Fending Off The Tyranny of Tools

“Distracting Ourselves to Death” isn’t just a metaphor anymore

Now, you may wonder if in the process of outsourcing my thinking I am losing my individuality. Not so. My preferences are more narrow and individualistic than ever. It’s merely my autonomy that I’m losing.

—David Brooks, The New York Times

If you program, you will occasionally need some useful bit of code from an online source such as Stack Overflow. You might then have noticed something interesting: If you simply copy and paste the code, you don’t remember it and often have to repeat the process later on. However, if you type the code yourself, then you are much more likely to remember it. You get what I call a “fingertip feel” for the text that somehow enables your brain to internalize it better. You invoke what the architect Juhani Pallasmaa refers to as the thinking hand, and you enhance the tool-user bond, that sense of connection that comes with the conscious use of any tool.

When used with awareness and attention, our tools foster embodied cognition—they become extensions of our bodies or our minds. But if we stop paying attention, those tools can come to dominate our lives and we become “functional cyborgs,” or fyborgs, to use Alexander Chislenko’s evocative blend. We necessarily extend ourselves technologically with eyeglasses or canes or hearing aids, but we frequently go far beyond that to use our latest tools—particularly smartphones and similar devices—to mediate all or most of our experiences.

We used to say that being dangerously distracted by a device could lead to death by iPod, but the more modern reference is death by smartphone. These devices—or more specifically, what’s on these devices: instant messages, social media, cat videos—are attention magnets. You hear that ding or that chirp and some primitive part of your brain simply has to know what’s going on. Your FOMO instinct kicks in and, despite the fact that you’re walking across an intersection or driving in traffic, you give all your attention to your device.

Even worse, there is a distressing tendency to sit back and let the technology do all the work. By now the stories of clueless tourists who drive straight into the ocean or go 900 miles in the wrong direction because they mindlessly followed the directions on their GPS devices are legion. Enough people have followed their GPS into the hostile environs of Death Valley National Park and perished when they ran out of gas and couldn’t get help that local rangers have coined the grim phrase death by GPS. Blindly trusting a GPS app is a choice, but increasingly many of us have no say in how much technology takes over our lives, especially at work. When a program or a robot does most of the work and we’re there mostly just to watch, we can succumb to automation complacency, a lack of engagement and reduced attention. We’re also prone to automation bias, the tendency to trust the decisions made by automated systems even when they contradict our experience or don’t fit current conditions. Automation also contributes to skill fade, where an operator’s mental and physical proficiency diminish with lack of constant practice. All this can lead to the automation paradox, where a system designed to enhance safety actually increases overall risk.

Delegating tasks and skills to machines and apps can also create information underload, the boredom or disengagement that comes from a lack of challenges or stimulation, especially at work. We suffer not from burnout but from boreout, and the resulting ill health or depression is known as underload syndrome.

Trying to solve these problems means swimming against the currents of both technological progress and people’s seemingly insatiable and incurable desire for more convenience. But swim we must. Engineers can design systems that keep humans engaged. A good example is adaptive automation, where the system adjusts what and how much it controls based on the situation: If the operator is working on a complex task, the system takes on more functions; otherwise, the system returns some of those functions to the operator. As users, we can reengage with our world by learning new skills and taking up physical hobbies such as carpentry or knitting. Oh, and by typing out our Stack Overflow code.

This article appears in the August 2016 print issue as “Death By Smartphone.”