Our attention is under siege.
Powerful corporate interests, chief among them Google, Facebook, Amazon and Microsoft, are invested in hijacking our attention as much as possible. It’s good for their bottom line to keep us hooked to our devices for as long and as often as they can, using every psychological hack in the book to do so.
Our willpower is often no match for mechanisms which are deliberately designed to keep us addicted, so that we provide these companies’ corporate clients with as much “big data” and fodder for future predictions and economic nudging as possible. Former employees and whistleblowers have frequently likened these technologies to slot machines or even cigarettes – they’re precisely calibrated to get you craving your next fix of connection.
And so, somewhere along the line, our devices have become our masters rather than our servants; we frequently have the uncomfortable sensation that we’re not using them – they’re using us. Neurological and psychological research show that they’re rewiring the very neural pathways in our brains so that we desire the quick; the easy; the endless stimuli of clickbait-browsing and feed-refreshing, to an extent that focusing on one text, one line of complex argument, feels difficult.
No wonder twenty first-century political discourse seems to tend towards the simplistic, the divisive, the Tweetworthy. We’re outsourcing our brains and our culture to the net – and losing our critical distance and our capacity for empathy in the process.
How much more pressing, then, are these concerns for those young adults who are digital natives, who have never experienced life unplugged, and whose entire social lives have been entwined with social media since childhood?
Recent sociological and psychological research shows that the requirement to be always on, always connected, and always available can often come at a very heavy price – especially when young people constantly feel that they have to compare themselves with their peers’ curated lives online.
Many long for boundaries even as they struggle to put their devices aside – but the behavioural addictions and the need for social validation cultivated by these technologies are simply too strong.
We know how this feels – we’ve been there too – but we can at least remember how it was when things were different; we can recollect a life before smartphones and Web 2.0.
We know that connection doesn’t have to be like this, and that the most valuable conversations are those which allow us to be vulnerable; those which take place face to face. We know that solitary contemplation is the fundament of creativity, and that solitude is the opposite of loneliness – we can still value what it means to be alone with our thoughts, rather than fearing the void.
This is why we need to exercise mentorship, and find a way forward which doesn’t excise the benefits of these new technologies, but which allows us to subordinate them to our interests and to our own good – not that of the big tech companies.
The first step towards safeguarding democracy is enabling our youngest citizens to think critically, creatively and calmly about the role of technology in society, helping them to reclaim their attention and focus their thoughts.
To do so, we need to model the very behaviour that we want them to emulate – if you don’t want your students to check their phones in class, don’t check yours in departmental meetings(!). We need to learn to set devices aside through practising digital minimalism, and demonstrate that disconnection is not only possible; it’s beneficial for body and mind.
Only then can we begin to build a better future – together, present in the moment, rather than half-absent, glued to our screens…