Welcome my son, welcome to the machine. What did you dream? It’s alright, we told you what to dream… You dreamed of a big star — he played a mean guitar, he always ate in the Steak Bar. He loved to drive in his Jaguar… So, welcome to the machine!
(Pink Floyd, “Welcome to the machine”)
A month ago, I was talking to my dear friend Armin Bognar about the topic of addictive technology and how it is contributing to cripple our conscious time spending. This is a subject that has been bugging me for a good while now, as I notice, over and over, how hard it is for me and for the people around me to focus and concentrate in a task — Daniel Goleman, notable for his work around emotional intelligence, has wrote recently about how focus is quickly becoming a very valuable skill in the professional workforce, as it’s becoming more scarce due to the hijacking power of technology.
There was a tendency in the past for movies to be no more than one and a half hour long because that’s how movie theaters could have more than one screening in the same room per evening, thus increasing the movie’s revenue. It looks like, however, the current necessity for shorter content to be consumed revolves around the difficulty of retaining people’s attention span — we went from movies and series which used to have around 20 episodes per season to series which have around 10 episodes per season to Youtube videos which last five minutes. We went from books into short blog posts (some say that seven minutes of reading do the trick). Goldfish possibly have longer attention span than millennials. Can you imagine a world in which everyone is Dory?
Those are interesting times to be a product manager. All products are competing for our attention, for our engagement, for our retention. The ideal world for Facebook and the likes seems to be one in which users are constantly spending time on those platforms. But, as Tristan Harris says, our attention is finite: there’s only a bunch of it available, and everyone is fighting for it. And, nonetheless, our time is critical — the same time that is spent by consuming technology and content could also be spent by exchanging experiences with other people, by helping our friends, by learning something new, by enjoying the present moment with people that we love. It makes me think a lot about which kind of product I want to create and iterate on as a PM, and what are the values that drive my own work on a daily basis.
Harris is a fierce advocate of “design with ethics” — and, by this, he means product design choices that, instead of hijacking our attention, help us make decisions that play strong roles in our lives and which can be enormously aided by technology. His main point is that human beings are persuadable: this means that technology designed with the intention to hook us up is actually successful in this intent, and not because we are lazy or stupid, but because our brain is wired to respond strongly to short-term gratification and stimuli.
I definitely don’t want to service my skills into creating something that contributes even more to the current disbalance between living in the real world and staring at screens while scrolling infinitely. Mindless active engagement to tech products push, as a counterpart, for people’s progressive disengagement from the rest of life. Time is not only money — time is life and freedom. The constant stream of opinions that come from technology’s content also reduces our own voices when communicating genuine perspectives, since, in order to do so, it’s necessary to self reflect and sustain chains of thoughts without getting lost.
This panorama was a bit overwhelming to me. Those seem to be dark times — we’re interiorising the machine. My initial response was to retract completely, in order to regain power over my life and my choices. The (new) Nokia 3310 (with snake) for calling and an atlas for orientation became my go-to assets. I was never a strongly minded privacy advocate, but, somehow it took me to be in a very deep level of creep to take me out of my shell and force me to make responsible choices. I became known as the anti-social. How does someone live without WhatsApp or Facebook? How do I even “talk” to people? I still get those questions quite often.
Taking this time off was important for me to reflect on what I want my personal course of action to be with regards to the current cyberpunk dystopia. Because, on one hand, I don’t want to be a slave to technology that has an almost irresistible power to persuade me; on the other hand, I don’t want to be the retro hermit that is completely disconnected from everything, as I have grown a lot also by using technology responsibly. I like to rent my bike through an app; I like to have many books in a single device when I am in a long flight without breaking my back. There has to be some sort of middle ground for us to enjoy some products that actually elevate our standard of living!
By retracting, I noticed a lot of what I call honourable businesses: they empower people to make relevant decisions. Many products are useful tools and I want to keep having them — many of them enable me to become a better person, to bring me closer to the person I want to develop myself into. Others, however, mostly related to content serving and communication, seem to be the ones that crawl silently into people’s lives. I am not using the Nokia anymore — I missed having a handy decent camera. But I chose to continue tobstay outside of WhatsApp and Facebook and Instagram and Snapchat and time-sucking news feeds and internet memes and videos in general because I love my life and what I do with my time.
What does it take for a product to be “honourable”? How can we develop more of those? It seems to be important to change the usual product definition of success. As my friend Ilya Blokh mentioned to me some weeks ago, instead of tracking “engagement”, we should be able to measure how much products actually help users achieve what they really want — that’s where real value comes from, in the end, and not from pushing users through funnels by using dark pattern conversion techniques.
The challenge that now emerges is how to create workable business models out of such values — this seems to me to be the most interesting product quest I’ve ever seen.