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Is quality time the next killer app?

Is quality time the next killer app?
[Photo: Priscilla Du Preez/Unsplash]

Serial entrepreneur and former Mozilla creative lead Aza Raskin reminds me that he invented the infinite scroll–not boastfully, but a tad sheepishly. That’s because the technology, which enables the next article to automatically load as you scroll to the end of the current one (as you experience on Fast Company), can be harmful to your psychological health.

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Online content that goes on and on, effortlessly–like Facebook and Twitter feeds or Netflix autoplays–nudge us to spend more time connected to a narrow virtual world and less to a full, real one. This “extraction of human attention” is one of the great threats to humanity, say Raskin and former Google design ethicist Tristan Harris–comparable to climate change. In 2018, the pair formed the nonprofit Center for Humane Technology, with the goal of changing a tech culture that sucks up our attention, pulls us into polarized niches, and hooks us on the chase for virtual popularity.

On Tuesday at San Francisco’s SFJAZZ Center, the two offered an erudite presentation on how tech exploits human nature–a coming-out party for the group before a crowd of journalists and luminaries ranging from Apple cofounder Steve Wozniak to actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt. It’s a compelling talk, but the actions they announce seem prosaic: a new podcast, a conference in 2020, and a worksheet for designers.

So I push for specifics. That’s how we get to infinite scroll, and Raskin’s ideas to undermine it. “We know as a field that retention, how engaging something is, is directly proportional to how fast it loads,” he says, proposing a solution: “The more you scroll on social media, the slower things should load, with some random delay.”

Raskin doesn’t expect Facebook to go for this. But his old employer, Firefox browser maker Mozilla, just might. So could a company like Apple, which controls everything that runs on its platforms. Apple has attacked distractions in the past by blocking annoying popups in its browsers. Lately, it’s made privacy a selling feature–taking on Facebook and the whole humanity-monetizing tech industry.

Rivals like Samsung and Android-maker Google might follow, he claims. But I’m skeptical, given Samsung’s penchant for loading phones with bloatware apps and Google’s obsession with analyzing people and making decisions for them.

Beyond throwing a wrench in dangerous tech, Raskin proposes positive innovations. “Where is there an interface on my phone for you and I to hang out more?” he asks.

“Imagine if I said, ‘Hey Siri, I want to spend more time with Sean’…And behind the scenes, it goes out to Facebook, it goes out to Yelp, it goes out to all these different service providers that are now competing to offer up suggestions,” he says. The end product might be something like an alert telling us that four dinners have been scheduled for the coming year.

The analogy is an apt one. Raskin and I met at a conference about a decade ago, exchanged contact info, and promised to keep in touch. This is the first time we’ve seen each other since then.

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