On a Friday evening a few months ago, we were at S’s having a proper workweek wine down, and S and Mike D reviewed the rule that there’s no YouTube allowed upstairs when kids are there. What triggered it? Linzi went upstairs, and and based on what she saw, she was unsure if what was playing on YouTube was appropriate for all kids in the room. So, S relays what’s up when it comes to YouTube: when you play a video on YouTube, unless you turn it off or change the selection yourself when you’re done, YouTube automatically begins showing “related” content to what you just saw. Most of us already know this, but I love when I hear it from “science”…
…and that science came serendipitously in the form of a TED Radio Hour I heard the following Sunday. Host Guy Raz introduces us to something most of us are hyper-aware of, and yet almost not conscious of at all: the vulnerability of our attention (one of our most prized commodities) — and everyone else’s battle for it, primarily, Big Tech.
In the first segment, sociologist Zeynep Tufekci explains how YouTube’s advertising algorithms work so that one minute you’re watching a Samantha Bee PSA telling the Harvey Weinstein’s of the world to keep it in their pants, and nine minutes later you’re listening to a rant by Alex Jones about chemtrails…Tufekci highlights that each successive video playing on YouTube is more extreme than the previous, and it’s all about the algorithm, which is optimized to hold our attention by seducing us with unique (and often conspiratorial) content. The formula actually works to present us — and everyone else — with extreme ideas. Tufecki’s point isn’t necessarily that YouTube’s algorithm is bad, it’s that our attention is a finite resource, and we’re allowing Silicon Valley to horde it. The point is that we all only have 24 hours per day, and our attention is a valuable — that much of the world is vying for as a commodity during all of those 24 hours. How do we get it back? The Hour continues with several suggestions from a few noted TED Talks.
I’ll be the first to admit that tech integration is a source of constant internal conflict. The scroll is the perfect example…The silly thought that I might be able to just quickly check Facebook, really quickly, while my daughter flossed and brushed her teeth, or that I could just open Instagram and post a photo and then put the phone away. Ha! Five minutes becomes 20, and suddenly my daughter is already in bed, and I’m still “just one more minute honey!” as I scroll, scroll, scroll. Ah, those were the days. Actually they weren’t…they were really long tortured days of sleep deprivation and lowered productivity. For me, opening social media at night is like falling down a big black hole, and unfortunately, so is much of our digital activity.
Now, I am by no means a social media addict — I myself am an Ever-Waser if there ever was one* — so Facebook, Instagram and Twitter get sprinkled into my diet somewhere between occasionally and regularly, much like non-urgent emails and texts, and I try to find the perfect solution for my working single mama life. Sadly, the same has become of my creative life as well. While I do write on the computer, and that is creative, analog activities I used to pursue more purposefully have continued to wane. We tried a weekly Tech Shabbat last winter, but that was constantly interrupted by working on the weekends or events like grocery delivery problems during bomb cyclones. I, like many of you, am still trying to find the right balance of digital and analog in this modern life.
If you’re around my age, this essay by Emma Rathbone from The New Yorker‘s Shouts & Murmurs will probably resonate — I love reading it and listening to it. One part I can visualize from my own adolescence goes a little something like this:
…then wander up to the kitchen, where you’d get caught up staring at a refrigerator magnet. Then, for no reason, you’d do a little dance. You’d wonder if you should expand that dance right then and there. “Maybe I’ll direct music videos,” you’d say to yourself. But you’d have no way to follow up or to look it up; you’d just be standing in the deafening quiet of your kitchen at midday, alone with your thoughts.”
Raz points out that most Americans are exposed to between 4 and 10,000 ads per day. As of January 2017, the average person was spending around two hours per day on social media, and that number continues to increase. In fact, just last week Facebook and Instagram have added activity dashboards to indicate how long you’ve been on the apps, as Facebook itself has admitted in its own commissioned report that mindless scrolling makes users less happy, while interacting (sharing and commenting) correlates with a greater sense of well-being.
That brings me to my most important point: reclaiming your time. Like Congresswoman Maxine Waters, there comes a time when we — as women and as mothers — recognize that we are worthy of the space we occupy, and note our power and ability to “reclaim” our time. If you’re not there yet, read further. We’re in this journey together, so if you think you aren’t ready yet, we’re taking you with us — and your kids are coming, too.
Here are the other data-packed segments. If you don’t have time to listen to the whole hour, try a few of the individual talks.
Be Bored (and Brilliant)
Whenever Goose doesn’t like something — whether it’s disturbing or it makes her angry or whatever — she calls it “boring”. “Boring” is a bad word in her mind, however, recently many people — smart people — are begging us to get bored, and to allow our children to be bored. Because what happens when we are bored — is magical, it’s wonderful, it’s brilliant. Manoush Zomorodi, a tech podcast host focusing on how technology affects humanity is an expert on the subject, and even she admits that own her kids rarely have the opportunity for boredom, constantly stimulated as they are by camp or devices. So she started this project: Bored and Brilliant. Zomorodi enlightens us to the beauty of “the default mode” and daydreaming, where we connect disparate ideas, we solve problems, we create our personal narratives and we set goals. The average person checks email 74 times per day, and switches tasks on the computer 566. What Zomorodi describes about our dependence on our devices and our habitual cycle of being wired — compared with her experiment to coax people into living in “default” mode a little more often, is both enlightening and motivating. She hopes to inspire us to take more control over our digital activity than Silicon Valley.
Pay Attention to Your Attention
Neuroscientist Amishi Jha uses her time on stage to highlight how we pay attention (or don’t) and how we can improve that. She points out that we mind-wander on average about 50 percent of the time — and explores the reason, as well as the difference between daydreaming and mindwandering. She then goes on to expound on our current experiments — both informal and formal— with mindfulness and meditation, which have been on the rise for the past ten years. Jha and other scientists are answering questions about the connection between attention and mindfulness.
What is the Cost of Infinite Distractions?
Tristan Harris, a former Googler, design ethicist, and co-founder of The Center for Humane Technology is pushing for more ethical technology and reforming “the attention economy”. Harris argues for tech solutions that are humane and work with our our human architecture so that we can balance being “on” and distracted all the time, and being “off” and experiencing FOMO. He uses slot machines as an analogy for how we react to our devices, notifications and “being on” all the time. Allowing so many notifications and having such a high number of options at our fingertips, is actually conditioning us, he says, like Pavlov’s dogs. We are being conditioned to self-interrupt every 3.5 minutes (and that’s based on a study from 2008). Oy! What happens when our capacity, all 2 billion of us, for thinking and choosing is corrupted?
How Can We Repair the Mistakes of the Digital Era?
Jaron Lanier, founder of a startup that created the first virtual reality products, is a computer scientist, technology writer, and composer seeking a more humanistic approach toward technology. Lanier explains how Facebook, Google and like companies engage in what some call advertising, but he believes is really behavior modification (or manipulation). He argues for an era of “Peak Internet” that would parallel what has been coined as “Peak TV”, and also predicts the dystopia we may inherit if we don’t change the direction of the Internet.
Full TED Talk: Jaron Lanier: How we need to remake the internet
There are clearly a number of suggestions for how we change our relationship to digital activity so that we have more control over it. Each person has to decide how best to do this for themselves and their families. I don’t have the answer, because what I do for myself and my family will not necessarily fit exactly for anyone else and their families. BUT, we can provide you some resources to determine if you’d like to make some changes, and if so, some resources for inspiration in doing so.
How to Reframe & Manage Your Digital Life
Time-In to Other Activities
I don’t think I need to tell you what to do with your time. If you’re a mom, and most of you are, or are the manager of your home in any way, you likely have a long list of what you’d do with more time. However, there are some ideas out there for how to gain more time, so that you can do all those things you daydream about while washing the dishes, walking your kid to school, doing your budget or commuting to work.
Ironically, mindfulness meditation is one way to gain more time. The benefits of it, in addition to helping us to focus our attention in a purposeful way, therefore, get more done in less time, are worth their own post another time. However, if you’re inclined to use an app as opposed to learning from a teacher, or from books and articles, then apps are a good way to go. Here are a few:
Calm – Calm offers a very structured approach to meditating with an app. There’s a Daily Calm, plus 7-day and 21-day programs. There are also over 1,000 guided mediations. There is a free trial, but it costs money after that.
Headspace – Like Calm, Headspace offers a very structured approach to meditation, and appears to be geared toward reducing stress. There are some options within the app for free, but they are limited. It seems like a good option for beginners.
Insight Timer – Insight Timer offers over 11,000 free guided meditations and over 2,000 teachers. It’s ideal for people who like to have a lot of control over how they meditate, but also offers a number of different courses. I’ll admit this is the meditation app I use. I was reluctant to try meditating with an app, but because I’d had a decade of meditation practice prior, this turns out to be great fit for me.
Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics by 10% Happier – This was created with journalist Dan Harris who offers a no-nonsense approach to mindfulness and meditation. He’s a skeptic-turned-believer in meditation, who aims to take the “woo-woo” out of mindfulness and encourage people to get….you guessed it…10% happier by meditating.
The Art of Managing the Untouchable Day — and Email Expectations – Celeste Headlee, Author, Speaker, Journalist and Musician
I’m Quantitative Futurist Amy Webb, and This Is How I Work – Amy Webb, Founder of the Future Today Institute
The Pomodoro Technique – A simple approach to productivity for those who work on a computer ALL. DARN. DAY.
The Tech Shabbat
For More Creativity and Face-to-Face Social Time
Growing Up the Internet – Tifffany Schlain, founder of the Webby Awards and a co-founder of the International Academy of Digital Arts and Sciences, in conversation with Krista Tippett on On Being
Other Resources to Consider
How much is ‘too much time’ on social media? – BBC Future
Timeout from Screen Time
Although it sounds counterintuitive, Manoush Zomorodi had participants in her bored and brilliant study use an app for determining and managing how they were using their devices. Below are a few we found, but there are plenty more out there. I cannot recommend any of these, because this route is not a good fit for me or my family. I only need to know what time I go to bed each night to know whether I’ve abused digital media or not that day. However, I can see how these apps would be useful to other people with different needs and objectives.
Moment – Moment allows you to track you usage and/or set limits for yourself. You can kick yourself off your iPad or iPhone once you’ve reached your limit as well. It has a family option, and there’s even a coach setting to help wean you off too much usage. It’s currently only available for iOS, but you can sign up for notifications about Android development.
Checky – Checky appears to be very simple. It keeps track of how many times you check your phone a day. It’s available in both the App Store and Google Play. This app is all about increasing your awareness of mindless checking, and is from the same developer as Calm, the meditation app.
Menthal – Menthal was developed by a team of computer scientists and psychologists at the University of Bonn. Their research was based on behavior — phone use and other non-substance addictions such as gambling.
AntiSocial – AntiSocial (for Android) appears to help you become more aware of your device and app usage by tracking that and comparing it to others’ use. It also allows you to block apps and restrict usage, but may need to use your location.
Freedom – Freedom is geared toward people trying to be more productive on their devices (including desktop) by eliminating distractions. It blocks apps and can even block the internet. It seems to be a solution for writers, journalists, editors, software engineers, students and other people who need to get work done on their computers, but need to find a workaround for the constant tech distractions. Apparently you can bundle AntiSocial and Freedom together as companion apps. It works for both Windows and Mac.
QualityTime – Quality Time is geared toward visual thinkers who want to know how and when they’re losing time to social media and our devices: it’s laid-out like a timeline. It also tracks usage by individual app. Android only.
AppUsage – If your biggest concern is about apps — downloading them, using them, blocking them, over-using them (as opposed to checking your phone and email) — then this is the app for you. If you’re seeking complex reports, notifications and activity histories, this is the tracker for you. It’s only available on Android, and it does contains ads. However, it apparently only monitors apps when you are using the app and the screen is on.
AppDetox – True to the name, AppDetox helps you to create criteria for slowing down your app usage. It has an app blocker, and is supposedly often used by parents for their children.
I know that making decisions is exhausting. And thinking about how we use our time involves a whole set of decisions to be made. But if nothing else, I hope you found this information as engaging as did, and that you’ve found it was also worth your time.
*”The Ever-Wasers insist that at any moment in modernity something like this is going on, and that a new way of organizing data and connecting users is always thrilling to some and chilling to others—that something like this is going on is exactly what makes it a modern moment.” The Information: How the Internet gets inside us by Adam Gopnik, The New Yorker.