Don’t Let Your (Technology) Tools Use You

“In an information-rich world, the wealth of information means a dearth of something else:
a scarcity of whatever it is that information consumes.
What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients.
Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention and a need to allocate
that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it.”
Herbert Simon

***

A shovel is just a shovel. You shovel things with it. You can break up weeds and dirt. (You can also whack someone with it.) I’m not sure I’ve seen a shovel used for much else.

Modern technological tools aren’t really like that.

What is an iPhone, functionally? Sure, it’s got the phone thing down, but it’s also a GPS, a note-taker, an emailer, a text messager, a newspaper, a video-game device, a taxi-calling service, a flashlight, a web browser, a library, a book…you get the point. It does a lot.

This all seems pretty wonderful. To perform those functions 20 years ago, you needed a map and a sense of direction, a notepad, a personal computer, a cell phone, an actual newspaper, a Playstation, a phone and the willingness to talk to a person, an actual flashlight, an actual library, an actual book…you get the point. As Mark Andreessen puts it, the world is being eaten by software. One simple (looking) device and a host of software can perform the functions served by a bunch of big clunky tools of the past.

So far, we’ve been convinced that use of the New Tools is mostly “upside,” that our embrace of them should be wholehearted. Much of this is for good reason. Do you remember how awful using a map was? Yuck.

The problem is that our New Tools are winning the battle of attention. We’ve gotten to the point where the tools use us as much as we use them. This new reality means we need to re-examine our relationship with our New Tools.

Don't Let Your Tools Use You

Down the Rabbit Hole

Here’s a typical situation.

You’re on your computer finishing the client presentation you have to give in two days. Your phone lights up and makes a chimney noise — you’ve got a text message. “Hey, have you seen that new Dracula movie?” asks your friend. It only takes a few messages before the two of you begin to disagree on whether Transylvania is actually a real place. Off to Google!

After a few quick clicks, you get to Wikipedia, which tells you that yes, Transylvania is a region of Romania which the author Bram Stoker used as Count Dracula’s birthplace. Reading the Wikipedia entry costs you about 20 minutes. As you read, you find out that Bram Stoker was actually Irish. Irish! An Irish guy wrote Dracula? How did I not know this? Curiosity stoked, you look up Irish novelists, the history of Gothic literature, the original vampire stories…down and down the rabbit hole you go.

Eventually your thirst for trivia is exhausted, and you close the Wikipedia tab to text your friend how wrong they are in regards to Transylvania. You click the Home button to leave your text conversation, which lets you see the Twitter icon. I wonder how many people retweeted my awesome joke about ventriloquism? You pull it up and start “The Scroll.” Hah! Greg is hilarious. Are you serious, Bill Gates? Damn — I wish I read as much as Shane Parrish. You go and go. Your buddy tweets a link to an interesting-looking article about millennials — “10 Ways Millennials are Ruining the Workplace”. God, they are so self-absorbed. Click.

You decide to check Facebook and see if that girl from the cocktail party on Friday commented on your status. She didn’t, but Wow, Susanne went to Hawaii? You look at 35 pictures Susanne posted in her first three hours in Hawaii. Wait, who’s that guy she’s with? You click his name and go to his Facebook page. On down the rabbit hole you fall…

Now it’s been two hours since you left your presentation to respond to the text message, and you find yourself physically tired from the rapid scanning and clicking, scanning and clicking, scanning and clicking of the past two hours. Sad, you go get a coffee, go for a short walk, and decide: Now, I will focus. No more distraction.

Ten minutes in, your phone buzzes. That girl from the cocktail party commented on your status…

Attention for Sale

We’ve all been there. When we come up for air, it can feel like the aftermath of a mob crowd. What did I just do?

The tools we’re now addicted to have been engineered for a simple purpose: To keep us addicted to them. The service they provide is secondary to the addiction. Yes, Facebook is a networking tool. Yes, Twitter is a communication tool. Yes, Instagram is an excellent food-photography tool. But unless they get us hooked and keep us hooked, their business models are broken.

Don’t believe us?

Take stock of the metrics by which people value or assess these companies. Clicks. Views. Engagement. Return visits. Length of stay. The primary source of value for these products is how much you use them and what they can sell to you while you’re there. Increasing their value is a simple (but not easy) proposition: Either get usage up or figure out more effective ways to sell to you while you’re there.

As Herbert Simon might have predicted, our attention is for sale, and we’re ceding it a little at a time as the tools get better and better at fulfilling their function. There’s a version of natural selection going on, where the only consumer technology products that survive are the enormously addictive ones. The trait which produces maximum fitness is addictiveness itself. If you’re not using a tool constantly, it has no value to advertisers or data sellers, and thus they cannot raise capital to survive. And even if it’s an app or tool that you buy, one that you have to pay money for upfront, they must hook you on Version 1 if you’re going to be expected to buy Versions 2, 3, and 4.

This ecosystem ensures that each generation of consumer tech products – hardware or software – gets better and better at keeping you hooked. These services have learned, through a process of evolution, to drown users in positive feedback and create intense habitual usage. They must – because any other outcome is death. Facebook doesn’t want you to go on once a month to catch up on your correspondence. You must be engaged. The service does not care whether it’s unnecessarily eating into your life.

Snap Back to Reality

It’s up to us to take our lives back then. We must comprehend that the New Tools have a tremendous downside in their loss of focused attention, and that we’re giving it up willingly in a sort of Faustian bargain for entertainment, connectedness, and novelty.

Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi pioneered the concept of Flow, where we enter an enjoyable state of rapt attention to our work and produce a high level of creative output. It’s a wonderful feeling, but the New Tools have learned to provide the same sensation without the actual results. We don’t end up with a book, or a presentation, or a speech, or a quilt, or a hand-crafted table. We end up two hours later in the day.

***

The first step towards a solution must be to understand the reality of this new ecosystem.

It follows Garrett Hardin’s “First Law of Ecology”: You can never merely do one thing. The New Tools are not like the Old Tools, where you pick up the shovel, do your shoveling, and then put the shovel back in the garage. The iPhone is not designed that way. It’s designed to keep you going, as are most of the other New Tools. You probably won’t send one text. You probably won’t watch one video. You probably won’t read one article. You’re not supposed to!

The rational response to this new reality depends a lot on who you are and what you need the tools for. Some people can get rid of 50% or more of their New Tools very easily. You don’t have to toss out your iPhone for a StarTAC, but because software is doing the real work, you can purposefully reduce the capability of the hardware by reducing your exposure to certain software.

As you shed certain tools, expect a homeostatic response from your network. Don’t be mistaken: If you’re a Snapchatter or an Instagrammer or simply an avid texter, getting rid of those services will give rise to consternation. They are, after all, networking tools. Your network will notice. You’ll need a bit of courage to face your friends and tell them, with a straight face, that you won’t be Instagramming anymore because you’re afraid of falling down the rabbit hole. But if you’ve got the courage, you’ll probably find that after a week or two of adjustment your life will go on just fine.

The second and more mild type of response would be to appreciate the chain-smoking nature of these products and to use them more judiciously. Understand that every time you look at your iPhone or connect to the Internet, the rabbit hole is there waiting for you to tumble down. If you can grasp that, you’ll realize that you need to be suspicious of the “quick check.” Either learn to batch Internet and phone time into concentrated blocks or slowly re-learn how to ignore the desire to follow up on every little impulse that comes to mind. (Or preferably, do both.)

A big part of this is turning off any sort of “push” notification, which must be the most effective attention-diverter ever invented by humanity. A push notification is anything that draws your attention to the tool without your conscious input. It’s when your phone buzzes for a text message, or an image comes on the screen when you get an email, or your phone tells you that you’ve got a Facebook comment. Anything that desperately induces you to engage. You need to turn them off. (Yes, including text message notifications – your friends will get used to waiting).

E-mail can be the worst offender; it’s the earliest and still one of the most effective digital rabbit holes. To push back, close your email client when you’re not using it. That way, you’ll have to open it to send or read an email. Then go ahead and change the settings on your phone’s email client so you have to “fetch” emails yourself, rather than having them pushed at you. Turn off anything that tells you an email has arrived.

Once you stop being notified by your tools, you can start to engage with them on your own terms and focus on your real work for a change; focus on the stuff actually producing some value in your life and in the world. When the big stuff is done, you can give yourself a half-hour or an hour to check your Facebook page, check your Instagram page, follow up on Wikipedia, check your emails, and respond to your text messages. This isn’t as good a solution as deleting many of the apps altogether, but it does allow you to engage with these tools on your own terms.

However you choose to address the world of New Tools, you’re way ahead if you simply recognize their power over your attention. Getting lost in hyperlinks and Facebook feeds doesn’t mean you’re weak, it just means the tools you’re using are designed, at their core, to help you get lost. Instead of allowing yourself to go to work for them, resolve to make them work for you.