We’re having a lot of important conversations about technology these days. The ethics of design, the economics of influence, and the impacts on our politics and mental health. It’s easy to nod your head along and agree on a conceptual level, but are you noticing it in your daily life?
A good starting point would be to compare your life now to how someone might have lived 100 years ago. How have technology and advertising changed our lives? Surely a lot of incredible improvements come to mind: we live in a world akin to the sci-fi novels of previous generations. The downsides might arise with a more pointed reflection.
What differences have emerged in how you learn about the world's events? In how you spend your time on a given day? How you interact with friends and family? How you treat your body? How you maintain work-life balance? For me, answers to these questions have become clearer with mindfulness. I grew up with technology, and I've been celebrating the incredible progress we've made since I was a kid. Yet as I learn to notice the subtle forces driving these changes, I'm growing more concerned about what we're losing in exchange.
Michael Apollo and I teach a course on this topic at University of Toronto’s Applied Mindfulness program (yeah, it's a real thing), and we’ve been experimenting with techniques to make this real for people. One fascinating example is the “ringtone meditation”. We guide the class into a mindfulness practice where they are paying attention to how their thoughts and feelings respond to different pieces of music. We try a number of beautiful songs from different genres and get a bit of a rhythm going. At some point, we play a ringtone. It’s cruel, I know, but it’s led to some really fascinating discussions and insight: when framed to notice how our thoughts and feelings respond to music, we see clearly just how jarring ringtones are to our body emotions and mental state.
We’ve heard students report anger at whoever left their phone on, embarrassment and worry that it might be their phone interrupting everyone, an overwhelming compulsion to answer it, concerns about what's happening at work/home, and re-ignition of persistent thinking. No one interprets it as simply another piece of music. Time and time again, people report that the practice simply ended at that point; they were not able to come back to balance afterward. Many students have walked away from the experience with a heightened awareness of just how much control these devices have over their minds. Through mindfulness, we can directly experience the raw power media can exert on us. If you try paying attention to the ringtones, notifications, and ads you’re experiencing in daily life, you’ll quickly notice how much they’re puppeteering your thoughts, emotions, and behaviour.
Near the end of Tim Wu’s The Attention Merchants — an insightful modern history of advertising and technology — he concludes “If we desire a future that avoids the enslavement of the propaganda state as well as the narcosis of the consumer and celebrity culture, we must first acknowledge the preciousness of our attention and resolve not to part with it as cheaply or unthinkingly as we so often have. And then we must act, individually and collectively, to make our attention our own again, and so reclaim ownership of the very experience of living.”
Tim is right, but he’s asking a lot. It’s kind of like the yoga teachers who tell us to “clear our mind” at the end of class with no further instruction. As if it were that easy. Oh, clear my mind? Why didn’t I think of that? Good advice in theory, yet impossible to do without extensive training. Human beings cannot simply wake up one day thinking, “you know what? I’m going to stop being so distracted all the time,” and expect a change. This is why mindfulness is so important. It provides us with techniques honed over thousands of years which help us commit to following Tim’s advice: to choose what we pay attention to and why.
In the attention economy, attention itself is a commodity. Contemporary media and technology run on business models designed to actively take this commodity from you for profit. You don’t see a cent, but it’s your commodity. You’re the one who’s paying attention. You're also the one who has to face the mental health consequences of a fragmented mind.
Attention activists are those who take action to restore freedom of choice. How we pay attention is how we spend our waking lives. It’s the foundation of our conscious experience. Who could deny the importance of this issue? If you had some trees on your land, and someone else cut them down for lumber, they’d be stealing from you. Why is your attention any different? Maybe it’s time to chain yourself to those trees.
There are a wide range of attention activists out there working to help us reclaim choice. Tools which block ads (i.e. AdBlock), limit your time on certain websites (i.e. StayFocusd), bring awareness to tech use (i.e. Moment), and alter the design of websites (have you tried Ben Grosser’s social media "demetricators"?). There are movements to regulate design ethics for tech, exposing the attention economy and advocating for change (i.e. Center for Humane Tech who recently testified to the US Senate on this issue), organizations aimed at educating people and cultivating better habits (i.e. Digital Wellness Collective), initiatives aimed to bring better social norms around tech (i.e. Device-free Dinner), and so much more. (I could put together a more comprehensive list of attention activists —reply and let me know if you’d be interested in that.)
I group all those practicing, teaching, and working to integrate mindfulness into society in the same category. Those introducing mindfulness to hospital rooms, classrooms, boardrooms, and the halls of government share a goal with those working toward humane technology and digital wellness. In fact, I’m often surprised to learn that fellow technologists working to change the trajectory of our attention economy turn out to be closet meditators. Those who clearly see how technology influences our minds feel compelled to take action. Many end up shifting their personal or professional lives toward attention activism.
It's not just about the system. Of course we need our organizations to change, we need to educate the next generation, and we need to investigate these issues scientifically. Certainly, part of the responsibility lies with those who create these technologies and regulate them. They trigger you to keep coming back in ways that are hard to ignore. But we're not lemmings walking off cliffs, doing whatever society tells us to do. We each have a role to play as individuals, too. After all, you're the one who chose to sign up. And you're the one who can choose to sign off.
We can do a lot as individuals to take back control of our own attention. Mindfulness helps us do just that. Don’t get me wrong, this practice remains a cornerstone of many spiritual traditions; that hasn’t changed at all. It also remains an important practice for mental health. But in today’s world, it has a third role to play.
Activism is taking action to impact social, political and economic systems. Attention activism is any effort to subvert those systems which disrupt our right to a freedom of attention. We join together and stand up to those who steal a share of our minds without consent or recompense. We stand up to those who carelessly threaten our well-being for their own profit. We resist the unfair burden being placed on our minds.
We all know what it feels like. That feeling when Netflix auto-plays the next episode before you have a chance to protest. Or when you find yourself checking your phone mid-conversation. When applied to daily life, mindfulness gives you tools to notice and resist the irresistible draw of manipulative design. It helps you see through the ads telling you that you’re not good enough unless you buy more, more, more.
There will be social, political, and economic implications of a population less susceptible to cheap, base appeals to harvest our attention. The more we can respond to these tactics with intention, the more we can help take them off the table as viable business models. I’m reminded of our changing view on cigarettes over the past generation. Scientific findings and government regulation were crucial, but so were stories of friends quitting and changing social norms around smoking. What if pulling out your phone mid-conversation felt just as rude as lighting up a cigarette in your friend’s face? What if resisting the draw of social media became the cool thing to do in high school?
Don’t underestimate young people. If there’s one thing they're good at, it’s resisting the nonsense fed to them by their parents’ generation.