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Cover image for About time

About time

victoria profile image Victoria Drake Updated on ・5 min read

This morning I read an article that's been making the rounds lately: Modern Media Is a DoS Attack on Your Free Will.

It's made me think, which I must admit, I at first didn't like. See, when I wake up in the morning (and subsequently wake up my computer) the first thing I do is go on Twitter to catch up on everything I missed while I was asleep. All this before my first coffee, mind you. Links on Twitter usually lead to stories on Medium, newly released apps on ProductHunt, and enticing sales on a new gadget or two on Amazon. Wherever it goes, in those blissfully half-awake mental recesses, the last thing I'm trying to do is think.

However, yesterday, I also happened to listen to a podcast from freeCodeCamp. It was #7: The code I'm still ashamed of. This lead to thoughts on the responsibilities of programmers - the people tasked with designing and building apps and systems meant to steer the very course of your life.

This morning, the combined swirling mess of notions brought on by these two sources of information had, even before my first coffee, the unfortunate effect of making me think.

Mostly, I thought about intention, and time.

I don't believe it's wildly inaccurate to say that when you go about doing something in your daily life, you have a general awareness of your reason for doing it. If you leave your building and go down the street to Starbucks and buy a coffee, more often than not, it's because you wanted a coffee. If you go to the corner store and buy a litre of milk, you probably intend to drink it. If you find yourself nicely dressed on a Friday night waiting at a well-decorated restaurant to meet another human being with whom you share an apparent mutual attraction, I can risk a guess that you're after some form of pleasant human interaction.

In each of these, and many more examples you can think up, the end goal is clearly defined. There is an expected final step to the process; an expected response; a return value.

What is the return value of opening up the Twitter app? Browsing Facebook? Instagram? In fact, any social media?

The concrete answer is that there isn't one. Perhaps in those of us with resilient self-discipline, there may at least be some sort of time limitation. That's the most we can hope for, however, and no wonder - that's what these and other similar services have been designed for. They're built to be open-ended black-holes for our most precious resource... time.

In the case of the Analytical Engine we have undoubtedly to lay out a certain capital of analytical labour in one particular line; but this is in order that the engine may bring us in a much larger return in another line.
Ada Augusta (Ada Lovelace) - Notes on Sketch of The Analytical Engine

Okay, so I did some more reading. Specifically, #ThrowbackThursday to the mid 1800's and something my good friend Ada Lovelace once scribbled in a book. Widely considered one of the first computer programmers, she and Charles Babbage pioneered many concepts that programmers today take for granted. The one I'm going to hang my point on is, I think, nicely encapsulated in the above quote: the things programmers make are supposed to save you time.

Save it. Not lose it.

I think Ada and Charles would agree that, observing the effects of social media apps, clickbait news sites, and many other forms of attention-hogging interactivity that we haven't even classified yet - something's gone horribly wrong.

What if, as programmers, we actually did something about it?

Consider that collectively - no, even individually - we who design and build the workings of modern technology have an incredible amount of power. The next indie app that goes viral on ProductHunt will consume hundreds of hours of time from its users. Where is all that untapped, pure potential going to? Some open-ended, inoffensive amusement? Another advertising platform thinly veiled as a game? Perhaps another drop of oil to smooth the machinery of The Great Engine of Commerce?

I get it - programmers will build what they're paid to build. That's capitalism, that's feeding your family, survival - life. I'm not trying to suggest we all quit our jobs, go live in the woods, and volunteer as humanitarians. That would be nice, but it's impractical.

But we all have side projects. Free time. What are you doing with yours?


Before I'm accused of being too hand-wavy and idealistic, I want to offer a concrete suggestion. Build things that save time. Not in the "I've made yet another to-do list app for you to download," kind of way, but in the "Here's a one-liner to automate this mundane thing that would have taken you hours," kind of way. Here, have a shameless plug.

I also really like this idea from the first article I mentioned, so hang on tight while I bring this full circle:

What’s one concrete thing companies could do now to stop subverting our attention?

I would just like to know what is the ultimate design goal of that site or that system that’s shaping my behavior or thinking. What are they really designing my experience for? Companies will say that their goal is to make the world open and connected or whatever. These are lofty marketing claims. But if you were to actually look at the dashboards that they’re designing, the high-level metrics they’re designing for, you probably wouldn’t see those things. You’d see other things, like frequency of use, time on site, this type of thing. If there was some way for the app to say, to the user, “Here’s generally what this app wants from you, from an attentional point of view,” that would be huge. It would probably be the primary way I would decide which apps I download and use.

There are so many ways I'd love to see this put into practice, from the obvious to the subversive. A little position: sticky; banner? A custom meta tag in the header? Maybe a call to action like this takes more introspection and honesty than a lot of app makers are ready for... but maybe it just takes a little of our time.

Discussion

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ben profile image
Ben Halpern

This is incredibly fundamental to what we should all be doing here. I'm going to take some time to reflect on all this over the upcoming holidays.

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victoria profile image
Victoria Drake Author

Thanks Ben, I'm glad it hits home. I'd love to hear your follow up thoughts after the holidays!

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Florian Rohrer

Thank you for your article, Vicky! Great read.

You wrote What is the return value of opening up the Twitter app? ... The concrete answer is that there isn't one. I disagee with that last statement. If you solely talk about the information that you are getting out of browsing, then sure, the information you get is most of the time next to worthless. You don't live your live differently if you see that some celebrity got a baby or some politician made an outrighteous claim or that a new investigation found that there has been a data breach at company X.

I think there is a return value: Entertainment. You (and with you, of course, I mean everbody) just want to be entertained. Entertained with funny memes, high speed cooking videos and videos of cats falling down the stairs. And entertained with new things: New stories about the world, new studies that came out, new products that will be launched, new events that are happening soon.

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Victoria Drake Author

Thanks Florian! I'm glad you brought that up and gave me the opportunity to expand on that point.

It's certain that you're entertained by endlessly scrolling through Twitter - the point I mean to make is that it's endless. Entertainment doesn't stop at a singular value in the same way getting a coffee does, but consumes time open-ended. There's no incentive to say "Okay, I've had enough entertainment now," and stop - outside of interruption from external factors, or by the force of that same willpower that these apps are designed to undermine.

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Tom Lutzenberger

Great article, Vicky. Made me think :)
I made a nice little Bookmarklet recently to calculate reading duration of an article to determine if it's worth my time. It works on most websites:
github.com/tomlutzenberger/reading...

Feedback appreciated :)

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Natti Katz

I feel that I am part of the last generation of kids that grew up without a smartphone and feel rather grateful that I got to experience all those car rides just talking or listening to the radio without half the car wandering out of focus.

The internet is still in relative infancy to society and what happened is probably a completely natural response. I also optimistically believe that new generations will balance themselves out and become more cognizant and mindful of their technology use.

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Natti Katz

And yes, devs can help lead the way

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Ekim Kael

Personally today I manage my social networks better. I came across a Garry Turk: shutdown video a few years ago and it changed me. And then when you're not known it helps too.

Sure if you get up and it's pc, Twitter you won't really be able to start your day very late with the risk of being pumped to the point of not even knowing what to do.

To remedy the problem, today I check social networks in the evening because I'm usually exhausted and I forbade myself to work at those hours so I can easily watch this cute chat on YouTube or stroll on Twitter.

There is a podcast of Autodisciple(a French youtubeur) who helped me in this sense too. Every night before going to bed I write on a post-it what needs to be done before going on the PC(outside the pc) or what needs to be done when I open the PC(inside the PC).

Here are some tricks I use.

At the same time I have this productivity app that I want to set up, to help people when they set themselves a goal so that they can hold on to the end by trying to motivate them when they stand still. Nothing's coded yet. Everything's still on paper. For those interested you can DM me

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Hannes Calitz

An amazing article that really has me thinking about my upcoming projects. Thank you.

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victoria profile image
Victoria Drake Author

Glad to make you think!

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Arden de Raaij

Thanks for sharing this great readVicky! I've been giving the same things a lot of thought lately. I recently wrote a few articles on this subject right here on dev.to, and I've seen more developers questioning their motives lately. It might be the zeitgeist.

Now to be fair, these articles have more questions and critiquing than solutions but they might be an interesting read.

I've been trying to write a reply to your article, as it deserves a proper answer, but I'm afraid I'm only going in circles. I'm going to give this some more thought and hope to get back to you.

In any case I'd recommend these articles on the Guardian:

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miku86

Vicky, you are absolutely right.
Since blocking my smartphone, facebook, news etc.
I am really productive and happy.