We’re so distracted we can’t even tune out and watch TV

TV used to be a distraction in itself, a way to tune out, unwind, empty your mind after a long day. It was called the ‘boob tube’ and the ‘idiot box’ because people became so transfixed by it.

Now we’re too distracted for that distraction. 70.3% of the U.S. population will regularly use another device while watching TV. Despite the increase in engaging, high quality content designed specifically to capture our attention, we can’t sit through 30 minutes of a show without checking our device.

Our attention spans are shortening and we’re losing the ability to be present and relax during even the most passive entertainment. Focus and attention are becoming rare commodities.


Technology is driving us to distraction

James Williams is a formal Google advertising strategist and now Oxford-trained philosopher. I’ve just read the fantastic essay he wrote in The Guardian titled “Technology is driving us to distraction.”

He makes an excellent point about the misalignment between our personal goals and those of the technology companies that we interact with. We might all have varied goals – learning a new skill, spending more time with family or enjoying the great outdoors. Tech companies (especially those that sell us ads) have one primary metric – engagement.

No matter your goal, it is unlikely that it will align with a company who wants you to see as many of their ads as possible. They will do everything in their power to make you read more, click more… to give them more of your attention. This leaves you with less time to pursue your own goals.

In the new ‘Age of Attention’, Williams writes that our challenge is self-regulation. The first step to this self-regulation is understanding what you’re up against, which is the journey I’m on with this website.

You can read Williams’ article here – I’m looking forward to reading his book!

Apple tackles the attention economy

At the 2018 WWDC Apple announced that they would introduce tools to help users in the battle for their attention. A host of features will be released in iOS 12 including easier ways to monitor screen time, enhanced ‘do not disturb’ functionality and better control over notifications.

It’s fantastic that Apple is being proactive and giving users more control over how their phones can impose on their lives. The fact that Apple is taking such significant steps highlights the damage that is currently being done.

You can read more about the new features from Apple here.

Hidden iPhone feature to help you disconnect

Kevin Rose shared this great little hack for altering the iPhone’s ‘do not disturb while driving’ feature to help you take a mini-break from your phone.

The great thing is it still allows people to get through to you if it’s urgent. This is perfect for taking a break while you’re doing something special, or helping you avoid distractions while working on something important.

Read how to do it here.

Update – variable rewards and dopamine

After a couple of weeks break I’ve done a little bit more work on the site. I have been doing some writing on variable rewards (which I think are extremely powerful) and dopamine (extremely interesting and constantly evolving area of research).

There has been a huge amount of pressure and attention on big tech companies lately, particularly Facebook as Mark Zuckerberg testified before congress. Most of the conversation has been around the meta-effects of these tech companies on societies, countries and even democracy itself!

While I think those are all valid issues, most of my focus is on the effect of the attention economy on individuals and how they can fight back. It would be interesting in the future to take a look at some of the larger systemic effects but I already have a large enough backlog of reading and writing to get through as it is!

Founding president of Facebook warns of social media dangers

Sean Parker was the founding president of Facebook, famously portrayed by Justin Timberlake in The Social Network. He is the ultimate Facebook insider, giving unparalleled insight into the early design of the platform.

He confirms that their goal at Facebook (which subsequently became the playbook for other social media companies) was to figure out how to keep people engaged and coming back to the networks as much as possible.

“The thought process that went into building these applications, Facebook being the first of them, … was all about: ‘How do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible?’

Like good hackers, Parker, Zuckerberg and the team were searching for vulnerabilities… in his words “exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology.”

“God only knows what it’s doing to our children’s brains.”

These comments further highlight the importance of understanding how social media companies use psychological tactics to capture your attention and engender habit forming behaviour. You need to be conscious of their aggressive competition for your attention.

Watch Parker’s comments in the video below or read more here.

Former Facebook exec says social media is ripping apart society

Chamath Palihapitiya was one of Facebook’s early employees, joining the company in 2007 and eventually rising to become vice-president of user growth. He subsequently left Facebook, started a venture capital firm and bought an ownership stake in the Golden State Warriors.

He has also spoken on the record about his views on the danger of social media, not only for individuals but for society collectively. As an early member of the famous Facebook growth engine, he has tremendous insight into the psychology and “dopamine-driven feedback loops” that makes the product so ‘sticky’ (a tech euphemism for ‘addictive’).

“The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops that we have created are destroying how society works. No civil discourse, no cooperation, misinformation, mistruth.”

Chamath is also one of many tech insiders and executives (including Steve Jobs) who has publicly stated that he places restrictions on the smartphone and social media use of his children. In his own words: “I can control my kids’ decisions, which is that they’re not allowed to use that shit.”

Facebook is a product, a platform that because of its reach is having profound impacts on our society, many of which we are yet to understand. As a user it can keep you connected with friends, be a great source of information and a fun way to share content. It is not inherently bad or evil.

However, it is becoming increasingly obvious that there are potential side effects, and negative consequences of heavy use. The seriousness of these consequences is highlighted by the number of former employees making public statements. At the very least you should be making an informed, conscious decision about how you use the social network.

You can watch the whole video of Chamath’s chat at Stanford below, or read more about it here and here.

The Atlantic: Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?

Well this is probably as good a place to start as any. This is a great feature by The Atlantic that looks at mental health issues caused by increasing smartphone use.

Born in 1988, I’m a member of the millennial generation. My first smartphone was the iPhone 4, purchased in 2010. While I’ve been among the first to navigate the smartphone era at work, I didn’t grow up with one and can remember a time without one. My friends and I often discuss how difficult it would be growing up in the age of the smartphone.

Psychologically, however, they are more vulnerable than Millennials were: Rates of teen depression and suicide have skyrocketed since 2011. It’s not an exaggeration to describe iGen as being on the brink of the worst mental-health crisis in decades. Much of this deterioration can be traced to their phones.

The article cites a number of studies that the more someone used social media or interacted with a screen, the more likely they were to report feelings of unhappiness.

There are a few ideas about why this is the case. Teens are more likely to feel left out and isolated when they can see other social activities documented, their peers catching up without them. They feel anxiety over the response to their social media activity too – how many likes do they get? Does anyone leave a nasty comment?

I was surprised to read that many people slept with their phones in bed and check them during the night. Unsurprisingly, this lead to negative impacts on quality of sleep. Anecdotally I’ve found this the case – when I use my phone heavily before going to bed I don’t sleep very well.

Key Takeaways:

  • There’s a correlation between heavy smartphone use and feeling of unhappiness, loneliness and isolation in teens.
  • Smartphones may also negatively impact sleep quality, with numerous knock-on effects.
  • It’s incredibly important to teach kids how to use phones responsibly and to teach them about the potential risks involved in heavy smartphone or social media use.



I’m just starting to put this together. I’m keeping it pretty basic, using WordPress’ 2016 theme with a few customisations. I’ve got a pretty large list of material I want to read, distill and write about – my aim is to slowly work through this and update the site as I go.

This is intended to be a record of my own learning. I find that writing things down helps me absorb and retain lessons better. I’m publishing this because I think it may prove useful to other people at some stage and as a way to keep me motivated.