Designed to distract

Modern technology, from smart phones to websites, is not designed to help us focus and can hinder our attempts to live mindfully. What can we do about it?

Have you ever found yourself in the weird part of YouTube and asked yourself “How did I get here?!”?

Do you check Facebook during a free moment, then an hour later you’re still there, checking out the holiday pics of someone you met at a party 2 years ago and haven’t spoken to since?

Does it sometimes feel like you spend more time sifting through and unsubscribing from marketing emails than in the company of family and friends?

Well you’re not alone. And there’s a simple reason for that.


Modern technology is not only distracting, it’s actually designed to be that way.

Our devices are designed to distract. Smart phones, tablets, laptops, and now watches distract us with constant notifications sent by our apps.

Websites, social media, and online services are designed to distract, with clickbait and advertisements.

We expect everything online to be free of charge. We buy more devices to get online in more ways because they are cheap. Instead we end up paying for all of this with our time, our attention, and our personal data. Commercial websites need to keep you around long enough to throw adverts at you, because that’s how they get paid. Even services which use a subscription-based model need to keep you hooked: if you’re not using a service frequently then you won’t want to keep paying for it.

Tech firms have spent billions on designing software which distracts you and keeps you distracted. This is no secret: a recent book, Hooked: how to build habit-forming products, explicitly describes how to build software in this way. You probably have enough going on in your life without further distractions, but your devices always demand more of your time.

In a sense this problem has been with us for a long time: as far back as the 1940s, the advertising industry has been transmitting onto television screens in our homes, persuading us to buy things we don’t really need and didn’t want. But in our digital age the technology has become more interactive and hence more addictive. The interactivity of modern technology was supposed to make us active users, placing us in the driving seat instead of just passively consuming. But our behaviour is being manipulated and now our devices are driving us.


Fighting back

With tech companies and news websites investing billions to get us hooked, and succeeding, we need to fight back to defend ourselves. But we don’t have to get angry at these companies, to protest, to boycott, or revolt. We can change our own personal behaviour.

I am not suggesting we throw out all our devices and go and live on a tropical island, though it may be possible for a lucky few! Most of us need and want to use technology, to keep in touch, to get work done, and to access information and services. For most of us, to become anti-technology, a Neo-Luddite, would be a complete over-reaction. I for one feel privileged to be alive at a time of such swift technological progress. The World Wide Web and mobile computing have in many ways improved our lives, but the way we currently use these technologies is not entirely healthy.

We each need to invest a little time and effort ourselves to get ourselves unhooked, and then devise techniques to live our lives with freedom and control rather than dancing to the tune of our devices. We can do this by training ourselves to recognise when we are getting hooked, and putting in place good habits to regulate our use of technology. By developing mindful awareness of our use of technology, our behaviour will naturally improve.


This is not simple. The Buddhist monks of Plum Village follow a rule that they should not go “on to the Internet alone without another monk next to him as a protection against getting lost in toxic Websites”. Even an ordained monk or nun, trained in mindfulness, who has built his discipline over years of practice may struggle to remain focused when exposed to modern devices and websites! Those of us without a monk to sit with us when we go online, are going to need all the help we can get!

So in addition to developing our awareness and changing our behaviour, we can make changes to our technological environment. Some websites, apps and devices are designed to be less distracting than others – as consumers, we can choose to use those. And the software developers, entrepreneurs, designers, writers, engineers, and marketers amongst us can contribute in a more active way: by creating new alternatives which are less distracting, enabling us to be more focused and mindful.


Introducing

I have chosen to contribute to healthier use of technology by starting this blog, mindful.technology, as an exploration of techniques and tools to help us focus when using modern devices. I will be writing about my own experiences and experiments, and also reviewing apps, books, and websites that can help us stay mindful while using technology.

I am writing partly to myself, as someone who works with technology on a daily basis and enjoys doing so, but wants to become more self-disciplined and able to avoid distractions. I hope you will join me on this journey.

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