Heads down, phones out: The death of free time and free will

Why do you check your phone 150 times a day? Is it a conscious choice, or have the attention merchants gotten into your head?

Do you really have sovereignty over own your mind anymore? Tristan Harris, a design thinker and former ethicist at Google, points to how smart phones changed our contract with advertisers, and our relationship with reality. Rather than being presented with choices as a consumer, software engineers at companies like Facebook leverage deep psychology to make their products addictive. The longer and more often sites and apps can hold your attention, the more they can make in advertising revenue. This is the attention economy—and it's why the average person checks their phone 150 times each day. It's also why Facebook is a free service—'if you're not paying for the product, you are the product,' as the saying goes. Harris explains that the constant tug-of-war on our attention won't end until consumers demand it: we have to ask for a subscription model. In the meantime, consumers can empower themselves by resisting the lure of these psychological hooks. If you walk into a cafe and there's a queue, don't look for the reality escape hatch that is your phone. Spend some time in your own thoughts. Exercise your willpower. Technology is a wonderful thing, but mindfulness, conscious choices, and real-world connection are all too easy to lose in the attention economy. To find out more about Tristan Harris, head to tristanharris.com.

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Is Your Life Really Yours? How ‘The Attention Merchants’ Got Inside Our Heads

“My Experience is What I Agree to Pay Attention to,” said psychologist William James. And therein lies the problem and danger of advertising: we don’t always agree or choose to pay attention, but it shapes our life experience irrevocably.

When we turn on the television, or leaf through the newspaper, every one of us enters into a knowing contract with advertisers – they will do their best to sell us something. According to Tim Wu, law professor at Columbia University and author of new book The Attention Merchants, the online world is markedly different – it runs away with that mutual understanding, stretches it to places and methods you would not sensibly consent to.

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