Why technology needs the humane touch

By Ben Harwood, European Creative Director, Feed Agency

Even before Covid-19 extended across the globe, forcing us into remote working and housebound living, more reliant than ever on electronic devices, our screen habits were formed. 

Today, like any other day, I check my emails three times, refresh Instagram twice and track the package containing my latest smartphone charger as it makes its way across the city. My concentration span is the lowest it’s ever been. My thumb is worn down by liking, unliking and typing, in a vague attempt to stay relevant, remain socially active and see how I shape up against my other cyber friends in a never-ending quest to show(off) our latest ‘unique’ experiences. Covid may have curtailed the more lavish activities, but the desire to compare remains.

I know this is bad for my mental health and yet I’m still doing it, and I’ll do it again tomorrow. There’s clearly a problem with technology as our lives become overwhelmed by the distraction and decision-fatigue created by the endless possibilities offered by platforms and apps. 

As Tristan Harris, cofounder of the Center for Humane Technology says: “Technology is hijacking our minds and society. Snapchat turns conversations into streaks, redefining how we measure our relationships. Instagram glorifies the picture-perfect life, eroding our self-worth. Facebook segregates us into echo chambers, fragmenting our communities. These are not neutral products. They are part of a system designed to addict us.”

There is a method to this addiction. These media platforms are vying for ever more attention, using AI-based recommendation engines to create feedback loops keeping users on their sites, often sending them down a rabbit hole of content. 

And we’ve seen how malevolent foreign forces have used this feedback loop to polarise people, spreading divisive propaganda by setting up Facebook pages to appeal to people’s most vivid emotions, be it love or loathing. The more people engaged with the memes and posts these pages shared, the more memes and posts from those pages they’d see. These tactics were used by Russia trolls in the 2016 US election and we still await the report on meddling in the EU Referendum.

So why is this so effective? It turns out that making rewards – likes, new content, new comments – unpredictable is a very efficient way of hooking people in. The tech companies have learnt from other addictive behaviour, namely gambling. Casinos have massively expanded the space dedicated to slot machines, which are nothing but variable rewards dispensers. The result? Today, slot machines are twice as numerous as ATMs & generate more revenue in the US than movies, baseball, and theme parks combined.

The digital media equivalent plays on your distraction or ‘fear of missing out’. If you’ve ever mechanically opened Facebook just to check your new notifications or refreshed your inbox with the secret hope that a new email will appear, you have experienced first-hand how variable rewards can trigger impulsive behaviour.

But adopting a humane technology stance would only require simple adjustments. For instance, allowing users to choose the frequency of notifications is an easy feature to add. Harris put it well in his 2017 TED talk when he asked “why can’t we ask Instagram to show us new notifications only once per day? Or Twitter to batch notifications and nudge us only when 20 of them have stacked?”  Simply because this goes against the economic imperative of maximising our time on device – they want us to swipe, scroll and tap every day, multiple times per day.

There is an opportunity for the digital advertising and technology companies to improve everyone’s relationship with their devices, and that includes us as advertisers. In the five seconds during which you can gain a viewer’s attention on YouTube, could we be promoting taking a break from the technology while also delivering a cohesive brand message?

With 5G round the corner, is there even greater opportunity to work with advertisers and clients as people are more able to shop, bank, watch TV and communicate through their mobile devices? Perhaps as we are emerging from lockdown, able to socialise in the real world more, we can encourage people to feel good about spending time away from their devices. 

Tech companies could be carving out a role where they help you to spend time with the people that you love rather than spending more time on screen. We can alleviate loneliness; rather than calling people to action in a digital sphere, technology could be the invitation, the forum to bring people together in real life. Never before has this been so apparent.

Lockdown has demonstrated technology’s capability to connect people and opened our eyes to a whole new way of living. When the world was forced to take face to face meetings and social gatherings online, we actually saw a real sense of togetherness. Families making more effort to have weekly zoom calls when they would meet every few months in real life. Businesses making acquisitions, launching new offices and hiring new teams without ever meeting in person.

As a world, our mindset has changed. And while screen time during lockdown might be up, the way we use technology moving out of lockdown may change. Perhaps when we meet our friends now, we won’t be checking our phone every five minutes, because we no longer take human interaction for granted.   

Tech companies are some of the most innovative ever, and they are well placed within our social fabric to lead in doing the right thing, especially in our new, post-lockdown world. With their expertise and desire to do better for humanity, they have the ability and opportunity to be at the forefront of truth, wellbeing and democracy.

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