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The Time-Well-Spent Internet

“Can’t put your device down?” this New York Times article asks, almost rhetorically. “That’s by design.”

Last month, we highlighted the importance of digging deep to shut out the digital noise. This week, we want to make the point that sometimes, the odds can really be stacked against you.

“The ‘I don’t have enough willpower’ conversation misses the fact that there are 1,000 people on the other side of the screen whose job is to break down the self-regulation that you have,” contextualises Tristan Harris, who spent three years as a design ethicist and product philosopher at Google. There, he became an expert on “how technology hijacks our psychological vulnerabilities” to wield a direct influence on our attention and behaviour.

His Medium essay is currently making its rounds on the Internet. It exposes the ways (Harris lists ten) in which user design exploits our cognitive and emotional weaknesses to keep us glued to our devices and returning to apps and websites — often against our better judgment or desire.

For instance: ‘read’ receipts on Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp leverage upon our innate sense of social reciprocity (the obligation to return a favour or gesture, like replying ‘You’re welcome’ to a ‘Thank you,’ or responding to an email) and rouse a spurious sense of urgency. Bottomless feeds and intermittent variable rewards keep us scrolling through Instagram or checking (and re-checking) our Twitter account; they behave like slot machines that, by keeping us guessing when and where our next chemical burst might come from, don’t let us stray too far or for too long. The notifications that greet us in the morning reframe our experience from ‘waking up right now’ to ‘all the things I missed since yesterday,’ and this reframing subtly circumscribes our reality — the options that we need aren’t necessarily the options we are presented with, but because we are not presented with them, it’s hard to know they are what we need.

All this is just for starters; the full essay is worth every second of its 12-minute read.

Time is of the essence here. Harris envisions an Internet and a technological infrastructure that can enable users to “live their life and spend time well, while gaining their loyalty and business,” in a movement appropriately titled ‘Time Well Spent.’ This new way of negotiating technology is predicated on thoughtful design; for design can encourage attention, privilege a respect for our time and needs, and help us focus on what matters to us as individuals (Joe Edelman has some suggestions).

Talking about and sharing these ideas is the first step towards flexing our human agency and making a change. Let’s start measuring the success of a product not by app engagement or the amount of time spent in-app, but by what it contributes to people’s lives.