Why Don’t You? Switching off in Silicon Valley

When I was a kid there was a programme on tv called Why Don’t You ?  , the catchphrase being: Why don’t you just switch off your television set and go and do something less boring instead ?

A great idea from some well meaning  and morally motivated producers in the BBC, but did it work ? Not in my experience , because even then in its now laughably infant form , television was addictive and parents would despair at the long hours their children languished in front of it. They lamented their declining literacy skills. As Willy Wonka said in Charlie in The Chocolate Factory : ” What did children do before television? They used to read!”

So plus ca change and plus la meme chose we might say. Perhaps, except in those days in the 198o’s television was only broadcast at certain times of day. It was limited in its availability : there was a nine o’clock watershed , a cut off at midnight and nothing except soccer, snooker and cricket on Saturday afternoons. Guess what ? I used to close the curtains on sunny afternoons and watch cricket and snooker. I drew the line at soccer.

We now live in a world where stimulation through our multiple devices is unlimited in its availability. a world that is switched on and connected all the time . A world where we are permanently distracted and perpetually overloaded with information and seduced by advertising. A world in which we are literally addicted to  technological distraction. Most adults find it difficult to control our addiction so how can we expect this of our children? The impact on social relationships and family communication is evident, without any study to prove it. So I was interested to read this week about something of a counter revolution taking place in Silicon Valley led by some of the creators of  the most highly addictive and popular smartphone and social media  features : the ‘pull to refresh mechanism’ and the  Facebook ‘like’ button.

A number of high achieving technological innovators now turned ‘refusenik’ were interviewed in The Guardian article : Our minds can be hijacked: the tech insiders who fear a smartphone dystopia  

Essentially some of these men are experiencing a disaffection with the addictive power of smartphones and feedback loops such as the ‘like ‘ button, so much so that they are disconnecting from the internet, attempting to limit their own 24 hour access – even using other apps to do so. Some even regret their own inventions. Tech industry critic and former Google employee Tristan Harris compares the pull to refresh mechanism to a slot machine:’Each time you’re swiping down …….You don’t know what’s coming next. Sometimes its a beautiful photo. Sometimes its just an ad’. Loren Brichter who invented the feature regrets the way he is constantly distracted from his family by the allure of his smartphone and wonders whether ‘anything I’ve done has made a  net positive impact on society or humanity at all’. He wouldn’t be the first person to regret his invention. Einstein apparently regretted his part in the creation of the atom bomb.

According to the  website of the advocacy group Time Well Spent  that Harris set up with former fellow Google employee James Williams: ‘In the Attention Economy, technology and media are designed to maximize our screen time. ‘ It isn’t surprising that they also claim that ‘ Advertising-fueled technology platforms are caught in a race to grab our attention. ‘ What Time Well Spent is seeking to do is to persuade designers to use technology differently, in order to enrich our lives rather than steal them. They offer a challenge and practical design solutions as to how technology can be redesigned to put our best interests first. Its a little like Why Don’t You ?