ESTIMATED READING TIME – 6 MINUTES
This is an extract from Anastasia Dedyukhina’s new book “Homo distractus: How we’ve lost our humanity and freedom to machines and how we can fight to get it back” (working title). To be the first one to know when the book is published, please leave your email below this post.
In my teenage days, Russian boys dreamt of becoming oil billionaires, and girls hoped to become oligarch’s wives or lovers (no, there wasn’t much equality back in the days). Twenty years after though, boys and girls in Russia, UK, USA, France, China and pretty much everywhere in the world hope to become billionaires by building and selling a tech start-up.
Tech companies have replaced oil barons not only in teenage dreams, but also in the global markets. Five top businesses by market capitalization are now Silicon Valley enterprises; six of the world's wealthiest 10 people made their money in technology.
Our time and attention is what feeds this growth. It became the main currency of today’s economy.
The new gods
In pre-historic times, humans were constantly short of energy, and so needed to constantly hunt (or gather) to refill it. This consumed most of their time. As civilization progressed and we discovered and started using fire, and then electricity, we were able to gain more energy from food, and consequently, more free time.
We didn’t make a good use of it though. This time and energy is now occupied by very large internet corporations. Technology has become a new kind of religion, and the ultimate goal of these new gods is to keep us online as much as they can.
We check our devices between 85 and 221 times per day, scroll down pre-loaded Facebook and Youtube feeds, buy things online even when don’t need them, and continue to endlessly consume. We can’t concentrate anymore without being interrupted every five minutes by a notification. And even if researchers like Gloria Mark from University of California, Irvine, show that even a short interruption significantly increases the time needed to complete a task and is bad for your productivity, we are increasingly encouraged to be distracted – in the office and outside of it. In fact, we are told that we are being productive and agile by trying to be everything everywhere.
Click and keep
A number of studies by Microsoft, Google and similar companies show that the longer we stay online, the more likely we are to buy something. The more internet pages we browse through, the more advertising an internet company can show us, and so the more money they make.
As a result, their KPIs, their success metrics, and designers’ bonuses, are usually tied to how much time we spend on a website or app, and not on how productive or focused we are. Their objective is to keep us online as long as possible, and to make us click on the ad links as much as possible. And they succeed, if one can call it a success. As per Ofcom report, 49% of Brits admit to spend more time online than originally intended.
In “the click economy”, each click is rewarded by money. And usually it’s Google and Facebook who benefit from a “click economy” the most, since they have the most visitors.
The business models that require people’s attention and clicking on links require a constant flow of new content, which needs to be produced at a top speed. The goal of many popular sites is therefore no longer information, but the attention itself. The quality of this attention doesn’t matter, as long as people click.
Whereas there have been experiments to measure, how engaged and interested in the content visitors are, most advertising is still sold based on cpc (cost per click). Just because it’s the easier for a media planner (a person who decides, how ad dollars or pounds will be spent across different websites) to use one number to compare the costs of buying ads on different websites, even if the audience of these websites is completely different.
This is why both advertisements and article headlines get more extreme and nonsensical. You might have heard of the term “clickbait titles” since these are title that help generate clicks. “You won’t believe what happens next”, or “How one woman made $$$ in her bedroom” or “Your mom will hate this trick” are all examples of attention-grabbing titles that make you want to click, click, and click more.
Music videos, commercials, movies, and reality TV shows look like softcore porn: any kind of attention sells. Youtube star Tyler Oakley in a 4.7 millions views video seats in front of the camera with bottles of beers duct-taped to each of his hands and drinks them for about an hour, giggling. Doing similar gigs, Tyler earns hundreds of thousands pounds and enjoys 8 millions subscribers.
Digital economy feeds through your attention, at the same time putting the quality journalism in a difficult position of competing for the same click pounds or dollar with the most obnoxious websites.
The captivating design
In order to capture human attention, software companies design their products in a specific way. This has been described in detail in Adam Alter’s “Irresistible” and Nir Eyal’s “Hooked” books, as well as in Tristan Harris’s blog.
For instance, a popular game Candy Crush adapts to the time you spend playing: if you play a few minutes every day, tasks are easy. But the more time you spend playing, the more complicated they become. Anna, a client of mine who runs a beauty salon, admits she only managed to stop playing the game when she uninstalled it from her phone.
A pre-loaded newsfeed on Facebook or Youtube is another way to keep a visitor on the website for longer. Notifications are yet another powerful and cheap way to make you come back to your device over and over again. An app will keep sending you notifications, until your habit is formed, and you don’t need further reminders, and your behaviour becomes automatic.
No wonder that companies make it really difficult to change notifications settings. For instance, it takes 6 steps to change your notifications settings on Facebook. One of the key UX design principles says that every action should take a user as few steps as possible – so obviously Facebook isn’t very interested in helping you get rid of notifications.
What can you do?
We might have not noticed it yet, but most of us are already living in the matrix, where all our online experiences are pre-engineered, and distracted behaviour is encouraged to keep feeding the machine.
As in the movie, it starts with a realization. A good place to get your red pill is to start measuring, how much time you really spend online across all devices, and how much of this time is productive. I use a free version of Rescuetime browser extension to do that, and there are plenty of others to help.
I often find that my clients underestimate, how much time they spend online, by approximately two hours per day. This is a lot of time. This is one extra month per year you could get for things that matter. Do you complain that you don’t have time to do things that you’d like to? Here’s where your time goes.
If money is a stronger argument for you, you can do a quick calculation, how much distraction is costing you (also check Nielsen Norman’s work on the real costs of “free” online products like Gmail for businesses in distracted attention). For your back of the envelope calculation, simply multiply all the unproductive hours you’ve spent browsing by your hourly rate. This is the real money you’ve spent on being distracted.
This is an extract from Anastasia Dedyukhina’s new book “Homo distractus: How we’ve lost our humanity and freedom to machines and how we can fight to get it back” (working title). To be the first one to know when the book is published, please leave your email below.
How long can you stay focused on something without being distracted?
About a year ago, when I started writing my first book, I discovered I was not able to sit still and concentrate purely on writing as I used to years ago. Every 10-15 minutes I would suddenly remember to send an email to my insurance company, order a new book online (it’s so necessary for my research!), or feel an urge to check my email, as if I didn’t clean my inbox 10 minutes ago, or would just automatically open Facebook, not even realizing what I am doing. Then I would force myself to go back to writing, just to realize five minutes later that this particular phrase I have just written would make an awesome tweet, and go on Twitter to schedule it, and of course end up reading the feed. My brain was living a digital life of its own. Without noticing it, I became a perfect example of what constant mindless usage of technology does to you, a model digital procrastinator.
This clearly was not going anywhere. Given that the book I was writing was about digital detox, I thought it’s about time to start with myself and change my own behaviour before teaching others. I have previously given up my smartphone, and have happily lived without it for two years. Now it was time to review my relationship with my computer.
Sorting out my productivity turned out to be much harder than giving up the smartphone. When you don’t see something, it’s easier not to think about it, isn’t it? But the real challenge is to actually use your technology to work, but at the same time try not to get distracted. I experimented with multiple productivity strategies to fight digital procrastination, and found it all gets down to one simple truth – being honest with myself.
The early bird
I learned that the way I started my morning totally determined my day. Doing the most important thing first made the biggest difference. If I had enough energy for work and my eyes didn’t hurt from the previous night, I would sit down to computer straight after breakfast, and work on the book until lunch without checking anything online. I would start with something easy to get myself into the “flow”, and then gradually the work would catch up. As I felt my concentration decreasing, I would stand up, stretch, eat something, but would not allow myself to check internet until the work finishes.
Completing this one important thing in the morning gave me an incredible energy boost to do other things, and a deep satisfaction by myself even before lunch. On the other hand, if I tried tackling small things like sorting out emails first “for the peace of mind”, I ended up frustrated and not really having enough concentration to do the big thing afterwards.
If I didn’t feel energized in the morning, instead of chaining myself to computer (something I’ve done for years as “everyone is working!”) I started going for a walk. Finally, there were mornings when I just had to get some “info fix” and couldn’t resist an urge to open the computer for some news. In these cases, instead of browsing through social media feeds, I got myself to watch a TED talk while having a breakfast. This always gave me the right boost to start the work, yet not feeling a complete waste of time.
Willpower doesn’t work
Being honest to myself also helped me stop fully rely on the willpower to control digital habits. Psychologists say our willpower is a limited resource, which we deplete throughout the day as we take all sorts of decisions. Small decisions like “should I click on the link” or “should I reply to this email” deplete your willpower as much as life-changing decisions.
I had to be honest that there is no such thing as “I will just check if there’s anything important on Facebook”, and I am just not disciplined enough to do that. You never spend just two minutes on it. The best engineering minds of the century are constantly figuring out how to keep you longer on the website, as this is the way the company earns money: the longer you stay online, the more ads they show you, and the more likely you are to buy something. You either work, or you browse. Two are not compatible, and technology will always take advantage of you. My only way to stay productive was either to disable wifi or to use blocking apps, or to work from a café that didn’t have any internet connection. This small thing somehow made wonders to the brain, as if it said “Ok, since I can’t have my internet fix, let’s get some work done”.
Work less, do more
Most importantly, I allowed myself to work for a limited number of hours. With digital, we often feel that we could do more. Tech blurred the boundaries between work and private life. This leads to us never feeling really accomplished, never satisfied with the outcome of our work.
Inspired by a Japanese app developer Non Umemoto, who works for only 3 hours every day, I decided to try the same. I discovered that 3 hours can be a very short time if you are distracted, but quite a lot of time if you are fully present. I therefore I tried avoiding all distractions, even switching off completely my non-internet phone. This last action produced a sense of relief for the brain, as if one item on the agenda was gone.
Working for 3 hours daily also makes me prioritize, what I will be doing in these hours. Initially it felt very frustrating, as I was obviously not accomplishing anything, but the more I do it, the more I notice how my brain is learning to focus. Putting a time boundary in place helped relief the stress of a never-ending work, and gave me more strength to do things.
Now that my book is almost finished, I can share its biggest wisdom: listening to your own internal rhythms, in spite of what others tell, you, and putting your agenda above any tech solution is the ultimate recipe to fight digital procrastination.
Do you carry your phone around all day? In this tip, Anastasia explains why it's important to set up the boundaries, of when and where you are available and connected, and when/where not. As with any tool, there is space and time to use the technology, and she shares a few tricks of how to do that.
Let us know if you found this tip helpful by posting your comments below!
Augmented reality is here, and is already having a strong impact on everyone, including those who never played a video game in their lives and never heard about augmented reality.
Pokemon Go, a smartphone game that lets users catch imaginary figures of Pokemon (pronounced the same way in plural) on real streets, has become a global phenomenon in just a couple of weeks. It is dominating the Appstore, already boasts more users than Tinder and Twitter, and will be officially launching in the UK in a matter of days. Millions of gamers who got out of their rooms to browse through the real cities in search of virtual monsters mark the beginning of the new era for all of us, where the virtual and real worlds collide. And judging by the news from the past week, no one is ready for this collision and it will likely be quite painful.
The game in a nutshell
Pokemon Go uses the player's smartphone GPS data (similar to Google Maps) and camera to navigate them across the real streets and parks of the city or village in search for little virtual monsters. As a player moves along, she comes across different Pokemon, which she needs to capture. Some physical locations in the cities have been labelled by Niantic Inc, a Google split-off behind the game, as Pokestops -- places, where gamers can collect tools to capture more Pokemon. Players can also purchase the "lure modules" and place them in a Pokestop, which will attract the virtual figures to their area for 30 minutes, so they can capture even more Pokemon.
Once a player collected her Pokemon, she can train them in a local "gym" to get stronger and fight with Pokemon of other players.
Many gamers are enthusiastically sharing on social media that they are finally motivated to get into the streets instead of sitting in their homes, in search of new Pokemon, and even make real friends with strangers, who are on the hunt for monsters.
So why should you care? At the end of the day, this all sounds like an innocent fun for teenagers and kidults, who refuse to grow up. Except that it is not, and has already affected many more people around who have nothing to do with gaming.
What's going on?
The first worrying news is, of course, that the number of people staring at their phone screens all the time, while walking in the streets, will increase disproportionally. There have already been multiple reports of smaller and larger injuries, with players damaging themselves while trying to get a virtual figure and not noticing the traffic or change in the landscape. Drivers will now have to be even more attentive, as there'll be more players crossing the streets chasing a Pokemon and ignoring the cars. Let's hope not many of them will be in the driving seat.
Second, and even more disturbingly, the in-game "lure" feature has already been already reported as used by criminals to attract the players into the less crowded places with many Pokemon and rob them. The police in the US, where the game was released among the first, issued a warning to "keep behaving as you would do in a normal environment", advising players not to go by themselves to remote places, where they can be attacked. Easier said than done when you're on the hunt for a Pikachu.
Third, the life rhythm of many people who had nothing to do with gaming was disrupted, as physical locations defined as Pokestops and "gyms" in the game attracted players who tried catching Pokemon at all times of the day, including at night. Imagine waking up at 3am and seeing a group of people across your house furiously tapping their phones. The Northern Territory Police, Fire and Emergency Services in Australia issued a request to players not to go hunting inside the police station. So far Niantic Inc has not established the process of complaining and changing locations.
What we've learned so far
Over the last two weeks, we got yet another confirmation that software companies have an immense power to change the behaviour not only of single individuals, but also that of the masses. By simply placing a virtual figure next to a particular point, they can move thousands of people without any effort, disrupting the lives of businesses and humans. They might not still realize their own power, which isn't good news, because it means they aren't realizing their responsibility. Or they might realize it and only use it to earn money. Not good news either, let alone the fact that this power can be easily used and abused by criminals.
While the media is busy republishing the same press-release saying that the Pokemon Go is helping the gamers get into the real world, and hence helps their mental state, it's only a small part of the truth. What we actually witnessed is that people's brains getting totally confused with augmented reality. And this is only the beginning.
When the gaming company suggests we should "behave as normal", but claiming that is a hypocrisy at its worst or a total lack of understanding of how the human brain works. We are wired to look for unusual things, and Pokemon with their bright colours will be the first that our brain identifies. Not the "dangers" in the real world.
We all have certain "spacial maps" in our brains, according to which we navigate. Our brain is used to identify the obstacles and measure the distance to them. By stopping to use our side eyesight while staring at our phones, and stopping to rely on our sense of spacial awareness that has been developing for thousands of years, we put ourselves in the immense danger in the real world. A mobile phone is not an object that is capable to replace all of our 5 senses, and yet in the current version of the augmented reality this is what it encourages our brain to do. Again, all attempts to say that "people should behave normally" are simply a lie - you can not behave normally when your brain is overwhelmed and you are not using your normal perception channels.
Augmented reality as it is presented through Pokemon Go is not enhancing your life experience and perception, it is depriving you of your capabilities to react to the threats and opportunities of the real world.
Then again, the dopamine affect. Dopamine, the hormone of pleasure also associated with all sorts of addictions, gets released when we discover something new and unusual - and Pokemon Go perfectly fits the bill.
Add to that parents, who are clueless about what sort of things their kids are doing on their phones, as they "don't get this tech stuff" and we get a pretty apocalyptic picture.
What shall we do?
Don't get me wrong, I am not trying to say that Pokemon Go is an ultimate evil and needs to be prohibited. In fact, it's a very average and a rather raw game, which will be on its peak for a few months, until it's displaced by other, more sophisticated games.
However, the game release showed us that the power has shifted. Software companies now have as much (if not more) power as policy makers, but they don't have policies and procedures to prevent the harm they might do, except of "issuing a warning", which isn't doing anything. Our minds and behaviours are impacted in the strongest possible way, and our daily lives might be affected even if we have nothing to do with the above. And the worst thing, we aren't realizing it and keep enthusiastically experimenting on millions of people.
Perhaps it's time that we recognize that technology isn't just about "people having fun" or companies just earning money, but is actually bringing massive shifts to how each of us lives and how our society operates. Perhaps it's time to start talking about it in a constructive way in the public space - involving policy makers, media, lawyers, and of course, developers, who need to start thinking about the social consequences of their work and make it part of their daily jobs. Perhaps there need to be certain legal frameworks, and sociologists and emergency services need to be involved in the discussion before games like Pokemon Go get released. It's too big of an issue to run it as a worldwide an experiment.
Last week I spoke at the Future Health Summit in Dublin about flourishing in an age of digital distraction, the impact of tech on our minds and behavior, and what it means for the health industry. What should health tech industry keep in mind to make sure it is really making a change to people's lives? I hope you enjoy this recording kindly taken by Lawrence Ampofo from Digital Mindfulness.
We are working on a new video course on digital marketing in an age of digital distraction and wanted to share with you the first episode. This course is about how to do email marketing in an age of digital distraction, when your customers are overwhelmed by hundreds of messages coming their way. What might have worked 5 years ago doesn’t work today, but a lot of email marketers still do marketing in the old way, and repeat the old mistakes (or even what used not to be a mistake).
It is not simply a promo for the course, but also has some useful exercises, that you can start using today to improve your email marketing.
Once you've finished watching it, I'd love to hear your feedback!
Text by Taylah Donegan
With reportedly over 2 million people in South Korea considered to have an internet addiction (one of the highest numbers in the world), Koreans have finally started to notice the dangers of unbalanced use of devices. A number of popular TV entertainment shows are choosing to focus on the relationships between humans and technology.
On the 19th March 2016, Lee Sedol, a Korean champion in an ancient intellectual game of Go (or baduk), lost to the artificial intelligence program AlphaGo, produced by Google. The game that can last for several hours and has been likened to Chess in the West is one of the most popular ones in Korea, and Lee's setback was covered by the likes of Sky news and CNN.
In spite of his loss, Lee Sedol's popularity in Korea rose even more, especially amongst people who weren’t originally a fan of the game. His loss became a talking point in many Korean shows, and became the inspiration for an episode on a very popular TV show Running Man, which focused on Man vs Machine and tried to show how overdependent we have become on our devices,
Low tech challenges
Running Man is a Korean variety show that has been on the air for almost six years and has become a household name. The cast meet weekly to film the show which follows the format of small missions that lead into a final mission. This time, producers chose to give the cast a variety of tasks that highlighted just how dependent its citizens are on technology.
Missions such as making the members navigate themselves around the city without the use of a GPS caused a panic within cast members, in which several members exclaimed that they have never even used a map before in their lives. Interestingly, this issue was seen to not be generational, as oldest member Ji SukJin, who is 50 years old, had the most problems navigating himself around Seoul.
Other tasks included trying to win a match against a robotic arm in a game of balloon popping, and playing against a high tech computer in a popular Korean word association game, which in many ways resembled Lee Sedol’s match against the AlphaGo.
They resisted, but then enjoyed it
The challenges were initially detested by most of the members, comedian Kim Junho even exclaimed that he felt like a stress test lab rat.
However, over the course of the week, the cast began to notice that actually spending time with each other, and without technology coming literally in-between them, helped them to appreciate the value of one another, and loved ones, gaining relationships over convenience, and experiences that were analog - not digital.
In later episodes after that particular mission was over, some of the members even stated that they did try and reduce their usage of smart phones when they could. Overall, this particular episode did well, and the program even extended the mission to female comedians, when the show later expanded.
Running Man is not the first Korean show to highlight the issue of tech dependency. In late 2012, entertainment show The Human Condition challenged a group of comedians to live for one week without the use of smartphones, the Internet and television for their pilot episode, in a sort of social experiment.
With Korean rehabilitation clinics for Internet and gaming addiction on the rise, and with 1 in 4 teenagers diagnosed with Internet addiction attending these clinics, it is extremely important and beneficial that these major entertainment companies continue to tackle this issue from the source, and continue to showcase the effects of Internet dependency in a light hearted manner that allows conversation to begin.
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Anastasia Dedyukhina is a professional coach and a pioneer of the Consciously Digital™ concept.