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  • Isaac Cheifetz

Data Distractions Galore, June 3, 2019

Five years ago, I reviewed a book by former Microsoft researcher Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, titled “The Distraction Addiction.’’ He described how resisting the overflow of cheap information may be even harder for our human nature than junk food.


According to Pang: “Information technologies are inescapable. They’re part of how you work, how you keep in touch, how your kids play, how you think and remember. They clamor for your time and crave your attention... They promise to be helpful and supportive, to make you smarter and more efficient, but too often they leave you feeling busier, distracted and dull”.


I concluded that review by writing “The brain is the addictive organ, not the stomach. If we have such difficulty controlling our food consumption, how hard will it be to control our information consumption, which mainlines directly to the brain?”


In the intervening years, the dilemma of social media’s hold on people has accelerated. It turns out the flow of information on social media is a problem for adults, but the pull of social media and gaming is even bigger for teenagers.


A 2017 article in The Atlantic, “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?,” described the pernicious effect accessing social media on smartphones is having on this generation of adolescents.


In the words of the author, Jean Twenge, “Born between 1995 and 2012, members of this [“iGen”] generation are growing up with smartphones, have an Instagram account before they start high school, and do not remember a time before the internet…The arrival of the smartphone has radically changed every aspect of teenagers’ lives, from the nature of their social interactions to their mental health... There is compelling evidence that the devices we’ve placed in young people’s hands are having profound effects on their lives—and making them seriously unhappy…”


Perhaps the future of people’s interactions with smartphones will mirror that of people’s relationship with food. As a society, we will be consuming more social media than we “need,” just as we consume more food. Some will “eat to live” information. Some will live to eat. Some will occasionally binge. And some will have addictions.


What will solutions to this dilemma look like? One Minneapolis company, Better You (www.betteryou.ai), uses artificial intelligence to help people use their smartphone for healthier purposes. BetterYou is a digital coach that maps how people spend their time on the device back to their goals and values. It works in the background to identify when you’re off track and will use reminders to bring you back. According to its founder, Sean Higgins: “We believe the easiest way to be that person you want to see in the mirror tomorrow, is to make the best use of that time, today.”


But even with these sorts of self-help apps, it is difficult not to forecast a period of moderate dystopia in which individual self-discipline is challenged by algorithmic marketers seeking to erode that self-discipline, to spend more time on a platform and ultimately purchase more. It may take decades or even centuries for society to recover its equilibrium in the face of the disruptions of the Age of Social Networking and AI.

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