Attention and Optimism

With the growing awareness of the risks around the internet and how much of our attention it is taking, It’s understandable that this is accompanied with deep levels of scepticism and pessimism from many quarters. Data breaches, deep fakes, device addiction and social media abuse are just some of the things that people are rightly worried about.

I’m one of the few people I know who is optimistic about how things are progressing. Don’t get me wrong – there are massive problems to be solved, and the fallout will be something our society will be dealing with for years to come. But I also believe there are good reasons to think things are changing for the better.

There are little signs – new Amazon Alexa devices come with the ability to turn the microphone off, Instagram is trialling changes in the way likes are displayed – but top of this list is the work of Tristan Harris. After training at Stanford’s Persuasive Technology Lab, Harris worked as a Design Ethicist at Google where he was perhaps most famous for this slide deck, highlighting some of the risks associated with using Google’s products. He now operates independently, running the Centre for Humane Technology whose stated aim is to help us “understand our most vulnerable human instincts so we can design compassionately to protect them from abuse.” Find out more via Tristan Harris’ TED talks, their excellent podcast “Your Undivided Attention”, or at their website.

There’s a long way to go, but it seems that there is some movement in a positive direction. If you look at the suppression of information around climate change from large oil companies, or the tobacco industry continuing to challenge links with cancer, in past cases big business has taken multiple decades to take responsibility for their actions – it seems that the tech companies are waking up rather quicker. While the internet itself might be 30 years old, public access to Facebook only started in 2006, and Instagram only launched in 2010 – these businesses are still very new. Could they do more? Unquestionably. But there are encouraging signs.

In the meantime, we can all take steps ourselves. Set a limit on your phone for daily social media access. Use DuckDuckGo as your search engine. Think twice before sharing things online – if you’re not sure whether something is actually true or not, it takes a few seconds to check at snopes.com or a similar factchecking website. Don’t have your phone by the bed at night. Use something like RescueTime to monitor your internet usage … lots more ideas here.

Ultimately of course, the internet and everything on it are tools.

It’s up to each of us to educate ourselves, and make conscious decisions on how we choose to use those tools.