The Cost of Spending Your Time

Attention theft on an industrial scale and nowhere to report it stolen
Attention theft on an industrial scale and nowhere to report it stolen

Do you have enough hours in the day? I struggle to quantify the benefits of time spent on social media versus the time lost or perhaps stolen. While not wishing to return to the slower, more time-intensive alternatives of the past, I question how much the compromise of our attention is outweighed by the convenience of social media.

But it’s more than just that: in terms of effective communication, an area in which I coach and train, the ability of people to think for themselves and build and maintain functional relationships appears to be eroding, both inter- and intra-generation. And I’m not pointing the finger at the ‘younger generation’; the current challenge to the status quo is coming from Millennials who are revolting against the theft of their attention and taking back control of their time and relationships.

I’m proud to say that it was my daughter, studying Digital Media at Leeds, who recommended Reclaiming Conversations – The Power of Talk in a Digital Age by Shirley Turkle. She has put some changes in place and inspired us to do the same. Through reading it, I’ve discovered that Millennials are tired of their parents setting rules around social medial that they are consistently breaking themselves. I have been inspired by Turkle’s book and Driving to Distraction, a Radio 4 programme presented by historian Rhys Jones recently.

In her previous book Alone Together, “Turkle’s subjects were shockingly quick to settle for the feeling of being cared for and, similarly, to prefer the sense of community that social media deliver because it comes without the hazards and commitments of a real-world community. In her interviews, again and again, Turkle observed a deep disappointment with human beings, who are flawed and forgetful, needy and unpredictable, in ways that machines are wired not to be.”  Jonathan Franzen

This is rather frightening, don’t you think? The temptation to turn to technology which is so much easier than the hard work of human interaction means that tired parents are often raising children without the life skill of conversation. I used to hear parents at the school gate bemoan their sons spending hours on devices concluding, “What can you do?” I mostly managed to stay silent but was internally seething as I recognised that at some stage these boys would seek lifelong intimate relationships. How they would struggle with initial conversations let alone sustain them if this skill was not passed down in the home. How will they deal with interviews for university and careers, with communication at work, if they have not learned the art of conversation? Millennials blame us for our poor stewardship of technology and rightly so.

This is picked up in Reclaiming Conversations, where the focus is more on the dissatisfaction with technology reported by her recent interview subjects.

Driven to Distraction claims that it’s a known fact that large technology companies have researched and implemented ways to monetise procrastination and are systematically stealing our attention on an industrialised scale. “There is an entire industry devoted to taking our attention, and most of us don’t even realise it,” says historian Rhys Jones.

A Harvard Professor and Psychologist, Burrhus Frederic Skinner’s experiments with pigeons showed that they will become more addicted to pecking a button that delivers seeds randomly, a bit like a slot machine. Tim Wu, a professor at Columbia University has built on this idea and explains how the compulsion to check in is called a “variable reward schedule”. So, we’re being trained or conditioned by these app companies.

Attention theft on an industrial scale and nowhere to report it stolen.

James Williams, reformed attention thief of Google, has started a group called ‘Time Well Spent’ with others who understand the psychology behind attention.

Using a favourite story of a colour-blind man receiving the gift of special sunglasses that enable him to see the world more clearly, he says that’s what this technology needs to be.

It should help us do the things we want to do, to help us love one another better, not degrade and erode our relationships.

“We should desire worlds where just trying to capture someone’s attention for the sake of it is seen as an indignity and something approaching a form of evil,”

says Williams.

Capture is an interesting choice of word; have we really released our attention into the wild, to be taken by a greedy stranger? He goes on to say, “These companies say they want to improve our lives but what they’re taking from us when they take attention is far more precious than anything else in the world.”

“But what if attention isn’t a commodity to be bought and sold, but something we have control over? Maybe it isn’t the tech industries that need to change, but us.”

Rhys Jones concludes.

What can we do? As one who is passionate about communication and our world, I have a few ideas. It’s time for us to take back control and “to reassert ourselves, behave like adults and put technology in its place” to quote Jonathan Franzen’s article in his review of Reclaiming Conversations. I have decided to schedule time and manage when and how I will spend time on my devices. For example, I don’t have Facebook installed on my phone and all my notifications are switched off. My choice.

I believe the important people in my life will be quick enough to understand and know how to get hold of me if it’s urgent. But most importantly, I believe we should choose to schedule time with people who are important to us. Then, we need to be truly present with them in the room. Finally, I’m going to appreciate the time I spend alone, to work creatively, to relax, perhaps even to daydream and dabble with the prospect of boredom. Who knows what may happen?

Who knows what magic will result in true presence?
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