Teenagers playing on their smartphones Image Credit: Agency

New York: Call it the latest milestone in Silicon Valley’s year of apology. Facebook and Instagram announced new tools for users to set time limits on their platforms, and a dashboard to monitor one’s daily use, following Google’s introduction of Digital Well Being features.

In doing so, the companies seemed to suggest that spending time on the internet is not a desirable, healthy habit, but a pleasurable vice: One that if left uncontrolled may slip into unappealing addiction.

Having secured our attention more completely than ever dreamed, they now are carefully admitting it’s time to give some of it back, so we can meet our children’s eyes frankly; go see a movie in a theatre; or even go surfing without “checking in”.

“The liberation of human attention may be the defining moral and political struggle of our time,” writes James Williams, a technologist turned philosopher and the author of a new book, Stand Out of Our Light.

Williams, 36, should know. During a decade-long tenure at Google, he worked on search advertising, helping perfect a powerful, data-driven advertising model. Gradually, he began to feel that his life story as he knew it was coming unglued, “as though the floor was crumbling under my feet”, he writes.

Williams compares the current design of our technology to “an entire army of jets and tanks” aimed at capturing and keeping our attention. And the army is winning. We spend the day transfixed by our screens, thumb twitching in the subways and elevators, glancing at traffic lights.

We first flaunt and then regret the habit of so-called ‘second screening’, when looking at just one screen at a time is not enough. So while you are watching TV, you are also scrolling through your phones’ latest dispatch.

You’ve Got Chaos

Originally from Abilene, Texas, Williams had arrived to work at Google in what could still be called the early days, when the company, in its idealism, was resistant to the age-old advertising model. He left Google in 2013 to conduct doctoral research at Oxford on the philosophy and ethics of attention persuasion in design.

Williams is now concerned with overwired individuals losing their life purpose.

“In the same way that you pull out a phone to do something and you get distracted, and 30 minutes later you find that you’ve done 10 other things except the thing that you pulled out the phone to do — there’s fragmentation and distraction at that level,” he said. “But I felt like there’s something on a longer-term level that’s harder to keep in view: that longitudinal sense of what you’re about.”

He knew that among his colleagues, he wasn’t the only one feeling this way. Speaking at a technology conference in Amsterdam last year, Williams asked the designers in the room, some 250 of them: “How many of you guys want to live in the world that you’re creating? In a world where technology is competing for our attention?”

“Not a single hand went up,” he said.

Williams is also far from the only example of a former soldier of big tech (to continue the army metaphor) now working to expose its cultural dangers.

Another whistleblower

In late June, Tristan Harris, a former design ethicist for Google, took the stage at the Aspen Ideas Festival to warn the crowd that what we are facing is no less than an “existential threat” from our very own gadgets.

Red-haired and slight, Harris, 34, has been playing the role of whistleblower since he quit Google five years ago. He started the Center for Humane Technology in San Francisco and travels the country, appearing on influential shows and podcasts like 60 Minutes and Waking Up, as well as at glamorous conferences like Aspen, to describe how technology is designed to be irresistible.

He likes a chess analogy. When Facebook or Google points their “supercomputers” towards our minds, he said, “it’s checkmate”.

Back in the more innocent days of 2013, when Williams and Harris both still worked at Google, they’d meet in conference rooms and sketch out their thoughts on whiteboards: A concerned club of two at the epicentre of the attention economy.

Since then, both men’s messages have grown in scope and urgency. The constant pull on our attention from technology is no longer just about losing too many hours of our so-called real lives to the diversions of the web. Now, they are telling us, we are at risk of fundamentally losing our moral purpose.

“It’s changing our ability to make sense of what’s true, so we have less and less idea of a shared fabric of truth, of a shared narrative that we all subscribe to,” Harris said, the day after his Aspen talk. “Without shared truth or shared facts, you get chaos — and people can take control.”

We now need our phones to save us from our phones

Of course, the tech addiction also has in-built profit potential, in ways large and small. A whole industry has sprung up to combat tech creep. Once-free pleasures like napping are now being monetised by the hour. Those who used to relax with monthly magazines now download guided-meditation apps like Headspace ($399.99 for a lifetime subscription).

HabitLab, developed at Stanford, stages aggressive interventions whenever you enter one of your self-declared danger zones of internet consumption. Having a problem with Reddit sucking away your afternoons? Choose between the “one-minute assassin”, which puts you on a strict 60-second timer, and the “scroll freezer”, which creates a bottom in your bottomless scroll — and logs you out once you’ve hit it.

Like Moment, an app that monitors screen time and sends you or loved ones embarrassing notifications detailing exactly how much time has been frittered away on Instagram today, HabitLab gets to know your patterns uncomfortably well in order to do its job. Apparently, we now need our phones to save us from our phones.

One study, commissioned by Nokia, found that, as of 2013, we were checking our phones on an average of 150 times a day. But we touch our phones about 2,617 times, according to a separate 2016 study, conducted by Dscout, a research firm.

Apple has confirmed that users unlock their iPhones an average of 80 times per day.

Screens have been inserted where no screens ever were before: Over individual tables at McDonald’s; in dressing rooms when one is most exposed; on the backs of taxi seats. For only $12.99 (Dh47.77), one can purchase an iPhone holster for one’s baby stroller ... or (shudder) two.

This is us: Eyes glazed, mouth open, neck crooked, trapped in dopamine loops and filter bubbles. Our attention is sold to advertisers, along with our data, and handed back to us tattered and piecemeal.