Tag Archives: Guardian

Immature Architects Built the Attention Economy

SMKR / Barcroft USA / Barcoft Media via Getty Images

A cadre of young technologists at Google, Twitter, and Facebook admit it: they didn’t think making smartphones addictive would make smartphones this addictive. Come to think of it, any negative consequences of the persuasive design they concocted in their twenties never really occurred to them.

Take Loren Brichter, the designer who created pull-to-refresh (the downward abracadabra swipe that prompts new app content to load). Brichter was 24 when he accidentally popularized this ubiquitous 2D gambling gesture. Of course, analogies between pull-to-refresh and slot machines are only clear to him now — in retrospect, through the hindsight bestowed upon him by adulthood.

“Now 32, Brichter says he never intended the design to be addictive,” Paul Lewis reports in the Guardian‘s latest special technology feature. Yet even the tech whiz behind the curtain has since fallen prey to some of his old design tricks. “I have two kids now,” Brichter confesses, “and I regret every minute that I’m not paying attention to them because my smartphone has sucked me in.”

As if these compulsions weren’t hollow enough, push notification technology rendered pull-to-refresh obsolete years ago. Apps can update content automatically, so swiping and pulling and user nudges aren’t just addictive, they’re redundant. According to Brichter, pull-to-refresh “could easily retire,” but now it’s become like the Door Close button in elevators that close automatically: “People just like to push it.”

So they do — over and over and over and over. In cases of addiction, people “just like to” touch their phones more than 2,617 times a day. As the opportunity costs of all that frittered attention really start to add up, Brichter and his peers find themselves fundamentally questioning their legacies:

“I’ve spent many hours and weeks and months and years thinking about whether anything I’ve done has made a net positive impact on society or humanity at all,” [Brichter] says. He has blocked certain websites, turned off push notifications, restricted his use of the Telegram app to message only with his wife and two close friends, and tried to wean himself off Twitter. “I still waste time on it,” he confesses, “just reading stupid news I already know about.” He charges his phone in the kitchen, plugging it in at 7pm and not touching it until the next morning.

“Smartphones are useful tools,” he says. “But they’re addictive. Pull-to-refresh is addictive. Twitter is addictive. These are not good things. When I was working on them, it was not something I was mature enough to think about. I’m not saying I’m mature now, but I’m a little bit more mature, and I regret the downsides.”

Lewis spotlights several designers who’ve come to similar ethical crossroads in their 30s, many of whom have quit posts at household-name technological juggernauts in the hopes of designing our way out of all this squandering.

If the attention economy is just a euphemism for the advertising economy, these techno-ethicists ask, can we intelligently design our way back to safeguarding our actual intentions? Can we take back the time we’ve lost to touchscreen-enabled compulsions, and reallocate that time to bend it to our will again? Or have we forgotten that human will and democracy, as one of Lewis’ “refuseniks” reminds us, are one and the same?

James Williams does not believe talk of dystopia is far-fetched. The ex-Google strategist who built the metrics system for the company’s global search advertising business, he has had a front-row view of an industry he describes as the “largest, most standardised and most centralised form of attentional control in human history”.

Williams, 35, left Google last year, and is on the cusp of completing a PhD at Oxford University exploring the ethics of persuasive design. It is a journey that has led him to question whether democracy can survive the new technological age.

He says his epiphany came a few years ago, when he noticed he was surrounded by technology that was inhibiting him from concentrating on the things he wanted to focus on. “It was that kind of individual, existential realisation: what’s going on?” he says. “Isn’t technology supposed to be doing the complete opposite of this?”

That discomfort was compounded during a moment at work, when he glanced at one of Google’s dashboards, a multicoloured display showing how much of people’s attention the company had commandeered for advertisers. “I realised: this is literally a million people that we’ve sort of nudged or persuaded to do this thing that they weren’t going to otherwise do,” he recalls.

If the attention economy erodes our ability to remember, to reason, to make decisions for ourselves – faculties that are essential to self-governance – what hope is there for democracy itself?

“The dynamics of the attention economy are structurally set up to undermine the human will,” he says. “If politics is an expression of our human will, on individual and collective levels, then the attention economy is directly undermining the assumptions that democracy rests on.” If Apple, Facebook, Google, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat are gradually chipping away at our ability to control our own minds, could there come a point, I ask, at which democracy no longer functions?

“Will we be able to recognise it, if and when it happens?” Williams replies. “And if we can’t, then how do we know it hasn’t happened already?”

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Our Contemporary Notion of Self-Esteem Was Born — Surprise! — in 1980s California

Image via Pixabay (CC0)

The connection between how we feel about ourselves and how well we do (at work, in school, in our personal lives) feels unshakeable. Doesn’t it seem intuitive — if not axiomatic — that confidence in our abilities begets success? Not so fast. In an excerpt from his recent book, shared at the Guardian, Will Storr uncovers the recent history of self-esteem — including its origins in shaky science that was expertly packaged and marketed by John “Vasco” Vasconcellos, a California legislator on a mission:

In the mid-80s, the notion that feeling good about yourself was the answer to all your problems sounded to many like a silly Californian fad. But it was also a period when Thatcher and Reagan were busily redesigning western society around their project of neoliberalism. By breaking the unions, slashing protections for workers and deregulating banking and business, they wanted to turn as much of human life as possible into a competition of self versus self. To get along and get ahead in this new competitive age, you had to be ambitious, ruthless, relentless. You had to believe in yourself. What Vasco was offering was a simple hack that would make you a more winning contestant.

Vasco’s first attempt at having his task force mandated into law came to a halt in 1984, when he suffered a heart attack. His belief in positive thinking was such that, in an attempt to cure himself, he wrote to his constituents asking them to picture themselves with tiny brushes swimming through his arteries, scrubbing at the cholesterol, while singing, to the tune of Row, Row, Row Your Boat: “Now let’s swim ourselves/ up and down my streams/Touch and rub and warm and melt/the plaque that blocks my streams.” It didn’t work. As the senate voted on his proposal, Vasco was recovering from seven-way coronary bypass surgery.

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The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

Below, our favorite stories of the week. Kindle users, you can also get them as a Readlist.

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The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

Photo: Matt, Flickr

Below, our favorite stories of the week. Kindle users, you can also get them as a Readlist.
Sign up to receive this list free every Friday in your inbox.

* * *

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Journalist Jack Shenker on the State of the Egyptian Revolution, Five Years Later

The future of Egypt lies not in the hands of political leaders and members of the elite, writes journalist Jack Shenker in his new book, The Egyptians: A Radical Story, but in the hands of ordinary Egyptians: Bedouins fighting for their land, DJs producing underground music in garages, and, especially, in Cairo’s youth. In one scene from an excerpt published at the Guardian, Shenker visits Zawyet Dahshur school, where young children spend their lunch breaks playing games of revolution:

A man emerged from a door on the edge of the playground and walked across to ask what we were doing there. He was a young maths teacher, and after we explained that we wanted to see the school where the video had been shot, he invited us to the staffroom for tea. “You have no idea how obsessively the children throw themselves into it,” he confided. “That video became a bit famous but it was just one minute of footage — they’ve been playing like that since the revolution started, during every break time and again when classes finish at the end of the day. Sometimes they do it 20 times in a row, pretending to attack the police, miming being shot and gassed, then picking themselves up again to carry on fighting.” I said that it was brave of them to chant so openly against the army, and the teacher shook his head and laughed.

“They’re braver than that,” he replied. “The sound on the video is very crackly so people didn’t realise; everyone who watched it thought the children were calling for the downfall of the musheer [field marshal], but actually they were yelling ‘el‑sha’ab, yureed, isqat el‑mudeer’ — ‘The people want the downfall of the headmaster.’ They weren’t just copying what they saw on television, they were changing it to carry out their own mini-revolution right here at the school!” He poured out more tea and shovelled a small mountain of sugar into each glass. “The children are completely different now. Within two minutes of the revolution starting they had begun speaking out in class, challenging things the teachers said, asking us about what was happening on the streets and what it all meant. Some of the staff, including me, had participated in the protests in Tahrir, and the students wanted to know everything, they wanted to know how it felt to have a voice at last. We changed, and they changed with us.”

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Brussels Playbook: Meet the Mike Allen of Europe

A 35-year-old Australian, [Ryan] Heath rises every morning at 4.30 to finish off the day’s Brussels Playbook, which in only a month and a half already goes out to almost 40,000 people. (The site itself received, in May, about 1.7m page views, from just over 700,000 unique visitors. The original Politico receives 7m monthly uniques, though they claim their relevance not by aggregate traffic but by the quality of their audience.) If Budoff Brown and Palmeri think a lot about their audience in Washington, and Kaminski and the tech reporters keep Europe more broadly in mind, Playbook speaks directly to Brussels. It promises to create Politico as the trusted house organ for a community of the displaced.

Though Heath’s Playbook roughly follows the original Mike Allen model from Washington, Heath has made it his own. He is aware that it is forging something new and, rather than fear the threat of absurdity, he allows it to revel in its own surrealism. Heath writes like he speaks, in flirtatious, conspiratorial tones about serious, substantive things. A recent item: “FINLAND – WELCOME TO THE LAND OF SOLUTIONS: That’s the official name of the Finnish government’s programme. Take that, all you Lands of Problems! Many journalists weren’t able to digest the new programme at the government’s regular sauna briefing Wednesday night (yes, people from outside Brussels, this is a real, proud tradition) because they were camped out waiting for Juncker and Tsipras to finish dining. So we bring them, and you, the full programme of the new government.” Another item seemed built around the basic desire to simply delight in the phrase, “Róża Gräfin von Thun und Hohenstein, chair of the IMCO working group on the DSM.”

Gideon Lewis-Kraus writing for The Guardian about Politico‘s new Brussels outfit. The brash, oft-gossipy has website transformed Washington D.C. journalism, but it remains to be seen whether even they can make E.U. politics sexy.
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See Also: “Politico’s Mike Allen, the Man the White House Wakes Up To” (Mark Leibovich, New York Times, April 2010)

How ‘Body Worlds’ Inspired People to Leave Their Bodies to Science

Photo by Brett Neilsen

Why do people leave their bodies to science, or more specifically medical research? And what exactly does that entail for them, after the fact? Writing for The Guardian, David Derbyshire delved into these questions, exploring the motivations behind donation, as well as what the actual process looks like. In the excerpt below, he discusses the touring Body Worlds show—”a display of dissected human corpses preserved using a process called plastination”—and its effect:

Body Worlds artfully straddles the line between education and entertainment. When it first came to London in 2002, it generated controversy for the way the bodies – skillfully preserved by replacing the water in cells with resin and then artfully dissected – were arranged.

More than 40 million people have seen a Body Worlds show worldwide; 180,000 people saw the most recent in Newcastle. The show features all von Hagens’ trademark qualities. It is thought provoking, technically accomplished and playful. At the entrance, visitors encounter a skeleton in a running pose handing a baton to a figure made of soft tissue. On closer examination, both figures turn out to be from the same donor. Another body was dissected in the pose of a fisherman with hundreds of body parts suspended in mid air on fishing lines, a version of the “exploded” diagrams normally seen in a children’s Dorling and Kindersley science book. It says something about the human response to corpses that the atmosphere in the exhibition was cathedral like. Outside the voices of children filtered through from the nearby cafe. But inside, among the bodies and tasteful dark drapes, tones were muted. At the exit is a consent form, filled in by an anonymous donor – a reminder that these are not plastic mannequins, but once living people. Von Hagens has no shortage of donors. His exhibitions have used 1,100 bodies – but he claims to have another 12,100 living donors signed up. One is Emma Knott, a PR consultant in London. “I was so inspired after I saw the exhibition], which is why I made that decision,” she says. But does she have reservations? “Not really, I mean let’s face it I’m going to be dead.” For her, the attraction lies in encouraging people to get excited about science and anatomy. “The bodies looked so incredible and beautiful and I just thought that would be a fantastic thing to leave once you have left the world – to be preserved in that fashion.”

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Paradise Lost: ‘I Did Not Die. I Did Not Go to Heaven’

Photo: AJ Mangoba

Alex Malarkey was paralyzed from the neck down in a car accident when he was six years old. The young boy claimed to have visited heaven, seen his stillborn sister and talked with Jesus. Years later, he began to recant the story touted in his bestselling book, but no one would listen–until now. Michelle Dean reports at The Guardian:

“I did not die. I did not go to heaven. When I made the claims, I had never read the Bible. People have profited from lies, and continue to. They should read the Bible, which is enough,” Alex wrote.

Jokes playing on his surname have been made far and wide, but Alex Malarkey is not James Frey for the evangelical set. He was not, and still is not, an adult. He is dependent on the care of others. Contesting this book would mean discrediting his own father as his co-author. It would also pit Alex against an evangelical publishing industry that has made huge profits off too-good-to-be-true memoirs that demand readers take them, quite literally, on faith.

At a time when publishing is under pressure from Amazon and e-books, near-death experience books are reliable, even phenomenon-level business: the story of [Colton] Burpo – which includes visions of Jesus on a horse and his miscarried baby sister during an emergency appendectomy – has reportedly sold more than 10m books, and The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven moved over 1m copies before its publisher pulled the book from shelves on Friday.

The publisher, Tyndale House, said in a statement it was “saddened to learn” that its co-author “is now saying that he made up the story of dying and going to heaven.” Since the scandal broke, the Malarkeys have not spoken publicly. According to family members, Kevin Malarkey seems to be standing by the book. The agent who sold Alex’s story to Tyndale House – who reassured them by telling them how the book money could help, his mother wrote on her blog – has also remained silent.

But a closer look at family correspondence and social media postings in the years in between reveals how a push for sales can obscure the truth when it’s easier not to listen. Since at least 2011, Alex and Beth Malarkey have been telling people, on her blog, that the memoir had substantial inaccuracies. Emails obtained by the Guardian from Phil Johnson make clear they have been telling the publisher directly since at least 2012.

When pressed to acknowledge the prior correspondence, Tyndale House admitted in a statement that: “For the past couple of years we have known that Beth Malarkey … was unhappy with the book, and believed it contained inaccuracies.”

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‘If Both of You Don’t Grow Up, One of You Is Going to Die’

It never fully leaves. Years later, you find yourself at a New Year’s party and idly ask a friend a question about dads, and after 10 minutes’ conversation you realize both of you are on the verge either of insensate bawling, or else ready to throw a chair through a window. Or you find yourself back in the old hometown at Christmas, talking a drunk high school buddy into getting back in the car because the house he asked you to stop at – one you didn’t recognize – is his dad’s new house, with his new family, and your friend is talking about how much he wishes he could just ring the doorbell and beat his father’s face into a gory smear, until it looks like someone dropped a tray of lasagna out a fifth-story window.

Or you find yourself at a college football party last weekend, and Adrian Peterson comes up, and a woman from out of town asks, “Do people in the south really do that still? How does it stop?” And a dude in his early thirties who looks like a 6ft-3in brick wall says, “Everyone on my block did that. It stops as soon as they realize you might be able to beat their ass just as good.” And without thinking about it, you kill the party for the next two minutes by saying, “It’s not just the south. I grew up in San Francisco. Sometimes nobody winds up bigger or stronger. Sometimes it stops because you move out. Or because you realize that if both of you don’t grow up, one of you is going to die.”

Jeb Lund in The Guardian on corporal punishment.

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Photo: theirhistory, Flickr

The 2014 Pulitzer Prize Winners

This year’s Pulitzer Prize winners are outThe Washington Post and The Guardian shared a Pulitzer for public service for their reporting on the Edward Snowden leaks and widespread NSA surveillance, the Boston Globe was honored for its coverage of the Boston Marathon bombing, Chris Hamby of the Center for Public Integrity won for his black lung investigation, and Will Hobson and Michael LaForgia received a Pulitzer for the Tampa Bay Times’ investigation of a homeless housing program. Read more…