Attention Deprived

Without even having an informed discussion about it, we have just capitulated and plainly opened the gates for everybody to light up our devices displays, on demand.

Randy Gardner holds the record for the longest a human has gone without sleep. In 1964, Gardner, then a high school student in San Diego, California, stayed awake for 11 days and 25 minutes.

Sleeping is such an important (and at the same time misunderstood) phenom, that humans can go way longer without food than without sleep. What’s more, Matthew Walker in his masterpiece Why We Sleep dares to flip the entire conversation in its head by suggesting that our “default state” used to be being asleep, not awake — in his own words:

Sleep is the price that we pay for wakefulness.

Despite I’m convinced that in a few years we will look back at our current sleep practices the same way we today look back at smoking or sugar consumption, sleep science is still in its infancy.

Up to date, most findings have been discovered through rats. Surprisingly they can go way longer than us without sleep. Being the 1989 Everson’s experiment one of the best-known pieces of research around the subject — which concluded that depriving rats of sleep resulted in their death within up to 30 days, yet the mileage may vary.

While the experiment’s documentation is fascinating by itself, what “amused”1 me the most were the techniques scientists used to keep the rats awake. It is pure human creativity at its best. Turns out they have become “popular” enough they even have its own dedicated section on Wikipedia’s Sleep Deprivation page.

We are now able to look back at those experiments and “appreciate” the creativity involved in the methods researchers employed because at the end of the day, the subjects were… well, rats. No humans were harmed as a result.

Unfortunately, if you read on immediately after the aforementioned section, you’ll be shocked by the fact that the same methods were also used in humans, in order to set its victims up for abusive control.

Bear with me here, because this is a long stretch.

I’d argue that, collectively, without even noticing, we have given away and granted the permissions for anybody to exercise such techniques on ourselves.

I’m talking about notifications on mobile devices.

By mindlessly accepting the default, apparently harmless, notification settings that come along with both Android and iOS, we are allowing any person (or worse, any service) to light up our screen and/or buzz our mobile device at their discretion.

As much as I’m deeply concerned about this default pattern, it is also true that, in isolation, solely by itself, this is not generally perceived as an unmitigated disaster.

The problem, though, is how much we do care about what our mobile devices “have to say”.

We are attached to their screen to an extent that even the “ten-years-ago” versions of ourselves would consider it insane have a hard time believing it.

I won’t point out nor link to any study around addiction attachment to mobile devices because their worst predictions are persistently exceeded the very moment they are published.

Yet it is a fact that some people spend more time staring at their mobile devices than with their (real) beloved ones. Here things start to get creepy. Although what worries me the most, is the easiness by which we drop the current task at hand to attend our device’s requests.

We have agreed upon the fact that it is OK to stop doing whatever it is we are currently doing just to check out our phones.

So, on one hand, we have the lack of friction to get a notification across, and on the other, an unbelievable level of devotion and societal worship to the devices themselves.

Now put the two together. It follows that we have just capitulated and plainly opened the gates for everybody to crave for our attention, on demand.

In other words, everybody has now the power permission to light up our screen and plug into something we are constantly checking out. Even most concerning, pulling our attention away from what we are doing to attend (probably) what will become another inconsequential request.

By doing this we are losing our ability to focus, concentrate on what is important, and carry on deep, meaningful work. Keep walking down this path, and our lives will become an unintelligent, never-ending craving for the next shot of social dopamine in the form of trivial notification.

I worry we might be giving away our attention, in exchange for nothing, one notification at a time.

  1. Please note the quotes. I’m aware there is nothing funny or entertaining about mistreating and depriving animals of sleep. The topic was brought up just in order to point out to the creativity involved in the experiments themselves, not their ultimate purpose.
First published on April 25, 2019