From push notifications and reminders to ratings and rewards programs, technology has the power to nudge you to think and act in specific ways at specific times.
Addictive design keeps you hooked, algorithms filter the ideas and options you’re exposed to and the data trail you leave behind comes back to haunt (or target) you later. The virtual world is full of features and ads that may trick you to adopt beliefs, buy products or just stare at the screen longer.
These tricks can have good intentions: A fitness app might encourage you to run an extra mile, while a calendar alert might remind you of a big meeting. Other times, tech might distract you from important tasks, spending quality time with loved ones or activities that would serve your best interests.
1. It beckons.
Anyone who has a smartphone knows that it can be difficult to ignore that buzzing, beeping, incessantly illuminated screen, even in situations when it detracts from your presence, such as in meetings or at the dinner table.
App makers push notifications to get users to engage. That’s why, for instance, Instagram tells you when someone you follow has posted for the first time in a while, luring you to open the app and take a look.
One of today’s most prominent activists working to raise awareness about tech’s influence over our attention, behavior and overall well-being is Tristan Harris. He formerly served as product philosopher at Google, and he’s the co-founder of the Center for Human Technology (and the Time Well Spent movement).
In one essay, Harris explains that smartphones and the apps that run on them resemble slot machines in their design. As a result, the average person checks their phone 150 times a day, often unconsciously, and that’s because, when they do, they are setting themselves up to receive a “variable reward.” They might get nothing — no new notifications or messages — or they might get a link to a funny meme from a friend, a photo of a baby or news of progress on a project they’re working on.
There’s also an obligation factor that drives the impulse to check personal devices: We might miss something important if we don’t, or we might offend someone by not responding quickly enough or reciprocating a gesture.
2. It takes up mental space.
Even when we’re not looking at our phones, and we’ve made a conscious effort to ignore them, such as turning off notifications and ringers or powering them off entirely, they still can distract us.
Researchers from the University of Texas at Austin, the University of California, San Diego and Disney Research recently conducted a study and found that when a person’s smartphone is nearby — on the table or even in the same room — that person’s performance on a cognitive task (requiring problem-solving and reasoning) will likely suffer.
The diminished ability is akin to what sleep deprivation might cause, the researchers found, noting that people performed best on tasks when their phone was in another room and worst when their phone was on the table, whether the phone was on or off.
In a summary of their findings in Harvard Business Review, the researchers explain that “humans learn to automatically pay attention to things that are habitually relevant to them, even when they are focused on a different task.” Ignoring something that’s calling for your attention takes a lot of effort and consumes your attention. Just think of a time when you were working on something and someone called your name from across the room. Chances are, you lost focus.
3. It alters your perception of your options.
The internet opens up a whole new world. You might Google “cafes” and discover a new lunch spot that you otherwise might not have known about. You might need a new pair of shoes, and rather than being constricted to the options local brick-and-mortar retailers have to offer, you can pick from countless pairs and have one shipped to your door.
Even though we theoretically have access to what can seem like every product, place of business and source of information via the web, we often browse these options through platforms that filter them for us, to narrow down the seemingly infinite array. What we don’t always think about, Harris explains, is that we might miss a great option if we only choose from what an algorithm serves up.
Harris provides the hypothetical scenario of a group of friends searching Yelp for a nearby bar to go to after dinner. “The group falls for the illusion that Yelp’s menu represents a complete set of choices for where to go,” he writes. “While looking down at their phones, they don’t see the park across the street with a band playing live music. They miss the pop-up gallery on the other side of the street serving crepes and coffee.”
4. It collects information about you that can be used to influence you later.
Related to the filter bubble concept, all web and social platform users are familiar with how targeted advertising works. You Google something, look for a product on Amazon, put an item in your virtual shopping cart, browse flight booking options — then, maybe hours or even weeks later, you see an ad for whatever you were eyeing earlier.
It’s pretty clear what’s happening here: Sellers are trying to influence your decision to buy. There are ways to get around this type of targeting, from adjusting your Facebook settings to clicking on individual ads and specifying that you wish not to see ads of that nature. Or, you can install an ad blocker to spare yourself all together.
5. It changes how we communicate.
Technology is a double-edged sword, in many ways. It distracts us, but it also gives us access to information and allows us to communicate globally and efficiently. The same goes for its implications for how we communicate. The ability to type quickly and distribute our ideas via the web makes mass communication possible to any individual with an internet connection. Social media helps us maintain communication with friends and family who live far away, or helps us establish relationships with people with common interests or potential collaborators we wouldn’t otherwise know.