Reconnecting with the world around us

Words: Andrew Mears
Visuals: Conor Macbride

I am tempted to pick up my phone as I type these words. I recently posted a photo to my Instagram account and updated my profile pictures with some images that my friend took of me at a wine tasting room in Oregon. I can’t stop thinking about how many people saw it and who liked it.

There is no-one who I truly care to see my photos. No, I just want to see the little red icon appear over the ‘heart’ tab in the bottom tray of the Instagram app.

For some reason, keeping track of this little notification feels more important than writing an article about the importance of limiting my screen time to regain focus, connect with my inner self and be present in my environment, which is what I’m meant to be doing right now.

One second. I need to check to see if I have any notifications:

…Nothing. Let’s continue.

I feel this way because these platforms are designed to keep me hooked. From the colors selected to the swipe-down-to-refresh feature, platform designers and their financial stakeholders want me to look at my phone as much as possible. They don’t care if I spend less time exercising or having dinner with family. Their priority is to maximize the time I spend on their platform, even if it means my spending 60 minutes before bed getting lost in Instagram Discover’s content. I’m very guilty of watching people play with slime and glitter.

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The emergence of the ‘attention economy’ is why they want to get (and keep) me hooked. The idea behind the attention economy is simple: the more attention businesses can acquire from their audience, the more money they can make through advertising and investors. Advertisers like to partner with platforms where there are a lot of people. Investors want to invest their money in platforms that are growing. These financial incentives drive platforms such as Facebook and YouTube are paying designers to come up with tactics and strategies that keep people hooked and coming back.

The attention economy comes with consequences. Studies about the effects that too much screen time has on mental health, well-being, and social development have made their way into popular conversation. According to these studies, heavy smartphone users are more likely to be depressed and lack soft skills such as reading body language. A simple Google search for ‘mental health and screens’ will bring up countless articles and research around the subject.

Underlying the mental health issue is the core problem screen time creates: it takes away our opportunities for real world connection. Connecting with oneself by way of self reflecting, connecting with others by way of communicating empathetically and authentically, and connecting with one’s environment by way of being present and aware of one’s surroundings.

Due to the growing interest in these issues, several non-profit organizations and leaders from the tech community have begun challenging the way the attention economy has been configured by implementing tools and strategies to educate the decision makers behind the businesses that are capitalizing off of people’s attention.

The Center for Human Technology (TCHT), a non-profit that works with designers and tech leaders on ways to rethink how we connect with our world summarizes how several mobile platforms are redefining our lives: “Snapchat turns conversations into streaks redefining how children measure friendship. Instagram glorifies the picture-perfect life, eroding our self worth. Facebook segregates us into echo chambers, fragmenting our communities. YouTube autoplays the next video within seconds, even if it eats into our sleep.”

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While most of the conversations happening are around the correlation between screen time and mental health, TCHT believes that this issue is much bigger.

“Whether you care about being effective in your own life, being there for those you care about, or societal issues like climate change or poverty – addressing these challenges depends on our ability to sustain attention on the things that matter most,” said Max Stossel, Head of Content and Storytelling at TCHT.

“This is so urgent because this problem is underneath every single problem we face. When technology is constantly shredding our attention, isolating us, or fragmenting us away from a common reality and truth, it poses an existential threat to all of us.”

TCHT isn’t against technology and they aren’t trying to make people throw away their phones. Instead, they are focusing on the idea of “time well spent.” Their idea is to help companies design platforms that give people the opportunity to take control over their media use, disconnect when they need to, and engage in real world environments and situations. TCHT is currently working with Headspace, Duolingo, Asana, AdBlock, Hinge, and Flux to name a few.

Some ways that TCHT’s partners are making their products better for end users are worth mentioning: Hinge is a dating app designed to help each user spend 80% less time swiping matches by limiting the number of daily date suggestions. Flux is a desktop app that sets your screen to a warmer tone to help peoples’ eyes rest when accessing their computer prior to bed.

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Though these are small changes, they can have a big impact end users’ quality of life, and more designers are needed to think about how they can inspire their users to disconnect with their devices and reconnect with the world.

“All the problems with the attention economy are only going to get worse unless we fundamentally change the structure of how it operates,” said Max.

“The good news is, we're all in the same boat together. No one wants to live in a world where we can't agree, everyone is outraged, and we can't pay attention long enough to solve problems that threaten our survival. Which means all of us are actually on the same team, team humanity, to re-align technology work for our interests again.”

Andrew Mears is a communications strategist at one of the world’s leading creative agencies. As a designer, his purpose is to design concepts and systems that address the deepest realms of human-to-human emotional vulnerability and interconnectivity.