It is the usual landscape, but it seems strange to us. From the bed to the toilet, from the café to the supermarket, from the subway to the street, we are all immersed in our blue screen. And a new kind of silence — thicker, somewhat stale — is in the air. mobile is a show in continuous session where to find kisses or insults, a laugh or a grimace of disgust, a dream job or a dismissal. It is a Pandora’s box that we open over and over again because we don’t know if we will receive a reward or a punishment. Is irresistible.
Yeah right. We connect to mobile out of necessity, but most of the time we use it because we can’t stop doing it. And we feel an emptiness inside, as in Hollow Inside, that Buzzcocks song. But more and more voices warn that we are witnessing unarmed an implacable battle: the one between our poor will and an infrastructure of industrialized persuasion.
We have been reading these warnings for a long time. There is no such thing, we want to believe. On my mobile, on my tablet, on all my screens, I’m the boss, we say to each other. But most of us know nothing about technology and many of the voices denouncing these abuses are the experts who have built these tools of mass distraction. “It’s like they take behavioral cocaine and spread it all over the interface. That’s what keeps you coming back and back and back,” said Aza Raskin, a former Mozilla employee. “Even if we don’t say it out loud, we secretly want each and every one (of users) to be devilishly hooked on our product,” acknowledges Nir Eyal in his book Hooked. “The scroll of mobile is based on the design of slot machines, because they are specifically designed to keep you glued to them for as long as possible”, according to Adam Alter, author of Irresistible. Who has turned us into tech junkies?
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There is no language for this
James Williams is one of those brilliant minds. He worked at Google until he became aware of the addictive design impact of some digital technologies. He thought it was an urgent topic to talk about, but he realized that there was still no language to understand what we are experiencing. So he left the company and went off to Oxford University. “Why do you go to such an old place to study something so new?” his mother asked, according to Williams in his book Clicks against humanity. Freedom and resistance in the age of technological distraction (Gatopardo Editions). The answer is that he left to acquire analysis tools on the narrow margin of freedom that the turbo economy of attention leaves us. For Williams, we are facing a new time, full of hyper-optimism and ignorance about the consequences of this type of economy. And we must think about it and act on it, or we will reach “a point of no return that can lead us to intentional destitution,” he warns.
“The ‘scroll’ of the mobile is based on the design of slot machines to keep you glued”
Adam Alter, the housekeeper
We believe that our will is to be connected and informed, but we are hooked on the rhythmic sequence designed by digital platforms, as Marta Peirano explains in her book The enemy knows the system. Like Williams, Peirano questions the rhetoric of the inevitability of digital technology as a single destiny. And it underlines that we live trapped in a digital loop due to the pure business decision of the big technology companies, those that exploit our attention by manipulating our most human vibration: the desire to belong.
a new path
Life is play and distraction, says an Arab proverb. Our minds like to run in all directions, aimlessly, and that’s fine. But it is one thing to be distracted on a human scale and another to try to survive in an ecosystem that uses advanced persuasion technologies to break our will. In How to do nothing. Resisting the attention economy, Jenny Odell recalls that the attention effort —the one that tries to tame the drift of thought until it stands firm and develops on a specific object— is a fundamental act of our will. They are our fragile plans, our course. But we humans are prepared to manage scarcity, not abundance, and that is why between the digital infinity and the old analog world, a third space must be built. A new path. “We need distance and time to be minimally functional, to do or think about something minimally significant,” reflects Odell.
Algorithms and cigarettes
Walking through an exhibition on cigarette advertising at the beginning of the 20th century at the Vila Casas Foundation in Barcelona, a poster catches your eye: it is the image of a sweet mother offering a cigarette to her son. Astonishment leads to laughter, but afterwards we think that it is not so strange. After all, until just a few decades ago, the cigarette was a symbol of modernity. That is why the tobacco companies were one of the most powerful industries in the world, a business that grew free and tricky until the use of tobacco was legislated. Until then, the cigarette —which made many happy and destroyed the health of so many— was omnipresent in bars, streets, offices, toilets and bedrooms. The tobacco companies of yesterday — like the technology companies today — were empires that defined their own contemporaneity. They revolutionized social habits using advertising as the main penetration tool, and their power was such that they forced (forced) new debates and legislation in this regard. The enveloping smoke of cigarettes was remembered by Democratic Senator from Connecticut (USA) Richard Blumenthal when listening to Frances Haugen, a member of Facebook’s civic integrity department, testifying in Congress against the company. Faced with the string of abuses, Blumenthal said that the tech giant’s maneuvers seemed “taken from a page of the tobacco industry manual” for hiding its own investigations into harmful practices from the public.
Today, like yesterday, we are facing a new paradigm in which democracy must be used to control excesses and create new rights, warns Shoshana Zuboff in The era of surveillance capitalism. The fight for a human future against the new frontiers of power (Paidos). Like the Far West, it is a new landscape without law, and only the sum of personal decisions and social pressure will manage to articulate new rules of the game for this new world. We all have the right to light a cigarette and look at our mobile from the moment we open our eyes in the morning, but we also have the right to know what the artifacts that condition our lives are made of.
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