Business

Claire Aiken: Scrolling, screen time and our ability to pay atten–

Time spent online can often feel like tumbling down a rabbit hole
Claire Aiken

TIME spent online can often feel like tumbling down a rabbit hole. Even a cursory glance at a screen, be it a phone or computer, can arrest our attention with curated content that has in recent years become increasingly individual.

Technology and social media, in particular, are platforms hard-wired to be personalised worlds of distraction. Engagement is everything, the notifications are innumerable, and so it becomes all too easy to keep on scrolling.

The reality is this rabbit hole is not some mystical path you plot on your own, but often a carefully constructed tunnel built by Big Tech, sowing the seeds of a digital economy where distraction is the fuel, and data is king. Technology designed to understand us at a fundamental level – to hack and to hook.

Platforms like Google and Facebook are by no means the root cause of distraction, nor are they actively seeking to squash attention spans, but they are, by design, content accelerators with the power to leave our minds overstimulated and our focus frazzled.

Digital adverts and suggested content are now targeted to the point where it’s easy to assume that these platforms are eavesdropping on our conversations. The truth is perhaps more unsettling: the digitised profiles of our personalities are so uncannily accurate that the platforms may seem like they’re listening, when in reality they are making hyper-targeted predictions based on reams and reams of metadata, tracing our every click and interaction to formulate a psychological profile and serve up suggested content and advertising that is incredibly individualised.

That isn’t always the case, of course. Google and Facebook may generate something that isn’t relevant, like adverts for an air fryer you’ve already bought, but over time the tracking technology has only become more advanced. Our attention is the product. And it’s being harvested and sold to advertisers and product peddlers.

All of which exists on platforms whose business models are built on increasingly sophisticated ways to hold our attention, whether it’s through targeted ads or the infinite scroll feature, whereby more content loads automatically – and continuously – as the user scrolls down the page.

A now-ubiquitous feature developed by former Mozilla engineer Aza Raskin who himself is now calling for it to be turned off, or reworked entirely, as its ability to ‘catch your impulses’ before we can make a conscious decision to click on to the next page is indicative of an industry where more screen time equals a bigger bottom line.

In fact, in 2017 Facebook’s founding president Sean Parker admitted openly that the company set out to consume as much user time as possible, even going so far as to claim that it exploited “a vulnerability in human psychology.”

All this, in the palm of our hands.

Yes, each generation seems to wrangle with its own moral panics and dilemmas, from comic books in the ‘50s to rap music in the ‘90s. After all, it was Socrates who believed writing things down would be the ruination of people’s memory.

But when the platforms we spend time with day in, day out are themselves fuelled by financial incentives and technologies to keep eyeballs on screens, it does beg the question: is it time for a rethink? To remodel platforms in such a way that they guide our intentions, rather than absorb the attention of passive users.

To take one example: the Facebook of 2022 propels push notifications upon its 2.9 billion monthly userbase – new friend suggestions, invitations to like a page, a reminder of a friend’s birthday. Digital breadcrumbs designed to direct our attention back to a screen. What it does lack, however, is a feature telling you who among your friends is nearby and indicating they would like to meet up, in person, for a coffee and a catch-up. To connect physically, away from the furore of Facebook.

Until there is a wider seachange to this manufacturing of mass digital distraction, whether it’s through tighter regulations or a paid subscription model, maximising user dwell time looks set to reign supreme.

We see its effects every day. In his excellent new book ‘Stolen Focus’, Johann Hari found Gen-Z are now spending an eye-watering nine hours per day in front of a screen. That’s not to say all those hours are wasted to mindless scrolling, per se, but it’s a stark indication of these platforms and their alluring ability to keep us online longer than is really necessary. Right now, the interests of individual people – connecting with friends offline, engaging in nuanced debate, focusing deeply on a single topic – are at odds with the business interests of the platform.

The digital rabbit hole should conjure up an image of wonderment and discovery, rather than a carefully constructed vacuum for a distracted population. It’s time we reclaim our attention.

 Claire Aiken is managing director of public relations and public affairs company Aiken

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