Tech & the tug-of-war for your attention

Lundagård’s Evan Farbstein – both a tech insider and a tech skeptic – explains how tech companies use their incredible resources to wage a tug-of-war on your attention, and encourages you to examine how you use tech (or how tech uses you).

Before you call me “luddite,” or “tech-totalitarian,” or “cynic,” or “naïve,” – before you accuse me of being pro-tech or anti-tech – let me say this:

Tech platforms, like humans, are tangles of goodness and badness.

I work in tech – or I work near tech, though I don’t touch the code itself. So I’m on the outskirts of the in-group, a tech mudblood, and from this fence-straddled perch I’ve been eavesdropping on two stories.

Story #1 is that we’re living in the early stages of a tech-enabled utopia of ease, connectedness, certainty, and efficiency. If you let the techies keep at it, your needs and desires will someday be no more than a tap, click, or swipe away.

Story #2 is that these same technologies, while they’re claiming to give us ease, connectedness, etc., are actually eroding our privacies and re-shaping our brains to their purposes.

In the past few years, story #2 has begun to dominate the cultural conversation around tech. Thanks to series like Black Mirror (2011-2019), documentaries like The Social Dilemma (2020), and books like Shoshana Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism (2019), most of us are now aware that being online is synonymous with being digitally surveilled.

“Once we searched Google,” Zuboff wrote, “now Google searches us.”

And we’re not happy about it. Big Tech has gone on trial, both in the court of public opinion and, in some countries, in actual court. There are difficult questions to be answered, and the biggest among them: is there a viable tech business model besides targeted advertising? And, if not, are we willing to continue trading privacy for free or improved services?

I can’t answer those questions. Nobody can, yet. But while the big slow-moving institutions of Culture and Politics work it out, I want to encourage us as individuals to examine the relationship we have to the tech in our lives.

There’s a saying in the tech industry that only two products have “users,” drugs and technologies.

Think of the tech platforms you use every day. What do you get from them? What do they take from you? YouTube can be a source of entertainment or education; its recommendation algorithm can also hold you under its influence for hours, feeding you the brain’s equivalent of high-fructose corn syrup. Instagram can connect you to friends around the world; it can also enable your inferiority complex or FOMO.

The problem is that even when we recognize that aspects of our tech usage are unhealthy, it can still be hard to break ourselves out of those habits – or addictions.

There’s a saying in the tech industry that only two products have “users,” drugs and technologies. If you’ve ever binged on YouTube-watching, or Tweet-reading, or Instagram-scrolling, then you’d understand why that’s not just a coincidence in wording. Tech can offer that same pain-numbing effect, those bursts of joy, a fleeting escape – and when you come out of it, you feel a hangover-like shame.

Tech creators want us to believe that their inventions are meant to improve our lives, and that if we can’t use their creations responsibly, it’s own fault. “Tech is a tool,” a young techie told me, comparing tech to fire by saying that both can be used for good or bad.

Yes, us tech-users bear some responsibility for our binges. We’re the ones clicking play, or at least not stopping the auto-play. So there’s some truth to the “tech is a tool” argument – but it’s also a convenient stance for the tech creators to have, because it frees them from responsibility for the consequences of their creations.

And what they’ve created, put simply, is a tug-of-war over your attention. On one side is you; on the other, tech. It’s an incredibly uneven match-up. Tech companies have ridiculous amounts of money and talent to use in pursuit of becoming as addictive as possible. Behavioral psychology is weaponized to exploit flaws in your reasoning, and “dark patterns” – a manipulative type of design – pretend to give you options while sneakily steering you toward a certain outcome.

What they demand is attention. They need it – but it’s ours to give to them.

The strongest tugger on tech’s tug-of-war team, though, is you yourself: your past behavior, as represented by what you click on, the words you use, how long you spend on certain pages. From this data, the platform’s algorithms can infer your interests, your personality, and even your mood, and use this knowledge to keep you on the platform.

Shoshana Zuboff, in describing how these powerful prediction machines came to be, said that governments have been slow to reign in tech because power this invisible yet this pervasive is unprecedented. We didn’t recognize it – how could we legislate it? 

But I do recognize this kind of power. I learned about it at Hebrew school when I was a kid. It’s the same power that the god of the Old Testament had: all-knowing, sometimes exploitative, sometimes merciful, always demanding, and entirely one-sided – God knows us, but we can’t know god.

Similarly, these all-knowing tech companies keep their algorithms shrouded in secrecy. We can’t learn exactly how these algorithms operate. What we can do, when using them, is to remember what we want to take from them, while keeping score of the sacrifices they demand in return. 

And what they demand is attention. They need it – but it’s ours to give to them. That tug-of-war game might be totally unfair, but you can still win an unwinnable game by choosing not to play it. I’m not saying don’t ever go online (you’re probably reading this online). What I’m saying is to be deliberate about choosing when to let yourself get caught in tech’s gravitational pull, and to be aware that that’s what’s happening.

So when you feel jerked-around by the super-powered tug-of-war machine at the other end of that rope, you’ll know it’s time to stop playing: close the laptop, put your phone on airplane mode. Take your attention – the most valuable and human thing you have – and point it away from a screen, and out at the world.

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