Is big tech winning the battle for our attention?

Let’s be honest. Tech addiction isn’t new. I’m sure I’m not the only one with siblings whose childhood backseat bickering amounted to more than one gray and white Nintendo Game Boy being launched out of a moving window into the hedges off some New England highway. That’s why I’m not willing to wag the proverbial finger at Google and Apple after both tech giants went on extensive global press tours touting recently developed OS features designed to fight our addiction to apps and programs and screen time. For me these press tours do not constitute an admission of guilt in this smartphone-dependent world; they speak to a very old problem – one which we’ve all struggled with in one way or another. 

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that big tech is completely off the hook as it were. Timelines aside, it’s always been about grabbing your attention and making it undivided. It’s just a lot easier now than it was in July of 1989 when the first Nintendo Game Boy hit North American store shelves. Menus are more interactive and features more customizable. Rewards in gameplay aren’t only based on skills acquisition anymore with the advent of ‘loot box’ gaming, a format considered gambling by several EU countries. But if the general and the obscure are not insidious enough for your tastes, let’s move onto the specific.

It was reported by The Guardian’s Sam Levin in May 2017 that Facebook’s targeted ads, which are based on the user’s interests as well as the interests of their closest contacts, were even tailored to trigger the commercial interests of emotionally vulnerable teenagers. This Orwellian advertising is in-step with Facebook’s infamous “emotion study” that came to light a little more than four-years ago. In this instance, according to The Guardian’s Charles Arthur, Facebook “broke the rules of tests on human subjects.”

“The experiment hid certain elements from 689,003 peoples’ news feed – about 0.04% of users, or 1 in 2,500 – over the course of one week in 2012. The experiment hid “a small percentage” of emotional words from peoples’ news feeds, without their knowledge, to test what effect that had on the statuses or “Likes” that they then posted or reacted to,” Arthur said.

“The results found that, contrary to expectation, peoples’ emotions were reinforced by what they saw – what the researchers called “emotional contagion”.”

And like with any infection, treatment begins with the inflicted.

While Apple’s and Google’s recent foray into behavioural management is welcomed and timely, in the end it’s up to you to delete a few apps, set time limits on others, and decide when to just turn off the screen.

By David MacDonald