Wednesday, 15 February 2017

The race to the bottom of the brain stem (2017 Term 1 Week 3)

I have been thinking a lot recently about how technology hijacks our psychological vulnerabilities. Don't get me wrong - I am an advocate of digital technology on many levels, including the potential that ICT brings to broaden and deepen the learning experience of our children. However, in recent months I have been increasingly concerned about the impact that mobile digital technology - most specifically, the smartphone - is having on our ability to sustain mental focus, to be fully present in the moment, and to engage in deep thought. 

On a number of occasions in the last year I have written about the struggle to maintain focused attention, following reading Cal Newport's Deep Work. This book sensitised me to become more aware of my own tendency towards scattered thought and distraction. At a number of points I have tried to make a deliberate effort to avoid succumbing to the siren call of the buzzing device and flashing screen, and have been surprised, disappointed and perturbed to see my own lack of self-control. 

However, in recent days I have gained new insight into my struggles, through reading about the work of Tristan Harris, former Design Ethicist at Google. His point, as outlined in a profile with The Atlantic is razor-sharp: it is very hard to develop self-control when thousands of the smartest people in the world are on the other side of the screen trying to break down whatever responsibility I can maintain.

I commend the two pieces linked above to you. Each will take about 15 minutes to read, but together they will provide fascinating and disturbing insights into the ways that apps and digital platforms are designed to 'hijack our psychological vulnerabilities'. It is all there: the power of intermittent variable rewards to draw us back; the 'bottomless bowl of soup' that is the newsfeed; the sense of social reciprocity that compels us to quickly respond; the never-ending fear of missing something; and so on. As I read and reflected on these pieces, I recognised my own experience; you are likely to recognise your own.

The reality is that the quest of all the brilliant people at Google, Facebook, and Apple, is to make a better product; frequently, the better product is defined as the one that will engage the consumer more. There are many thousands of brilliant minds working on how best to fixate me on their product - and I have only my own willpower to resist them. Small wonder that I struggle.

From Harris' point of view, there is a moral and ethical imperative for the technology companies to work towards products that enable and promote human flourishing - that make for a better life, rather than a more screen-fixated life. I wish him and his like-minded collaborators all the best with their endeavours.

My more pressing agenda has to do with my sphere of influence: myself; my family; and my school. How is it that we can train ourselves not to be the puppet on a string, jerking and twitching in response to the stimulus that buzzes and flashes? In the articles linked above, Harris suggests a number of steps that we can put into practice, many of which involve customising our screens, alerts and notifications. I commend them to your consideration and implementation. 

The key issue to me is being sensitised to the challenge. I doubt that many of us would know how often we check our phones, or how short the gap is between us finding a moment of spare time and reaching for the phone, or how many minutes per week are spent scrolling through things that really don't matter, or how often we disengage from the people we are actually with for the sake of people loosely linked through the screen. Why not monitor yourself this week? 

Apart from anything else, your discussion of these matters with your children will have more credibility if they can see you taking it seriously for yourself.


  1. Thanks Tim for this commentary. I think the topic is both timely and compelling. As much as I love technology I also find myself worrying about the implications these behavioral trait changes we're starting to see, will have on the next generation.

  2. I really like you post,Thanks for your sharing.