ThinkingWhy we adore the technologies that undo our capacities to think

Why we adore the technologies that undo our capacities to think

A client sent me a great article this week on how technology is intentionally designed to capture our attention, interrupt our work, and consume our time. The article is by Tristan Harris, a Google “Design Ethics and Product Philosopher” (whatever the heck that job is, I mean, really…). Anyway, the article served to crystallise a lot of my recent thinking, reading, and listening – trying to answer the question: “How is the ubiquity of technology affecting the way we think, relate and work?”

So, encouraged by the synchronicity of my client’s email, and spurred on not to be outdone by a millennial with a fancy title, I’ve decided to start a series of weekly posts on how technology is affecting us and what we can do about it.

Technology “hijacks people’s minds”

Tristan Harris’ thesis is that “technology hijacks people’s minds”. In his article he describes ten ways technology designers achieve this. And he makes a compelling case. Have a read of the article in full when you get a chance.

12415911_lBut probably the most literal way your mind gets hijacked by technology is when it exploits your dopamine pathways to give you that little “zing” when someone likes your status update, or you get another email, or something new is on your twitter feed. Importantly, that reinforcement is random. When you check your phone or computer: sometimes there’s something there that’s new and “zingy” – releasing the little dopamine rush – and sometimes there isn’t. And that random positive reinforcement is the most effective way of getting you hooked to the checking behaviour.

Harris points this out in his article. But we were learning this in Psychology 101 thirty years ago. Behaviourists ever since Skinner have shown that random reinforcement is the most effective way to hook a rat into pressing a button. If you want a rat to learn to press a button, you could simply reward it with a pellet of yummy rat food every time it pressed (continuous reinforcement). But – fiendishly, and for reasons deep in our mammalian evolution – you’ll hook it far more quickly and far more strongly if you randomly give it a pellet when it presses. Sometimes it presses and gets rewarded. Sometimes it presses and doesn’t get rewarded. Do it that random way and you’ll get the poor little creature pressing that button like there’s no tomorrow.

10313874_sOf course, if the picture of a rat desperately pressing a button because of the power of random reinforcement makes you think of any one of us desperately pushing a slot machine button in the quest of a random jackpot, then you wouldn’t be alone. Slot machines are evil – yes I use that word deliberately – for exactly this point. They hijack the deepest parts of our early mammalian brains and turn them against us. All of us in Psychology 101 learned that thirty years ago. Clearly most of our nation’s State Premiers were taking Government 101 instead.

Anyway, that same mechanism – random reinforcement from the buzz of dopamine when something new turns up on your phone – is what drives our behaviour to keep checking our phones (apparently 150 times a day). It is an addiction mechanism that uses the same pathways as gambling.

So, what are the consequences of all this and what can we do about it? Well, that’s what I want to explore for the next few weeks as we go through this series of posts. I see at least three consequences of the ubiquity of technology and the way it “hijacks our minds” (to use Harris’ term):

  • The rise of distraction and interruptions.
  • The increase in information overload.
  • The shallowness of thinking and public debate.

The rise of distraction and interruptions

A 2012 survey by the Kelly Global Workforce Index (168,000 respondents, worldwide, referenced here) showed that 43% of respondents believed that the use of social media in the workplace reduces productivity. But you don’t need a wide survey. Just look at Maneesh Sethi who doubled his work productivity simply by hiring someone to slap him every time he looked at Facebook.

Over the next two weeks we will look at how technology:

  • Distracts us
  • Allows others to interrupt us more easily
  • And even allows us to interrupt ourselves (yep, “self interruption” is a thing, go figure).

Remember, after an interruption it can take us up to 25 minutes to return to the cognitive state we were in beforehand. You get the idea that this can be a major hit to deep work.

The increase in information overload

After those posts, we will then turn our attention to the phenomenon of the increase in information overload experienced by knowledge workers. We’ll look at the symptoms – how do you know you have it. And we will look at some solutions:

  • Becoming “goal directed” in how you pursue information.
  • Tuning the “signal to noise” ratio of your sources.
  • Letting the “healthy eating” metaphor of information consumption lead you to “time-boxing” your interactions with various media.

The shallowness of thinking and public debate

Finally, we will spend a few posts looking at what all this is doing to the quality of our thinking individually as well as to the quality of the political debates we have these days. I’ll be riffing off Neil Postman’s incredibly prescient 1985 book Amusing ourselves to death.

Postman says that in the mid 20th Century there were two competing visions of the future. Orwell’s 1984 and Huxley’s Brave New World. Postman’s contention is that Huxley’s vision won. To quote Postman: “As [Huxley] saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think”.

What you can do before next week

So, I’d love you to come on this journey with me as we think about how technology is affecting us. If you haven’t already – please sign up to the weekly email so you don’t miss a post. (Hit the “Subscribe” button in the top right, or drop me an email at

And, you might want to try something in the interim. This week, when you have a solid piece of work you need to do, try the following:

  • Log off email and close down your browsers.
  • Turn off your phone.
  • Set aside an hour or two to work uninterrupted.
  • And keep a pad and pen beside you.
  • Every time you have an urge to get on line, or think “I should look this up” or “I should check my email”, or you want to check Facebook, or whatever: resist the urge, and write it down on your pad instead.
  • At the end of the time, look back at your pad and see just how many times you would have gone online, and imagine the time-suck you avoided by not exposing yourself to the “hyper-link machine” that is the internet.

(I got this idea from a recent podcast by Shane Parrish at the Knowledge Project – well worth a listen).

Anyway – see you next week as we break open distractions and interruptions.