One of the speakers in ENGR is Pete McEachen; in his lecture last semester, he mentioned that engineers are merchants of peoples’ attention. Which got me thinking: What ethical imperative do engineers have in this business of attention merchantry? Some cars’ touchscreens don’t work when they are in motion, even for the person in the passenger seat, which is kind of a blunt tool, but I get what the engineers of those cars are trying to do: prevent the car from being so attention-grabbing that it kills the driver. That’s an example. What about the ever-present example of our personal devices? How was our attention considered and exploited in their development and engineering?

This excellent and freaky piece, “The scientists who make apps addictive,” from 1843 magazine, explores that question. It follows a group that applies principles of psychology to its engineering of apps. For example:

When you get to the end of an episode of “House of Cards” on Netflix, the next episode plays automatically unless you tell it to stop. Your motivation is high, because the last episode has left you eager to know what will happen and you are mentally immersed in the world of the show. The level of difficulty is reduced to zero. Actually, less than zero: it is harder to stop than to carry on.

“Even sitting next to someone multitasking on a laptop could affect your learning and performance, according to a 2012 Canadian study”
This is from a New York Times piece about digital distraction in the classroom, and it makes total sense to me, because when a student in surfing the Web as I’m teaching, it is very distracting.

This piece from KQED’s science blog argues that even when we think we are being productive on our devices, our brains are comprised and unfocused.

For the purposes of engineering innovation and invention, what seems particularly interesting is that our phones engage our attention so well that we seem unable to simply not use them. Rather, new innovations are required to MAKE us not use them so much.

The KQED piece notes SelfControl, Freedom, or FocusMe–three apps that turn off the Internet or parts of the Internet for some amount of time so you can get work done. Needless to say, Freedom isn’t free–and I know, because I use it myself.


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