“The contemplative mind is overwhelmed by the noisy worlds mechanical busyness”
Leo Marx The Machine in the Garden
We are increasingly worried, some might say terrified, about what our machines are doing to our minds. There is good reason for this as technology does, and always has, changed us. If Plato worried the written word would “implant forgetfulness” in the souls of man, what should we fear the daily onslaught of media through computers and phones is doing to our soft, malleable brains?
A 2015 study by Microsoft found evidence that our attention spans have decreased from 12 to 8 seconds over the last decade. A 2009 study from Stanford University found those who where high on the MMI (Multi Media Index), in other words those who spend more time on their devices, exhibited reduced grey matter in the Anterior Cingular Cortex, a part of the brain associated with decision making and, warning bell for a truly dystopic future, ethics. The makers of Netflix, the decision makers at Google and the minds of Microsoft have become good, very good, at grabbing and keeping our attention, at nudging us to watch one more video, click one more link and log one more like.
However, viewed from a certain angle I see a opportunity for real optimistic design thinking here in this, at times, most distressing of areas. The methods used to keep our attention are truly powerful tools, and though it might seem tempting to see them as out of our control, they are not. We are not yet in E.M.Fosters world, living in isolation and fear of the day The Machine Stops. True A.I is a very, very long way away from wresting power away from us, and there is time to turn these tools to good use.
Perhaps it feels out of our control because it is so hard to see, to point clearly at what is culpable. Many of us feel at times a quiet sense of doom, of invisible harm, to ourselves or the younger generation. We might shudder looking up from our phones and down the train to see every fellow passenger logged in with head down. But look again, there in that same view may lie to answer to our problem.
If a hammer can be used to break it can also be used to build. If our attention can be hijacked to consume it can also be directed to construct. What if the very same nudges, or at least a portion of them, manipulated, that nasty but appropriate word, us to engage better with our community, plant trees, vote or any one of the many thousands of actions we could all do to improve our personal and collective well being?
Many of the people who, like me, are unhappy with the negative affects of our technologies, would like us all to put the genie back in the bottle, to put down our phones and spend more time in non-human-centric nature. I certainly agree about the re-connecting with nature bit. However I don’t think asking us to stop using our devices is the method, for two reasons.
One, it won’t work. I love my phone, and how it extends my mind. I freely admit I’m slightly addicted to it and I continually make efforts to regulate my use of it, but I don’t want to give it up completely, and so I won’t, expecting others to do so is unrealistic, it’s also unwise for the second reason.
The other team in this battle for the future, the team who DON’T care about us reconnecting with nature or improving our health, or better sharing our wealth, are not going to give up their devices, so to not use ours would be like The Allies volunteering to give up all communication, maps, guns and Keep Calm posters during WWII.
One of my favorite healthcare technology thinkers John Nosta has recently spoken about how the hardware of healthcare may become almost invisible in the near future. Subtle colour changing Smart Tattoos for those managing Diabetes to track their glucose levels, Robot Pills you swallow so that they can be remote controlled through your intestines without wires or tubes, one possible direction of healthcare is for it to become much less physically intrusive.
I have for some time been thinking more and more about how our mental well being could be helped, rather then hindered as it now often the case, by our technology… with out our even knowing it. What if we could get the powerful tool of persuasion that is our phone into the hands of those who would use it to make us, and out future, brighter? Or what if we could persuade those currently in charge of the tool that if they did that we would buy their device over someone else’s?
What if our phones came with a new automatic setting, let’s call in the Invisible Wellness setting. Now all the millions of micro decisions we make through the year through our phone will nudge us towards personal and global wellness. We will be directed to walk a little further to that station, past a few trees perhaps. If we’ve watched more then 20 videos maybe we could be asked if we want to continue, rather then just assuming and trapping us into it. If we work near a community project that needs volunteers in the evening when we finish work maybe it could show us that information, rather then a pair of boots we’ve chosen not to buy already 300 times.
As well as re-purposing the tools already in use, what might be developed with true Wellness in mind? Developers target the limbic system, a.k.a our ‘lizard’ brain, the phylogenetically primative network responsible for fight or flight, addiction and emotions. Our brains are complex, but each year that goes by we are gaining a better understanding of how they work, and how we can influence them. We can now see that helping others through altruistic actions triggers dopamine, that yummy, addictive feel good chemical, to be released. Perhaps we can create algorithms to get people addicted to helping others rather then crushing candy?
In a nutshell: We are being brainwashed, it’s not going to stop. Why not brainwash us to be better humans?