There is a psychological self-deception called the end-of-history illusion, which refers to the feeling that—no matter where you are in the evolution of technology—your time seems incredibly advanced. However Adam Alter reminds us that the trajectory of progress keeps rising, and what we think is cutting-edge now—Snapchat, Facebook, the iPhone 8, the iPhone 12—will in ten years will seem laughably primitive. It’s what we’ll have in this new world that concerns Alter. He cites experts who predict that most of us will own VR goggles in the next 5 years, and if the success of clickbait and its irresistible effect on our psychology is any indication, the fully immersive alternative realities of VR will shake the foundations of our minds, relationships, and attention spans (which are already kaput). As we’re lured into a life on the digital plain by corporations—who make money from every second they can capture our attention—virtual reality may threaten reality itself. Those of us who have known a life without it will have an slight advantage in managing its control over our behavior, but Alter raises concerns for children won’t come at this technology pre-equipped and skeptical enough to see the intentions behind such lures—and what might be lost if we don’t know how to disconnect. Adam Alter is the author of Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked.
Young people today, in particular, but even adults don’t have a tolerance for boredom—at all. There’s some research looking at how our attention spans have changed across time. There’s some evidence that they’ve shrunk by about 33 percent since the year 2000. One reason for that is because we interact with devices so much of the time and they don’t demand anything of you. They are deliverers. They bring things to you. You don’t need an attention span. If you’re reading a book, if you have a lapse in attention for even a couple of minutes, you know you’ll get to the end of the page, you’ll realize that you haven’t really been paying attention for the last half of page—that’s a problem and you have to return back to where you were. That requires willed and directed attention.
That’s just not true of smart phones. They are constantly competing for our attention. Every app, every social media platform, pretty much everything you encounter on a smart phone is designed to give you what you need. They are competing for you instead of you competing for whatever else is going on in the world.
And what that means is you don’t need to have much of an attention span. And we’ve seen this in a lot of different respects, even beyond smart phones themselves, the way we interact with email, for example, when we get an email in the workplace it takes us on average about six seconds to check that email. And every time you check an email you spend 25 minutes getting back to the zone of engagement you were in before you checked the email. So what’s happening here is we just don’t have much attention for the things that we’re doing because we’re constantly distracted, we’re pulled away to do things like check emails, quickly refresh a Twitter feed, an Instagram feed and so on. And as a result we really don’t need an attention span. We don’t need to be as engaged as we used to and we can still get through and get by in the world.
I think we have a lot to be worried about with respect to the evolution of tech and the way it engages us. We are far more engaged with tech today than we were ten years ago. And when we look back ten years from now I think we’re going to look at Facebook, Instagram, Twitter as relics—and as primitive relics to be totally honest. The degree of engagement we’ll have with things like virtual reality tech and virtual reality platforms will far exceed anything you see now. If I’m sitting with you at a table and we’re having a conversation and there’s a phone upside down on the table next to us, just for the presence of that phone, the connection we form between us will be diminished.
And if a phone can do that turned upside down because of all the things that it implies—that there’s a whole world out there—imagine at any moment in time you have to choose between the real world with all its messiness, with all its complexity, with all its imperfections, and this perfect virtual world.