hand, I find Tristan Harris and his movement inspiring, and I’m convinced that this progress is long overdue. We’re living in a pivotal time as far as our relationship with technology is concerned. People and tech companies are finally starting to figure out how to use technology responsibly. Or at least recognize we have a problem.

Both Google and Apple recently announced new features to help users curb their phone and app addictions.

At the Google I/O 18 keynote, the company announced that the upcoming Android P will get a number of features that tackle phone addiction, such as an improved “Do Not Disturb” mode that can now be activated when you put your phone face down, and a “wind down” feature that will automatically start the Do Not Disturb mode at bedtime in addition to putting your screen’s flashy colors into a less stimulating greyscale.

In addition, a dashboard will now show users how much and how often they use each app and even set their own time limits. YouTube will even remind you to take a break.

In a similar move, Apple just unveiled an improved Do No Disturb mode as well as a new Screentime app that will provide users with detailed reports about their app usage and allow them to set time limits. Even Facebook is reportedly embracing the concept of time well spent even as it’s still trying to figure out what it means.

Yet I can’t help but feel like one of those pessimistic environmental activists that say that it’s too late to do anything about the pollution causing climate change.

First of all, who decides what counts as time “well spent”? Harris himself admits that the concept is highly malleable, and I personally worry that this potentially great idea is in danger of becoming just another meaningless marketing gimmick.

Facebook, for instance, has announced it’s commitment to making sure that the “time spent on Facebook is time well spent”, but I’m sure a lot of us will agree that time well spent is actually time spent off Facebook entirely. Is the company committed enough to users’ wellbeing to create a reward system for time spent away from the site? With all of the economic forces at work to keep eyeballs on ads, I doubt it.

Just because we know something is bad for us, doesn’t mean we stop consuming it.

Harris draws a parallel with rising consumer demand for organic food, but a more apt comparison would actually be between “non-ethical” apps and junk food. Like tech companies, the sugar industry has done a lot of questionable things — pouring millions of dollars into misinformation campaigns, for example — to get people to consume and become addicted to their products.

It’s now common knowledge that sugar is bad for your health, but knowing that fact doesn’t prevent us from eating it, often in large quantities. Is the decision to reach for that last cookie in the pack a conscious choice or a reflex from our addicted brain? Similarly, we know that distractions from technology harm our health and wellbeing, but that doesn’t keep us from reaching for our phones to check our Facebook updates. Is that something we decide to do or an ingrained habit that happens without conscious thought?

At least with junk food, it’s easier to limit our access to it if we’re truly committed. I know that for myself, if I don’t want to binge on candy, I just have to not bring it into the house. Keeping it in the cupboard for a special occasion will be a futile exercise of self-control. But with apps a click away at all times, the same strategy won’t work. Is it really possible to create a kind of world where ethical tech tools exist alongside the “regular” ones and for us to be able to choose how we split our time between the two? And who will prevent me from simply ignoring the time limits I set for myself with Google and Apple’s freshly minted “mindful” tools?

Furthermore, when it comes to defining what’s healthy and good, food is much more straightforward than tech. Sure, people argue about primal vs. vegan vs. gluten-free diets. But the major things are clear. Vegetables — definitely good. Pesticides — bad. Processed food and sugar — bad. Even without the organic certification you can look at the list of ingredients and decide for yourself whether you want to get that pack of cookies that have high-fructose corn syrup as the second ingredient or just leave it on the shelf.

But where is the list of ingredients on an app? I roughly know what vitamin A or Potassium Bromate does to my body (or if I don’t I can Google it), but how do I know what a new feature in an app is going to do to my brain?

Finally, I think that we’re still just at the beginning stages of the debate on what constitutes ethical exploitation of our attention. The fact is that the goal of any kind of media is to capture human attention. Think about visual art. Visual artists know just the right principles of composition and color contrast for engaging the viewer’s interest as long as possible and maximizing the pleasurable effect. In essence, they use many of the same techniques used by apps and websites, but I doubt that anyone would blame artists for exploiting the vulnerabilities of human psychology.

What constitutes “ethical” hijacking of people’s attention? In “Black and Violet” (1923), Vasily Kandisnky used repetition and pattern to “force the user’s eye to continuously move around the painting”.

Every piece of content ever created, including this blog post, is designed to hold your attention for as long as possible. At the moment, I can’t get the Eurovision’s 2018 winning song out of my head and I don’t even like the music that much. Does my singing this song in my head for the past two days count as time well spent?

Where does that leave us?

The fact remains that my tradition of writing “less screen time” on my list of New Year’s resolutions started long before smartphones appeared. Even then, I felt that the sheer amount of content available at my fingertips was eating into my attention. And yes, the problem got a lot worse with the advance of smartphones and the ever increasing amount of content available, but it remains the same problem.

So while I’m encouraged that tech companies like Google and Apple seem to be undertaking a more ethical approach to user experience, we can’t rely solely on technology to undistract us and bring us back to ourselves. We have to be doing our own work to take back control over our attention. For now, I’ve greyed out the icons on my iPhone following Harris’s advice and have used a bunch of his other tips to minimize my screen use. I’m determined to not let my phone rule my life, while not letting my screen-time anxiety ruin my relationship with my kids. I’ll meditate and go for phone-less walks in the woods. I’ve finally learned to be ok with saying goodbye to my phone every time I go to the bathroom. Maybe I won’t acquire a postal pigeon just yet.

I’ll keep writing those New Year’s resolutions, but for better or worse, I’m convinced that our fight to control our attention and determine what constitutes “time well spent” isn’t something that tech companies will be able to fix for us with a few nifty new features. It’s something we as individuals and consumers need to define for ourselves.

Technology can’t force you to focus, but tools that get out of your way certainly help. Discover how Twist organizes team communication for fewer distractions and more deep work.