“We become what we behold. We shape our tools and then our tools shape us.” – Marshall McLuhan
What are you thinking about right now? What were you thinking about 5 minutes ago? A month ago?
Our attention is our most precious commodity. It determines how we spend every minute of our day. It is also the target of companies operating in the Information Age.
Where Have You Been?
If we think in conventional* computer terms, we do our work in files. Open a text document, add a paragraph, save, and close. Revise, rinse, and repeat.
When you add certain apps to your smartphone, this is essentially what major companies do as you go about your day. Without your awareness or explicit permission, they open a text document – "ty_sopko.txt"; add a paragraph – "GPS indicates Ty went to a store"; save and close.
It seems innocent enough, right?
Let's expand this thought since technology always increases in complexity. New GPS solutions promise accuracy down to one foot. That's right, GPS that will disclose if you are on the toilet or in the kitchen. This accuracy improves the results of, for example, a fitness tracking app.
Consider this fictional story:
7:00AM – GPS measures movement, suggesting that User 1 has gotten out of bed and has put his phone in his pocket while walking around.
7:30AM – User 1's route to work is recorded on a digital map.
8:00AM – User 1's speed in the parking lot has changed to suggest that they are now walking on foot.
11:00AM – User 1 leaves work to go to a mental health clinic.
12:30PM – User 1 goes to a pharmacy, suggesting treatment for some type of condition.
5:00PM – User 1 leaves work and proceeds to go to User 2's house.
(Last week, the app recorded that User 1 visited User 3's house, and this company knows that User 3 is married to User 4. This visit was brief and irregular, and only involved User 1 and User 3.)
5:15PM – User 1 and User 2 leave together, en route to a public building. An AI-powered analysis of schedules posted on the web suggests that this is where an AA meeting will be held.
This fitness tracking app sells the data to one of their partners. After all, in that 50 page EULA, you agreed that your data could be sold. This partner happens to be an insurance broker. The result?
User 1 is denied for new insurance since they have an unreported pre-existing condition. After an AI crunched this data, User 1 now has the following labels: mental health condition, adulterer, and alcoholic.
Is this oversimplified? Of course. Most algorithms would require thousands of data points before they can come to the wrong conclusion.
What really happened in our fictional story? Suppose that User 1 took their ill friend, User 5 (who doesn't use this app), to User 5's doctor appointment. User 1 also drove User 5 to the pharmacy. The unscheduled visit to see User 3? They were planning a surprise party for User 4. The AA meeting? It was a typo, scheduled for next week. The meeting was actually a hobbyist get-together.
The labels applied by AI will never be accurate. We see articles touting that the accuracy is always getting better, but we never see 100%. The problem is that these inaccurate labels are difficult to remove. Labels define and restrict us.
And so, to make the labels more accurate, companies try to capture more data on you. This only serves to confound the problem since data is a measurement; a measurement is ultimately a guess. They may be highly accurate guesses, such as when using precision tools like a digital multimeter. But ultimately, they are trying to put a fixed number on vibrating atoms and energy.
The other result from this – the result that has to do with your attention – is that you will now see ads related to your malformed labels. You might be shown medication ads. You might be given ads for counselors. Or, you might be shown ads for alcoholic drinks.
* For the sake of illustration, I wanted to stick to familiar terms. The reality is that datacenters – large buildings with rack after rack of computers – store your data in fragmented, redundant chunks. We tend to forget that these buildings consume megawatts of power for the purpose of storing and safeguarding the company's collected profile of you, among other things.
What Have You Become?
Now that we have some foundation, let's go back to the opening quote from McLuhan. You become what you behold.
Whether or not the psychological profile built about you is accurate or not is irrelevant. You will be shown ads based on the labels applied to you, and those ads will shape you. Your attention will consume the ads whether or not you notice. (This is why advertising is everywhere. It works.)
A few likes here and there on social media and the AI + Big Data powered response shows you "more relevant" content. This cycle of refinement continues as you click or tap. You end up trapped in a self-perpetuating spiral: an echo chamber where the echo is altered to change what you do and how you behave.
You cannot unsee objects, unhear sounds, or unthink things. What you expose your attention to is cumulative, too. A horror movie that you watched as a teenager is imprinted in you. Even worse, a smell or sound may trigger the recall of a personal trauma.
There is a Chinese proverb that comes to mind. The first line is: Be careful of your thoughts, for your thoughts become your words. Your thoughts are guided by where you place your attention.
Continuing the proverb, your attention ultimately directs your thoughts, words, actions, habits, character, and destiny.
(This statement does not conflict with my post about birth lotteries; it refines it. The opportunities (destiny) afforded by your birth lottery are narrowed by your choices, which are in turn a function of your thoughts and attention.)
Companies selling digital products increasingly compete for your attention. In a previous post, I made a side comment about intermittent rewards. This, and other techniques like it, are now common in apps and especially social media.
What purpose do they serve? To exploit your humanity. To keep you looking at ads. To waste your time for profiteering. To make you do something that you would not otherwise do.
Your Attention, Please
As a society, we focus on what kind of food we put into our bodies. We typically neglect what we allow our brain to absorb.
Here's an exercise to try. Sit still, close your eyes, and try to think about nothing for a few minutes. You can quietly observe your thoughts as they bubble up. These thoughts are due to sights, sounds, smells – even things that you have touched – that you have been exposed to throughout your life.
Once it goes in, it does not come back out. Neuroplasticity guarantees that.
Your brain needs to be fed carefully.
As the technological world rushes to bombard you with things that are supposed to get your attention, Shift Sight will do the opposite: we want to put you back in control. There is a significant body of knowledge that shows our current digital lifestyles are a burden to our happiness and cognitive abilities.
Through Montessori methods and the latest neuroscience, we are creating Jade as a piece of humane technology. The most remarkable humane technology is the printed book: it captures your attention, enthralls you, and helps you develop yourself.
Humane tech does not require casino techniques to keep you hooked. Jade has no Internet access. There is no data captured about you, and there are no ads.
The challenges humanity will face in the next few decades require fearless people that have developed creative problem-solving skills. Jade is a means to get there.
See you next week!
Ty is a Founder of Shift Sight, LLC.