In keeping with the new trend in tech toward a focus on “time well spent” and how more emphasis needs to be put on users’ well being, Google has released an academic paper today from two of the search giant’s researchers that basically makes a depressing but unsurprising case. That the tech industry has turned us all into brain-fried zombies whose attention has been hijacked by digital devices and apps that use tons of tricks to keep us clicking and keep us engaged.
Kind of a sad commentary on the moment we’re in, that it’s seen as a breakthrough to realize that zombie, screen-tapping users aren’t a good thing, but there you go. The study that fed this new paper out of Google included following a small set of smartphone users and watching how they use their phones throughout the day. Obviously, for most of them it was almost like a bionic hand, or an extension of their body. The study combined that with interviews of additional smartphone users.
Julia Aranda and Safia Baig, the two researchers, presented their findings yesterday at a conference in Europe. “We feel that the technology industry’s focus on engagement metrics is core to this attention crisis that users are facing,” they wrote. Continuing, they encourage the consideration of “alternative metrics to indicate success, relating to user satisfaction and quality of time spent.”
Google, for its part, has taken to calling this a push for more JOMO. A cheesy riff on the old “fear of missing out” phrase, just replacing the first word with “joy.”
JOMO is kind of the opposite of the thing we reported on back in July, about engineers and tech insiders coming forward to say they designed social media, specifically, to be like “behavioral cocaine,” in the phrasing of one of them. The new Google paper’s point is that to really fix a lot of what’s broken in the tech space and to rewire the incentives that keep people hooked, people somehow need to be digitally spurred into not feeling like they can’t put their phones down. Easy, right? At one point, the researchers note that people they spoke with said they feel an intense pressure, whenever they get a text message of some kind, to respond within 20 minutes.
“But to meet this expectation,” they write, “often presents conflicts — distraction from what they were doing, taking attention away from the other people they were spending time with, or interrupting them from free time.”
The Washington Post picks up the thread from there in a write-up about the paper: “The paper’s authors suggest that it would be helpful for companies to allow people to use their smartphones in a limited capacity — keeping some essential functions open, while muting everything else. (Google has implemented a ‘Wind Down’ mode for the evening that does this.) The researchers also suggest that companies could design their systems to prevent people from feeling as though they have to reengage with their phones once they’ve set them down.
“Aranda and Baig write in the paper that there should be more research into how well tools meant to limit engagement work.” Google, in a statement, promised to “continue their work in this area.”