Written by Steve Stein, The Publisher at WisdomFeed & BetterListen
In this age of digital distraction, digital “divisiveness,” and some would say, digital disfunction, the hottest commodity is attention. So when I tell my kids to pay attention, there are a lot of things at play. When my wife and I call them 2, or 3 or more times to come to dinner, there is a real effort needed to break the “spell” of them playing Fortnite, or going back and forth with friends on SnapChat. When we are trying to get our kids’ attention, we are competing with far more than a simple game.
In a riveting conversation at Wisdom 2.0 earlier this year, Tony Fadell described how and why all of the biggest tech companies are hiring neuroscientists. In short, they are being hired to make these games and devices addictive. So our dinner is at least in part, being delayed by a team of neuroscientists and marketers all vying for attention.
One of the great gifts of attending Wisdom 2.0 events on a regular basis is the opportunity to meet people in analog, in person, who are at the forefront of thinking about Mindfulness and Technology. It is the nexus of practitioners, teachers, and techies exploring how consciousness and wellness intersect in the real world. Over the years I’ve met Tristan Harris, called the “closest thing Silicon Valley has to a conscience,” by The Atlantic magazine. His thoughtfulness, integrity, and commitment to making a difference, and to use technology responsibly, is some very important work. At one event, he made clear that the concept of “Streaks” on SnapChat is a construct made by SnapChat to create a false obligation in kids. I know this first hand, oftentimes my kids get a few minutes to “talk” with their friends on SnapChat (after they are 100% packed for the bus, teeth brushed, hair combed, etc) before getting on the bus to go to school. There is absolutely no question about it, that the prospect of them not keeping one of their SnapChat streaks alive gets them stressed out. So like many modern-day parents, I am navigating this situation carefully, trying to get my kids to pay attention while trying to pay attention to myself.
Recently, I read an interesting article about Tristan Harris’ new project called Time Well Spent.
In the article Tristan introduces the concept of ethical tech as being a kind of equivalent to organic food. With the converse perhaps more clear — non-ethical tech and content being like junk food. I for one, like the concept. While it may be a huge challenge to create standards for ethical tech and content we believe it is a worthwhile concept. We at WisdomFeed and BetterListen! aspire to be an ethical tech. Part of our mission is to be a source for “real”, ethical, relevant and organic inspiration in this digital age.
Tristan brings to light the intense research and design that goes into creating apps and content that grab ones’ attention. In our house, the convergence of technology and real-time experience has commanded our attention as a family. The new phenomenon that is HQ, a disrupted mashup of Jeopardy, TV, and the worldwide web, makes for exciting entertainment that aggregates millions of people in real-time. When we play it, there is an unmistakable feeling of being a part of something bigger and interconnectedness. And now with the latest real-time craze that is Fortnite, it is like the digital playground. My kids could be hanging out and playing Fortnite with friends in Israel, Toronto and around the corner all at the same time. While I like my kids to connect with their good friends in real life and remotely, I have serious issues with the violence of the game, but it is a phenomenon we have to navigate as a family.
So how to deal with this digital distraction and what I am calling “Deviciveness”? While there is no easy answer, last year my wife created an analog solution to this digital device problem. At one point when we were all just a bit too “lost” in our devices and tech, my wife ran out to Staples. A half-hour later she came back with an old school briefcase. The kind with the combination locks on both sides. So that Friday night my wife came home with the briefcase and gave us all a 10-minute warning. Then she collected all of the laptops, iPad, and phones and locked them up. For a full 24 hours we were all digital free. Before too long, the ping pong ball could be heard in the basement. When I shared this story with Jon Kabat-Zinn not too long ago, we talked about taking a Digital Sabbath. Then he shared on this video, a unique take on the idea of The Sabbath.
This digital sabbath, briefcase experiment was a great success. We paid attention to each other, we walked, played and interacted in a way that enriched the quality of our lives. We have used the briefcase solution periodically over the last 18 months to great effect.
When we created the combination for the combination locks on the briefcase, I saved the combinations where I put all of my passwords, in Evernote of course, in the cloud. As the 24-hour experiment of locked devices came to a close, I needed to retrieve the combination to open the briefcase, I briefly freaked out when I did not have my phone to retrieve the password that I had stored in the cloud the day before — my phone of course, was locked in the briefcase. Fortunately, the desktop computer in the office was too big to fit into the briefcase, so I logged in, got the combination, opened the briefcase, retrieved our devices.
Life was back to normal.