In the News
A university class at Adelphi University included as part of the course curriculum the requirement that the students give up their cellphones for a week. All students survived and were surprised at their own profound relief and increased focus during the break.
Apple CEO Tim Cook, in an interview with Time, admits that unfettered technology is causing great social harm. Because of the highly competitive, scale fast business model that rules the tech industry self-regulation is a fantasy. "Technology needs to be regulated."
It is very important to understand that the big tech companies provide access to content, they do not provide content. They aggregate and link to content produced by others. With the incredible scale of their operations, they have removed virtually all barriers to producing content. Anyone, any where, at any time can be a publisher. While incredibly democratizing, we are also discovering the dark side of this global freedom. Even a relatively small number of people with very selfish and short-sighted motives can be very successful at leveraging that access into global reach. Originally the tech companies just focused on access to content. With a growing public backlash against the side effects of their services, they now find themselves needing to curate content. This is the hard part. Curation requires judgement, care, expertise, and insight. That is, it is expensive. The big tech companies are all about keeping costs down while keeping the scale enormous. They are attempting to use algorithms to do the curation, but that is far from perfect. There is no known way to get an algorithm to reliably recognize the difference between irony and hate, for example. Some of them are turning to human curators, but they need to keep costs down and they have no experience in being content companies. An article in Gizmodo describes the damaging side effects of this. Can we really expect anything else from ad-driven, high volume, content delivery business models?
The "Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) Study", being funded by the National Institute of Health in the US, is following over 11,000 adolescents for 10 years to help understand factors affecting brain development. Preliminary results from imaging some of the participants' brains show that youths who have more than 7 hours of screen time per day are more likely to have premature thinning of the cortex. Youths who have more than 2 hours per day of screen time score lower on thinking and language tests.
A report in the Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics and reported on by Reuters on Oct. 30, 2018 examines the startling (or perhaps cynically, the not-so-startling) presence of deceptive and manipulative advertising in video games specifically targeted at young children. The journal article makes the important point that young children cannot tell the difference between advertisement and game, making these games all the more dangerous.
An article in the Sept. 12, 2018 edition of The New York Times titled How Game Apps That Captivate Kids Have Been Collecting Their Data drills into the dark reality of ad-driven, low cost video games. Some makers of "child friendly" video games are collecting data on and tracking young children. As a result of legal loopholes, they can do this without violating child privacy laws. The reason they want this tracking data, of course, is that by making money off of the data and advertising, the maker can sell the game for less or even give it away for free. We have to start paying for our content if we want the companies we engage with to view us as the customer and not the product.
A recent survey study How Teens and Parents Navigate Screen Time and Device Distractions from the Pew Research Center on Internet & Technology looked at how people are feeling about the amount of time they spend on their devices. It is no surprise that parents are worried about their teens. It is interesting that teens are increasingly worried about themselves. And very interesting that teens are worried about their parents even though parents feel they mostly have their own internet use under control.
A report on BuzzFeed describes in detail an example of the deliberate, psychological tactics social media companies use (in this case, to target teenagers) in their all-consuming drive for growth. Read more here.
A recent study found that people with access to broadband internet at home sleep on average 25 minutes less per night that people without such access. Further, such people are far more likely to get less than the recommended amount of sleep per night. The growing understanding on the importance of sleep to long-term health and happiness make this a very important finding. Read the summary in Science Daily
A study published in Pediatric Research looking at the behaviour of children found that children externalize their negative emotions more showing increased "frustration, hyperactivity, whining, sulking, or trantrums" when the parents use technology more during family times. Parents who are distracted by their technology during family times, like meals, playtime, and bedtime, have children who externalize more. The study points to the problem of parents using devices, who are then distracted while interacting with their children leading to children acting out more, which then leads to increased parental stress and greater withdrawal with technology.
The disclosure in March, 2018 of the surreptitious and exploitative use of large amounts Facebook user data by Cambridge Analytica has resulted in a flurry of articles, opinions, recriminations, apologies, and calls for regulation around the world. This disclosure, however, should not be very surprising. This is Facebook's business, to collect highly targeted data about its users and sell that data to its customers, remember Facebook users are not Facebook customers. Facebook, and many other companies, are in a challenging conflict of interest. They want the trust of their users, while simultaneously trying to find ways to monetize those same people in subtle and inconspicuous ways. Any service that is free, or heavily subsidized, for its users has a high risk of a similar event resulting in loss of privacy and massive social control. If we want to use such services, we are responsible for limiting their access to our lives.
The Nov. 10, 2017 edition of The Times has an article titled "Facebook exploits human weakness, admits former boss Sean Parker." The article discusses how some social media pioneers, including Facebook co-founder Sean Parker, in particular, are regretting having created a monster by knowingly "exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology".
The September 2017 issue of The Atlantic has an article very provocatively titled "Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?". The author, Dr. Jean M. Twenge, a member of the Department of Psychology at San Diego State University, has been researching generational differences for 25 years. Dr. Twenge outlines radical changes in the observed behaviours and emotional states of teens since 2012 that are completely out-of-line with trends prior to 2012. What happened in 2012? As of that year, more than half of us have smart phones. Dr. Twenge notes that "iGen"'ers of all demographic groups are showing the same effects, spending more time in their bedrooms and less time on homework, attending fewer parties, drinking less alcohol, sleeping less, dating less, working less, driving less, generally showing less interest in independence, and alas, committing suicide much more. Rates of teen depression are skyrocketing, and Dr. Twenge considers the situation to be "the worst mental-health crisis in decades." Dr. Twenge points out that the research clearly shows, "All screen activities are linked to less happiness, and all nonscreen activities are linked to more happiness."
As reported in Gizmodo, the maker of the Roomba home vacuuming robot has been collecting data on the layout of customer's homes and sending it back to the company. The company may start selling that data. This creepy, creeping business model is inevitable if consumers will not pay the real cost of maintaining their technology.
As reported in Scientific American, students who use laptops during classes to support class activities spend far more time checking social media and other unrelated content. The study found a substantial negative correlation between unrestricted laptop use in class and student academic performance. That is, students who use their laptops in class, get worse marks. The study did not extend to computer use while studying away from the classroom, but it would be a reasonable expectation that the same negative impacts would be seen whenever unrestricted Internet access is available while studying.
A poll described in The Guardian found a correlation between increased feelings of anxiety and inadequacy with use of social media in 14 to 24 year olds. In particular, Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat and Twitter, showed the strongest effect. A family plan of periodic breaks from social media may help.
On the Web
The host and author of the very fun and educational Youtube channel Veritasium had a show recently go viral. He followed that up with a very thoughtful post of what it means to be a content creator chasing an algorithm that is chasing an audience. He figures that success on the platform is increasingly a matter of a great looking thumbnail and an attention grabbing title. The more the platform provides real-time statistics, the more content creators have to create click bait just to survive.
The Data Team at the Economist highlights our irrational decision making with respect to our technology. In an article titled How much would you pay to keep using Google?", the authors report on a study that attempts to identify how much value free, online services actually deliver. The curious way of measuring this is by asking people how much they would have to be paid to give up those services for a year. The services measured included music, messaging, video, social media, email, and search (as well as others). The responses were all in the thousands of dollars per year. That is, people wanted to be paid thousands of dollars per year to not use those services. The irony, of course, is that these same people (and most of humanity no doubt) would not pay for access to those services, they expect the services to be free and yet to be paid to not use them. This irrational behaviour is a large part of why the internet is rampant with expoitative behaviour from businesses and people.
An article at Entrepreneur.com, 10 Ways Technology Hijacks Your Behavior, discusses how nudges and addictive design mold and shape our behaviour. The article discusses the positive potential, everything from discovering new restaurants to giving us access to products and services from literally anywhere on the globe. But the article also points out that the reality so far falls more on the side of those who want to shape our behaviour in ways we don't want by taking advantage of short-circuits in our brains. If we want to realize the positive potential, we will have to control it for ourselves.
The former Design Ethicist at Google has created The Center for Humane Technology to discuss how social media is deliberately designed to consume ever greater amounts of our time and attention. This is because the users are not the customers, rather their attention is the product. The more time users spend on the site, the more ads users see, and the more money the company makes.
In our View
In the coming years humanity has big national and global challenges to tackle. The latest and most comprehensive study of the economic impact of the melting arctic is that without drastic changes in how humanity behaves, this melting will cost the economy $70 trillion. How are we going to overcome challenges this big if we can't concentrate?
Shankar Vedantum, host of the Hidden Brain podcast on National Public Radio, and Cal Newport, author of Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, discuss Deep Work. Deep Work is work that requires sustained focus and concentration, such as innovation and creativity. By contrast, Shallow Work is work consisting mostly of high volumes of small tasks and multi-tasking. Deep work is increasingly valuable in an informational economy and shallow work is the work most likely to be automated. One of our modern challenges is that even small amounts of distraction leave an "attentional residue" that prevents deep work for a suprisingly long time after the distraction - no matter how short the distraction. Even small acts, like quickly checking for new notifications on social media feeds, are deeply distracting.
Author, philosopher and neuroscientist Sam Harris and auther and academic Zeynep Tufekci discuss the implications and consequences of surveillance capitalism in the podcast Persuasion and Control. In the podcast they consider how capitalism based on mass surveillance can slip easily into authoritarianism. They also discuss how social media platforms where the user is not the customer leverage our baser instincts to grab and hold our attention. In particular, the emotion of anger is used to get us to spend more time "on site" viewing more ads. What will be the consequences of a generation raised on anger so that they can be persuaded to buy 0.003% more shoes per person?
Matthew Crawford in The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction highlights that we live in an "attention economy" not an "information economy" because attention is the scarce, valuable resource. He importantly observes that trading in attention does not create value, rather it concentrates wealth. In building his case, he examines skilled practitioners in the practice of their craft. Craftsmen practice and improve their skill by controlling and limiting distraction from their environment in order to better attend to their craft. As much as a right to privacy, Crawford proposes that we need a right to "not be addressed". That is, we need to be able to turn off the constant and psychologically crafted demands on our attention. "In monetizing attention, we now have to pay to get it back."
Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman's book Thinking Fast and Slow describes how we all have a fast, intuitive, and emotional system and a slower, more deliberate, and thoughtful system. To use our thoughtful side, we must plan ahead to avoid losing control to the impulsive side.
The book Nudge describes how subtle details of choice presentation can have huge consequences on what we ultimately choose.
The phenomenon of Present Shock describes a feeling of the loss of sequential thought, that everything is happening now, that pausing to breathe means risking missing something vital, and is brought on by hyper-connectedness.
Freakonomics was first a book and is now a meme. It shows how misaligned incentives can have startling and far-reaching side effects, like when the user of an Internet service and the customer of that same service are different people.