Summer holidays are full of comforting clichés: barbecues, friends and family, a drink in one hand. But if you're anything like most people, you probably find yourself periodically checking your phone during all the relaxation — maybe too much.
That, too, is now its own sort of cliché. The way in which digital technology shapes or saps attention is a popular topic of conversation. It isn't just users of tech either. Recently, the dominant tech companies — Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Apple, and others — have all started to add features meant to help people curb or control their use of tech. Just this week, Instagram announced a new feature that will tell users when they've seen all posts from the past 48 hours. The implication? Without that little prompt, we might keep checking indefinitely.
But such features present an odd bind. Digital tech has gotten so good at catering to our hardwired desire for novelty and feedback, the very companies who have made billions exploiting it are now trying to get their own customers to use their products less. Like liquor companies that tell you to enjoy their product responsibly — all the while selling you on how much better your life is with it — tech is now in the odd position of asking you to stop using the very thing they hooked you on.
The metaphors we use to talk about digital distraction are so often phrased in terms of health or purity. When we give in to the urge to check our phone, it is akin to eating junk food or a thing that is making us sick. Recently, the inventor of the infinite scroll — the design that constantly serves up new content as you scroll down a webpage — said the feature leads to an obesity of the mind.
But it's worth asking whether digital things are inherently attention-sapping, or if platforms have just been designed that way. Older internet users, for example, can often recall a time when the web felt like a limitless source of information rather than an overwhelming barrage of notifications and news. Perhaps it's just the effect of getting used to something, but the web certainly doesn't feel like that anymore.
What changed is the rise of the algorithmic feed. As the average number of friends on social networks increased, it became too much to try and scroll through everything; you were bound to miss something. So companies started to shift to feeds sorted by what they assumed you wanted to see. It's a practical approach.
But it also had the perverse effect of encouraging you to keep checking your feeds over and over. After all, each time you are bound to see something new. In trying to make things easier or more manageable, tech companies ended up making their services more addictive — and whether or not this was an inadvertent effect or a deliberate choice is something at least worth considering.
Now, new tools are supposed to help. Apple is introducing features in iOS 12 to help track screen time. Google's next version of Android will do the same. Facebook is working on similar ideas to help people spend their time well. Meanwhile, there is a veritable cottage industry of apps like Moment that also track usage, block sites or access to the web, not to mention the never-ending stream of op-eds and essays telling us to put down our phones.
Yet, for all this emerging chatter, the fundamental nature of the algorithmic feed really hasn't changed much. Instagram may now tell you that you've seen two days' worth of posts, but most people check every day. The company wants to help — but not too much, almost as if they are stuck between caring for their users and continuing to exploit their attention.
Recently, many people on Twitter noted that it was the five-year anniversary of Google Reader shutting down. The service was an RSS reader that collected stories from whatever websites one chose to follow. It offered a clear difference from the algorithmic feed of today: Not only did you choose what to see, it appeared in chronological order, and you could conveniently just "mark all as read" once your backlog became overwhelming.
It was a model of dealing with information online that centered on a crucial concept: users controlling their own experience. And it also suggests why new tools from the biggest tech companies meant to help don't really address the fundamental problem: that the shift to an attention-based economy is likely always going to be at odds with someone's best interests.
In giving up the Google Reader model in favor of Facebook's or Twitter's curated feeds, we've ceded control of our online experiences. And despite whatever new features the tech giants are implementing, with their bottom lines so dependent on gaming our attention, it's unlikely they'll be willing to give it back.