Silicon Valley insiders are switching off their smartphones because “our minds can be hijacked”

Did you know that Silicon Valley whiz kids who helped the largest tech companies to usurp our time and conquer our minds are now cutting ties with the very tricks of the trade they helped to create?

Google, Twitter and Facebook software engineers who helped make technology so addictive are disconnecting themselves from the internet, reports Paul Lewis for the Guardian.

The group includes the likes of Justin Rosenstein, creator of the ‘Like’ button, Tristan Harris former design ethicist at Google and founder of the advocacy group Time Well Spent, Loren Brichter who created Tweetie and the pull-to-refresh feature and James Williams, the ex-Google strategist who built the metrics system for the company’s global search advertising business.

They are concerned that the so-called “attention economy”, an internet shaped around the demands of an advertising economy, is robbing us of our ability to make up our own minds. We live and breathe through our smartphones which act as a prism to the world created by tech companies and their masters is the ad industry.

How a handful of tech companies control billions of minds every day | Tristan Harris

Smartphone features like the pull-to-refresh feature, Facebook’s ‘Like’ button and constant notifications keep people distracted and unable to focus. These design tricks lead to compulsive, irresistible viewing and scrolling through feeds on social media.

The aim is to grab our attention. We are beginning to realize this, but the whole thing is more disturbing than a mere fight for our attention.

The attention economy is set up to appeal to our impulses, not our common sense. It is set up to confront us with the sensational and to appeal to emotion, anger and outrage.

The news media is increasingly working in service to tech companies, and must play by the rules of the attention economy to “sensationalize, bait and entertain in order to survive”.

We are paying a dear price for this hacking of our attention with shallow sensation.

Our ability to focus is severely compromised, which means we don’t really digest the information offered by the internet nor do we stop to consider the implications. In short, the attention economy is robbing us of our intelligence.

One study shows that our constant connection to each other, information and entertainment comes at a cognitive cost. Just lying there in your vicinity and turned off, your smartphone is enough of a distraction to damage your cognitive capacity.

Can you guess what comes next?

An unpredictable political system that threatens the foundations of democracy. You think that’s an exaggeration? Actually, we can already see evidence of that.

The world was caught off guard — and has not recovered yet — by two major “messages from voters” recently: Brexit and the election of Trump as U.S. president. These outcomes, some believe, can be directly contributed to, not what the voters wanted, but to the rise of social media and the attention economy that drives it. Sensation and misinformation on our screens, combined with our eroded ability to focus and internalise information.

People like Rosenstein believe that we can look to digital forces for an explanation for a completely upended political system and they warn that if we don’t wake up to these realities, democracy as we know it might disappear.


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