Navigating technology’s attentional labyrinth

The challenges of using personal technologies as tools

Tools serve three kinds of purposes: physical (a hammer), social (correspondence, laws) or psychological (alcohol, a book). I am, of course, using the term “tool” rather broadly, to refer to any of the things we have developed to serve certain purposes. Looking at each of these categories, we can see that physical tools are the simplest to use and understand – either you need an axe for something or you don’t. Social tools are more complicated but their use is usually regulated by social rules, so while someone might wish to work all the time, we set working hours as a guideline. However, the last category of personal, psychological tools are the most difficult to use well because each of our situations is unique, and we address our psychological needs differently – for example, one person may eat to improve their mood, and another may clean their home.

Although no tool always neatly falls into only one of these categories, I believe that electronic devices are especially difficult to classify. These devices differ from most tools in at least three important respects. Firstly, they serve important psychological purposes as well as professional and social ones. Secondly, they do so in an indefinite (and increasingly large) number of ways. Finally, they have been rapidly becoming more and more personal and private, making it more difficult for us to collectively find appropriate uses for these devices. For example, someone may value news, and so can spend all their time reading news without running out of it. Another person may want to entertain themselves, and so watch TV shows and play video games all day without running out of new content. Another person may work as an “Instagram celebrity,” and so need to be promoting their profile one way or another all the time. These are people with different values who use these technologies in radically different ways, and so it’s difficult to reach a consensus on what the right time is for its use, and what its purpose is.

Another difficulty in finding the sweet spot for the use of these technologies is that they are commercial goods that rely on capturing our attention for as long as possible, no matter what we are attending to. So, in addition to the difficulty in reaching a social consensus on limiting interaction with something that has indefinite possibility, these technologies are designed to egg us on and keep going rather than find a balance.

I said earlier that there is not much commonality in people’s use of electronic technology. This is true at one level, yet at another, some commonalities are apparent. Our devices trap us all, isolate us, and open us up to an infinite and ever-growing world which we can scarcely hope to navigate or understand. It should hardly be surprising, then, that we have difficulty managing our behavior in the face of this – the situation is almost like if someone brought a child to the world’s biggest candy store and bought her all the candy they could eat for “free” (paid for in attention), encouraging her to try candy based on her entire eating history. And in this electronic candy story, we have no parents or friends, only contacts – contacts who don’t really know what we’re doing, and often lack time and means to find out. Electronic devices are unique and unprecedented kinds of tools. With them, we are caught in a sprawling and endlessly beckoning labyrinth, completely alone and without a guide. It is no wonder we have trouble navigating.

Shekhar Dewan
Shekhar Dewan is a contributor to the Argosy.