How our addiction to digital technology is changing the way we live

Think the constant buzzing of your smartphone is just a nuisance? Think again.

The way your cellphone is set up, with notifications and alerts, is training you to treat it like your personal connection to the world. And what’s at stake is your valuable attention, says doctoral candidate James Williams, 35, whose research focuses on design ethics at the Oxford Internet Institute.

“When you pull out your smartphone, and you use a social media site, there are all sorts of persuasive design elements at play to punch just the right buttons in your brain to get you to keep using it, because the longer you use it, the more you tap, the more you click, the more you scroll, the more money these companies make,” says Williams. 

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The researcher is studying the growing disconnect between ad-fuelled technology and the human beings who use it.

“Fundamentally, the technology’s goals are not our goals. I don’t know anybody who has that goal for themselves — to spend as much time as they can on Facebook or watching YouTube,” he tells the CBC’s On The Money.

According to Catalyst, a digital performance marketing agency, 76 per cent of Canadians own at least one smartphone. That’s a lot of people and a large, potentially captive audience.

The key to understanding what’s happening, and the potential for tech to turn toxic, lies with the way the pendulum has swung in what is known as the “attention economy.”

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According to a marketing agency, 76 per cent of Canadians own a smartphone. (Credit: iStock/Getty Images)

For most of human history, we have lived in environments where information was scarce. Now, thanks to digital technology, we live in age of information abundance. What has shrunk, however, is our attention.

With so much data made available through so many portals (smartphone, tablet, wearables, laptop, desktop), we have to make some tough decisions about what gets our precious attention.

“The challenges of the attention economy, this race for our attention … [are] making themselves felt in the realms of politics, our own personal lives,” says Williams.

Williams’s theory about how digital technology has forever altered the way we discuss politics online, and not necessarily in a positive way, has gotten a lot of attention. He recently won Oxford’s inaugural Nine Dots Prize and $100,000 to write a book on the subject.

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We have an almost limitless amount of information at our fingertips, but a finite amount of attention. (Dimitri Otis/Getty Images)

Williams is also the co-founder of the Time Well Spent campaign, whose website makes the bold statement, “Technology is hijacking our brains.” The campaign suggests that “we demand technology that serves us, not advertising.”

“The technologies we use every day are designed primarily to capture our attention,” Williams says. “This seems to me a big moral and political problem, maybe one of the biggest of our time.”

Time Well Spent seeks to raise awareness of these issues with the public at large, and with politicians and regulators. Williams believes that the study and discussion of the long-term effect of ad-fuelled technology are urgently needed, before the technology we may see as mildly intrusive permanently shapes the way we live our lives and view the world.

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