A Society That Lost Focus

by Ploum on 2024-03-18

Our Mind, the Bottleneck

In the early 90s, after tweaking my MS-DOS computer, I was able to play games. One of those game was called "Battle Chess". A Chess game were pieces were really fighting against each other. It was fun. I was, and still am, a mediocre chess player. I was mate in less than 10 or 15 turns at the easiest level.

For the sake of the experiment, I turned the difficulty to the harder level and started playing. Something strange happened: I was still losing but it took a lot more turns. I was able to protect my game, even to manage a few draws.

Was it a bug in the game?

Even as a young teenager, I quickly understood the reason. With the setting set to "hard", the game would try a lot harder to find a good move. On my 386 processor, without the mathematical coprocessor, this would take time. Several seconds or even one minute by turn. During that time, I was thinking, anticipating.

With the easiest setting, computer moves would happen immediately. I knew I had all the time I want but I was compelled to move fast. I could not take the time while the other side was immediately reacting to my moves.

The world we are living in is that same chess game on the easiest setting. Everything happens immediately, all the time. White-collar work can now be summarised as trying to reply as fast as possible to every single email until calling it a day and starting again in the morning, a process which essentially prevents any deep thinking, as pointed by Cal Newport in his book "A world without email".

As we don’t have the time to think anymore, we masquerade our lack of ideas with behavioural tricks. We replaced documents with PowerPoints because it allowed lack of structure and emptiness to look professional (just copy paste the data of the last PowerPoint you received in a text file and see by yourself how pitiful it is. PowerPoint communications at NASA were even diagnosed by Edward R. Tufte, author of the "The cognitive style of PowerPoint", as one of the causes that led to Space Shuttle Columbia’s disaster).

The root problem is that, for the first time in human history, our brain is the bottleneck. For all history, transmitting information was slow. Brains were fasts. After sending a letter, we had days or months to think before receiving an answer. Erasmus wrote his famous "Éloge de la folie" in several days while travelling in Europe. He would never have done it in a couple of hours in a plane while the small screen in the backseat would show him advertisements.

In 2012, the French writer Thierry Crouzet had one of the first recorded "online burnout". Being connected all the time with interesting strangers and interesting ideas to which he wanted to reply quickly was too much for his brain. One night, he had a strong panic attack and decided to spend six months without the Internet, an experience he told in his book "J’ai débranché".

The Oversold Internet

The instant feedback of permanent connectivity is clearly a bad thing. But the worst had yet to come. After the 2000s bubble popped and told us that Internet was not "magic money", the question became "how do we monetise the Internet?" A few idealistic geeks replied, "You don’t monetise it, it’s a non-commercial world." But geeks, as everyone, wanted or needed to be paid.

To earn money, they handed the reins of the whole new world they were creating to marketers. That’s it: hackers sold the Internet in exchange for a salary. Until 2000, marketers played along with the idea of selling the work hackers were doing. With one small problem: they oversold it completely, diving in the geek fantasy that, soon, everybody would be on that Internet buying stuff online.

In the 2000s, nobody but geeks wanted to spend their life behind a huge radiating screen. Marketers suddenly waked up to that reality with the dot-com bubble. If not everybody wanted to be on the Internet and nobody would buy anything on the Internet, there were two potential solutions: either monetising the fact that some people were already spending lots of time of the Internet or convincing more people to come on the Internet.

Surviving companies such as Google decided for the easiest one: monetising what people were already giving to the Internet: their time and attention. Advertising was, of course, already part of the web (mostly through the infamous "popups") but Google innovated by inventing a whole new way of exploiting attention: trying to learn as much as possible about users to show them the advertising they are more likely to click on. The whole story is told in great details in the book "Surveillance Capitalism", by Soshanna Zuboff.

Whether this "personalised advertisement" really works better than traditional one is up to debate. For Tim Hang, author of "Subtime Attention Crisis" and for Cory Doctorow, author of "How to destroy surveillance capitalism", the real impact on sales is negligible but as marketers think it works, they invest massive money in it, making the whole technology a very lucrative bubble.

But the real impact is undisputed : as long as someone buys it, it is really lucrative to sell the attention and all the information you could from consumers. As a consequence, the practice has been generalised and nearly every website, every app on the Internet is trying to get both. And they are very scientific about the process.

We forgot how not to spy and steal attention

It is now considered as "normal practice" to try to get the attention and the data of your users, even if it doesn’t make sense from a business perspective.

Banking apps send notifications to show you their new shiny logo, good old e-commerce website ask their customers for the number of children they have or their income bracket. Even non-commercial personal blogs or some websites dedicated to privacy contain analytics software to track their users. Not tracking your users is harder than not! Every single vendor from which you shop, even a brick-and-mortar one, will bury you with their mailings.

One could assume that buying a new mattress is something you do only every decade and that the prospective market for mattress vendors is those who didn’t buy a mattress in the last five years. So why did anybody think that, right after buying a mattress, I would be interested in receiving news about mattresses every single week of my life?

The two consequences of all this are that our privacy is invaded as much as it is technologically possible and that our attention is scientifically captured as much as it is technologically possible. And, in both aspects, technology is "improving" as all the smartest minds in the world are hired to do just that.

While working at Google, Tristan Harris realised how much what they were building was in order to get the focus and the attention of people. He left Google to create the "Center for Humane Technology" that tries to raise attention about the fact that… our attention is captured by monopolist technologies.

The irony is palpable: Tristan Harris had a very good intuition but can’t imagine doing anything else than either "raising attention" through social networks or building technologies that would notify you that you should be focused. Let’s build yet another layer of complexity above everything else and raise attention so this layer is adopted widely enough to become the foundation of the next complexity paradigm.

Worshipping Shallow Ideas

Being distracted all the time prevent us from having any ideas and understanding. We need a catchy slogan. Instead of reading a three-page report, we prefer a 60 slides PowerPoint, containing mostly stock pictures and out-of-context charts.

We have valorised the heroic image of the CEO that comes in a meeting and tell engineers, "I have ten minutes left before my next meeting. Tell me everything in five and I’ll take a billion dollar decisions."

In retrospect, it is obvious that taking good decisions in that context is nothing more than rolling a die. Funnily enough, it has been proved multiple times than every high-profile CEO is not better than a random decision algorithm. But, unlike algorithms, CEOs usually have charisma and assurance. They may take a very wrong decision but they can convince everybody that it’s the right one. Which is exactly the definition of a salesman job.

In "Deep Work", Cal Newport tries to promote the opposite stance, the art of taking the time to think, to ponder. In "The Ideas Industry", Daniel Drezner observes that long, subtle and complex ideas are more and more replaced by simplistic slogans, the epitome being the famous TED conferences. In 18 minutes, people are sold an idea and, if the speaker is a good salesman, feel like they’ve learned something deep and new. The mere fact that you could learn something deeply enough in 18 minutes is an insult to all the academic world. Without surprise, the same academic world is seen by many as boring old people spending their time writing long articles instead of making a catchy slogan to change the world.

Succumbing to Our Addictions

Most monopolies were built by removing choices. You could not buy a computer without Microsoft Windows. You could not visit some websites without Internet Explorer. You can’t find a phone without Google in a shop (Google pay many billions dollars every year to be the default search engine on Apple devices). And if you manage to remove Google from your phone, you will lose the ability to run some apps, including most banking apps. Most apps even check at start if Google services are installed on the phone and refuse to start if it’s not the case. If it’s really hard not to use Google, it’s by definition a forced monopoly. Similarly, it is very hard to avoid Amazon when shopping online.

There’s one exception : Facebook. There’s nothing forcing us to go to Facebook or Instagram. There’s nothing forcing us to spend time on it. It’s like we have choice. But it seems we haven’t.

Why is this? Why are we playing one hour of what was supposed to be five minutes of a stupid smartphone game instead of reading a book? Why are we spending every minute awake checking our smartphone and replying to mundane chitchat, even if we are in the middle of the conversation with someone else? Why are we compelled to put our life and the lives of our children at risk just to quickly reply while driving?

Because of the way the human brain is wired. Evolutionary speaking, we are craving for new experiences. Learning new experiences, good or bad, may help your chromosomes to survive more generations than others. We get that famous "dopamine rush", described in great details by Liberman and Long in "The molecule of more".

Each time there’s a notification, each time there’s a red bubble in some part of the screen, the brain acts like it’s a new vital opportunity. We can’t miss it. A study showed that the sole notification sound was enough to distract a driver as much as if he was texting while driving. Yes, even without looking at your phone, you were distracted as much as if you did (which is not an excuse to look at it).

The brain has learned that the phone is a random provider of "new experiences". Even in airplane mode, it was demonstrated that having the phone on your desk or in your bag degrades heavily your attention and your thinking performance. Performance went back to normal only when the phone was put in another room.

Fighting to Get Our Focus Back

That’s it, the only way to not have any temptation is not to have the phone at arm reach. The aforementioned French writer Thierry Crouzet told me once that it was very difficult to focus on writing when you know you only have to move the word processor window with the mouse to go to the Internet. On the web, writers’ forums are full of discussions about "distraction-less" devices. Some, including your servitor, are going back to old typewriters, a paradigm described as a true resistance by Richard Polt in the excellent book "The Typewriter Revolution".

One may even wonder if the epidemic of "electro-sensitivity", feeling bad or being sick when exposed to wifi or similar wireless emissions, may simply be a psychological reaction to the overstimulation. It has been observed that the symptoms are real (people are really feeling bad and are not simulating) but that, in double-blind controlled environment, the symptoms are linked to the belief of wireless emissions (if you simulate a blinking wireless router without emitting anything, people feel bad. If you have wireless emission but tell people it’s disabled, they will feel better).

In his landmark book "Digital Minimalism", Cal Newport offers a framework to rethink the way we use digital technologies. The central idea is to balance costs and benefits consciously, highlighting most hidden costs. Facebook might be free in the sense you don’t have to pay for it. But being exposed to advertising, being exposed to angry political rants, feeling compelled to answer, being exposed to picture of people you once knew and who seems to have an extraordinary (even if virtual) life is a very high cost.

Simply do the math. If you have 180 friends on Facebook, which seems to be a low amount those days, if your friends take, on average, 10 days of vacation per year, you will have, on average, five friends on vacation every day. Add to this statistic that some people like to re-post pictures of old vacations and it means that you will be bombarded daily by pictures of sunny beaches and beautiful landscapes while you are waiting under neon light for your next boring meeting in a gray office. By design, Facebook makes you feel miserable.

That’s not to say that Facebook cannot be useful and have benefits. As Cal Newport highlight, you need to adapt your use to maximise the benefits while trying to avoid costs as much as possible. You have to think consciously about what you really want to achieve.

This idea of digital minimalism prompted a revival of the so-called "dumb phones", phones which are not smart and which are able to make phone call and send/receive SMS. Some brands are even starting to innovate in that particular market like Mudita and Lightphone.

Ironically, they are advertising mindfulness and being focused. They are trying to catch your attention to sell you back… your own attention.

Focus Against Consumerism

One of the consumerist credo is that the market will fix everything. If there’s a problem, someone will quickly sell a solution. As pointed by Evgeny Morozov in "To Save Everything, Click Here", this is not only wrong thinking. This is actually harmful.

With public money, we are actually actively funding companies and startups thinking they will both create jobs and sell solutions to every problem. It is implied that every solution should be a technological one, should be sellable and should be intuitive. That’s it: you should not think too much about a problem but instead build blindly whatever solution comes to mind using the currently trending technological stack. French Author Antoine Gouritin wrote a funny and interesting book about that whole philosophy he called "Le Startupisme".

The root cause is there: we don’t have any mental framework left other than spying on people and steal their attention. Business schools are teaching how to do catchy PowerPoints while stealing attention from people. Every business is at war with the other to catch your attention and your brain cycles. Even academy is now fighting to get grants based on catchy PowerPoints and raw number of publications. This was the raw observation of David Graeber: even academics have stopped thinking to play the "catch your attention game".

There’s no silver bullet. There will not be any technological solution. If we want to claim back our focus and our brain cycles, we will need to walkaway and normalise disconnected times. To recognise and share the work of those who are not seeking attention at all cost, who don’t have catchy slogans nor spectacular conclusions. We need to start to appreciate harder works which don’t offer us immediate short-term profit.

Our mind, not the technology, is the bottleneck. We need to care about our minds. To dedicate time to think slowly and deeply.

We need to bring back Sapiens in Home Sapiens Sapiens.

As a writer and an engineer, I like to explore how technology impacts society. You can subscribe by email or by rss. I value privacy and never share your adress.

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