Why was that class meeting special? Students were talking, and talking loudly with each other during the break. It was noisy, in contrast to the quiet time that the breaks are when students work their smartphones.
Of course, I made sure I remarked about that as we resumed the discussions.
A hermit I am, but I worry a lot that we are rapidly moving away from face-to-face real-time conversations. I worry about this not because I am a neo-Luddite; but because my instincts tell me that the more we move away from face-to-face conversations, the more we lose whatever ability that we might have to empathize with fellow humans. To me, erosion of empathy is a serious threat to what it means to be human.
In a rich review essay, Jacob Weisberg explores that empathy angle:
Why might too much digital participation be corroding empathy, whether online or offline?It is complicated to summarize here; read the essay.
Digital technology and the internet are also messing us up in ways that we tend to not think about. Remember the following quote from a few months ago?
“The Net,” Carr writes, “is by design an interruption system, a machine geared for dividing attention. Frequent interruptions scatter our thoughts, weaken our memory, and make us tense and anxious. The more complex the train of thought we’re involved in, the greater the impairment the distractions cause.”That itself is not as worrisome as this: apps are designed to cause these interruptions and to get your time and attention.
Or as the economist and Nobel laureate Herbert A. Simon put it even more presciently in 1971, “What information consumes is rather obvious: It consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.”
Nir Eyal, offers a practical guide in his book Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products. A former game designer and professor of “applied consumer psychology” at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business, Eyal explains why applications like Facebook are so effective. A successful app, he writes, creates a “persistent routine” or behavioral loop. The app both triggers a need and provides the momentary solution to it. “Feelings of boredom, loneliness, frustration, confusion, and indecisiveness often instigate a slight pain or irritation and prompt an almost instantaneous and often mindless action to quell the negative sensation,” he writes. “Gradually, these bonds cement into a habit as users turn to your product when experiencing certain internal triggers.”The Attention Economy, as Tristan Harris refers to it.
The financial value of an app is largely determined by how much time consumers spend using it, on the assumption that usage translates into advertising revenue.
If product design has a conscience at the moment, it may be Tristan Harris, a former B.J. Fogg student at Stanford who worked until recently as an engineer at Google. In several lectures available on YouTube, Harris argues that an “attention economy” is pushing us all to spend time in ways we recognize as unproductive and unsatisfying, but that we have limited capacity to control. Tech companies are engaged in “a race to the bottom of the brain stem,” in which rewards go not to those that help us spend our time wisely, but to those that keep us mindlessly pulling the lever at the casino.Harris wants us think about this way: we are like the casino gambling addicts at the slot machines. The longer the casinos can retain the gamblers at the machines, the more money the house makes. Note here that the gamblers are not playing with hundred dollar bills--it is mostly coins they bet every time. Nickels and dimes and quarters. But, the longer they stay in the casino, those coins add up. The more we get hooked onto to those time-consuming apps, the more "they" earn and the more we lose.
Weisberg ends the essay on a depressing note:
Aspirations for humanistic digital design have been overwhelmed so far by the imperatives of the startup economy. As long as software engineers are able to deliver free, addictive products directly to children, parents who are themselves compulsive users have little hope of asserting control. We can’t defend ourselves ...The software guys (almost always guys!) are making sure the house will always win! :(