The temptation of technology

Gadgets are distracting us from knowing how to live, says Dr Colm O’Connor in his weekly column
The temptation of technology

ADDICTED: The current design of our technology is an entire army of laser-like distractions aimed at capturing and locking onto our attention.

SOCIAL media giants Facebook and Instagram recently announced new tools for users to set time limits on their platforms, and a dashboard to monitor their daily use.

In doing so, the companies seemed to suggest spending time on the internet is not a desirable, healthy habit, but a pleasurable vice: one that if left uncontrolled may slip into unappealing addiction.

Having secured our attention more completely than they ever dreamed of, they now are carefully admitting it’s time to give some of it back so that we can meet our children’s eyes, go to the pictures, create something new, and live life as it should be.

The current design of our technology is an entire army of laser-like distractions aimed at capturing and locking onto our attention.

And this army or endless temptations is winning: We spend the day transfixed by our screens, thumb twitching on the bus, in waiting rooms, at home, or at traffic lights; we do this without any purpose in mind, to simply distract ourselves from the anxiety of quietness; we have developed an even more alarming habit of ‘second screening’, when just one device at a time isn’t enough, so we scroll through our phones while watching TV or sitting at our computer; and even bring phones, iPads, and lap tops to bed.

Our attention has been kidnapped and we are more and more the slaves of our gadgets.

One study found that, in 2013, we were checking our phones on average 150 times a day. But we touch our phones about 2,617 times a day! I mean, think about that. It’s frightening. Apple has confirmed that users unlock their iPhones an average of 80 times per day.

Now screens have been inserted where no screens ever were before: over tables at McDonald’s; in dressing rooms; on the backs of taxi seats. Believe it or not, for €13, you can purchase an iPhone holster for your baby stroller!

This is us: eyes glazed, mouth open, neck crooked, trapped in dopamine loops and filter bubbles. Our attention is sold to advertisers, along with our data, and handed back to us tattered and piecemeal. We are now so over-wired that we lose touch with life’s purpose — to experience being fully alive!

Have you noticed how you pull out a phone to do something and get distracted, and 30 minutes later you find that you’ve been sucked in by your phone into attending to a whole lot of other stuff like YouTube or messages or Instagram. We are becoming fragmentated and distracted at the level of everyday concentration. But not only that: We are also becoming distracted from knowing how to live. We are facing an existential threat from our very own gadgets. The constant pull on our attention from technology is no longer just about losing too many hours of our so-called real lives to the diversions of the web. We are at risk of fundamentally losing our moral purpose. The recovery of human attention may be the defining psychological struggle of our time.

We do not yet understand the consequence of all that screen time on our bedraggled neurons. We don’t understand how modern technology impacts our ability to sustain our attention on our goals. Psychologists have written about the change they see in students as one from “deep attention,” a state of single-minded absorption that can last for hours, to one of “hyper attention,” which jumps from target to target, preferring to skim the surface of lots of different things than to probe the depths of just one. There are more things that are trying to actively demand your attention.

Rather than compete with their siblings for their parents’ attention, children are up against iPhones and iPads, Siri and Alexa, Apple watches and computer screens. Every moment they spend with their parents, they are also spending with their parents’ gadgets. A generation of children have now grown up that has lived a very unsatisfying youth and really do not associate their phones with any kind of glamour, but rather with a sense of deprivation.

It is changing our ability to make sense of what’s true, so we have less and less idea of a shared fabric of truth, of a shared narrative that we all subscribe to. Without shared truth or shared facts, you get chaos.

‘Moment’ is an app I recommend as it monitors screen time and sends you or loved ones embarrassing notifications detailing exactly how much time has been frittered away on your phone today. We now need our phones to save us from our phones! The amazing thing is that when technologists, the people creating all this stuff, are asked if they want to live in the world that they are creating — where technology is competing for their attention — none of them want it.

The time is coming when we will have device-free villages and towns where people choose to escape the tentacles of the internet, phones, computers, and screens. Instead of looking for Free WiFi — you will be looking for WiFi-free-zones. Its inevitable.

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