For how long will technology control our lives?

The average person checks their phone 150 times a day.
Feb 8, 2017 | 5min read

Tristan Harris was a Product Philosopher at Google until 2016 where he studied how technology affects a billion people’s attention. He was also part of Stanford Persuasive Tech Lab. So did the founder of Instagram and many designers at Facebook. B J Fogg, the founder of this lab invented in 1990 captology. His main goal is to create insight into how computing products, from websites to mobile phone software, can be designed to change what people believe and what they do. Another former student of this lab, Nir Eyal, says

“Innovators create products designed to persuade people to do what we want them to do. We call these people “users” and even if we don’t say it out loud, we secretly dream of seeing  them all to the last, completely hooked to what we create.”

It’s like opening Pandora’s box

Millions of hours are stolen from people’s life because of this persuasive technology. Tristan Harris says

“the average person checks their phone 150 times a day.”

Are they conscious choices? I don’t think so. Why do we do this? Simple. Because our phone has the answer to all our questions.

  1. You’re lost on the street. You check google maps or city mapper to find your way.
  2. You’re looking for an address. You open your browser and google it.
  3. You want to text your friend. You open iMessage, WhatsApp, Viber or Messenger.
  4. You’re expecting an important email. You open your emails every now and then.
  5. You need to plan a weekend in one month or a meet up with a friend. You check your agenda.
  6. You use Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat (oh my…) and Twitter.
  7. You need to set your alarm clock because buying an alarm clock is so old school (relax, I (still) don’t have one).
  8. You check the weather to know the temperature. But people tend to forget it’s not a thermometer but the weather forecast.
  9. You play some games.
  10. You listen to music, watch some youtube video, etc.

And of course, some of the reasons I described above are good ones. You need to get information from your product. But here’s where it gets tricky because once you unlocked your phone, it’s like opening Pandora’s box. For a minute, you were googling an address, and the next thing you know you’re scrolling down on your Facebook news feed, replying to a comment or texting back your mum. And I haven’t even considered all the notifications you receive on your lock screen (news, social media, messages, etc.) that you can see by easily swiping right to get in the app, and well, get stuck. Now let’s say you repeat those actions during the day. How many times? Some actions are rare, some are often, some are frequent. But would you agree to say 50 is a correct and fair number (so an average of 5 times per action)? It’s not so bad considering the usefulness of some actions. So you checked your phone 50 times during the day. So what about the 100 other times ?! I repeat, what are you doing the 100 other times! Let’s go through simple math. 150 times a day of 15h (considering you sleep 9 hours), means 10 times every 1h.

It means 1 time every 6min.

That’s how we’re sucked deep down in the system. Don’t get me wrong, though, those technological innovations are important and a big part of the social media and the digital revolution. New technologies always reshaped society. The same newspaper, television, etc. did. Yet, the only problem with these new innovations is to constantly interrupt you. As if by default the product and/or applications you are using have one goal, interrupting you. Then we wonder why our generation has more concentration and memories troubles.

According to Tristan Harris it takes

“23min to refocus after an interruption.”

But again any information, any data, any product used in a wrong way will harm its user. The worst part here is it’s harming us unconsciously. Some would say it’s the tool. Some would say it’s the user. It’s both! We need smarter technology and users. According to IDC Research about a billion people wake up every morning, and one of the first things they do is checking their phones. I’m sure you do it. I used to do it. And it turns out people don’t feel so good about it. Does it mean we want a world with 1 billion lousy mornings every single day?

“It’s easier to fool people than to convince them that they’ve been fooled.” — Unknown.

Take control of our phones back

Tristan Harris was helping Google designing phones to make us lose more time. He has now quit Google and is investing his time in Design for Time Well Spent. A movement to align technology with our humanity. You could tell me, disable all your notifications, or do not use a smartphone. This is where I would say you’re wrong. Innovations are part of us, of our society and our future. But it’s not a reason to accept it as it is. We need to fight this revolution until we get better products. In the meantime, we have to take control of our phones back. What I did, for a start, is disabling my wifi and internet data before going to bed. When I wake up in the morning I’m not harassed by notifications on my lock screen (news, messages, etc.). You could also put your phone in airplane mode. I don’t. In case of emergency, I’d like to be reachable. During the day, my iPhone is on “Do Not Disturb” mode. You know this moon that appears in the status bar? All calls, messages, notifications I received when my phone is locked are silenced. This is peace, thus better productivity. The only calls that are not silenced are the ones from my favourites list and repeated calls from the same person within three minutes. Oh, and if you can, do not hesitate to put your phone away from your sight. I have also organised all my applications into one page, with categories titles explaining why I would open this application. For example, “contact” for Messenger, WhatsApp, etc. “Go” for Google Maps, Uber, Momondo, etc. “Read” for the news. Do you get the idea? This triggers me of doing more conscious choices before opening any application. You could also use Moment to track your phone usage. I’m not a big fan of this because once you have downloaded it, you start thinking of your phone usage and try to decrease the frequency on purpose. But, isn’t this what we’re trying to achieve here?

We need to take a look at how we’re structuring our future

In the Attention Economy, technology and media are designed to maximize our screen-time. But what if they were designed to help us live by our values?

What if news and media companies were creating content that enriched our lives, vs. catering to our most base instincts for clicks?

What if social platforms were designed to help us create our ideal social lives, instead of to maximize time-on site and “likes”?

What if dating apps measured their success in how well they helped us find what we’re looking for instead of in number of swipes?

As technology gets more and more engaging, and as Artificial Intelligence and Virtual Reality become more and more prevalent in our day-to-day lives we need to take a look at how we’re structuring our future.

Dear reader, those wise words are an introduction to this beautiful poetic short film by  Max Stossel and Sander van DjikThis Panda Is Dancing . Take some time to think about it. Seriously.

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