This week we bring you a set of pieces that bridge two of our standing interests: the quiet desperation of loneliness in America, and the role our gadgets play in reshaping social life. To catch up on our previous reflections on these topics, see Vol. 65, Vol. 64, Vol. 31, Vol. 22, or Vol. 17.

The first is a remarkable personal essay by Billy Baker, a Southie native now writing features for the Boston Globe, titled, “The biggest threat facing middle-age men isn’t smoking or obesity. It’s loneliness.” Baker begins by recounting a pitch meeting with his editors. When he is asked to write a piece on middle-aged men and loneliness, his first instinct is to be defensive. “Excuse me?” he remembers thinking. “I have plenty of friends. Are you calling me a loser? You are.” And yet, on reflection, he comes to realize that his story is all-too typical for many contemporary men:

During the week, much of my waking life revolves around work. Or getting ready for work. Or driving to work. Or driving home from work. Or texting my wife to tell her I’m going to be late getting home from work.

Much of everything else revolves around my kids. I spend a lot of time asking them where their shoes are, and they spend a lot of time asking me when they can have some “dada time.” It is the world’s cutest phrase, and it makes me feel guilty every time I hear it, because they are asking it in moments when they know I cannot give it to them — when I am distracted by an e-mail on my phone or I’m dealing with the constant, boring logistics of running a home.

In this regard, Baker’s life mirrors that of most working parents: whereas you might think that longer hours in the office would mean less “dada time,” studies suggest that working parents spend more time working and more time with their children than previous generations (see Vol. 57, On Parenting). This is particularly true in larger urban areas with long commutes.

All too often, what is sacrificed at the altars of “work” and “family” is friendship (and sleep). In the process of reporting the piece, Baker comes to realize that he is, in fact, “a textbook case of the silent majority of middle-aged men who won’t admit they’re starved for friendship, even if all signs point to the contrary.” In seeking to remedy this situation, Baker comes to the conclusion that “built-in regularity” is crucial. It is not enough to admit to being lonely, or even to form ad hoc relationships around shared interests. What is required is something like “Wednesday Night,” a simple friendship-sustaining practice that Baker learns from a local man named Ozzy. For years, Ozzy and his friends got together on Wednesday nights, without an agenda and with any number of activities in mind. As Baker puts it:

Everything about the idea seemed quaint and profound — the name that was a lack of a name (such a guy move); the placement in the middle of the week; the fact that they’d continued it for so long. But most of all, it was the acknowledgment from male friends that they needed their male friends, for no other reason than they just did.

Though Baker’s essay only touches on the topic in passing, a central feature of his argument is that technologically mediated friendships, for all their benefits, simply will not suffice. The magic of “Wednesday Night” could not be sustained were it to become a Google Hangout, any more than democracy can thrive when elected representatives forego meeting constituents in favor of “virtual town halls.” In each case, new communication technologies expand our access to others, but, in the end, cannot bear the weight of the relationships they seek to create or sustain.

But there is good reason to think that our gadgets have a crowding-out effect on precisely these kinds of human interactions. Our phones simultaneously give us enough information to feel “up to date” and leave us increasingly unwilling or unable to prioritize something like “Wednesday night.” In an interview with Claudia Dreifus for the New York Times, Adam Alter argues the best term to describe our relationship with our incredibly powerful personal technologies is behavioral addiction. A psychologist by training but currently a professor at NYU’s Stern School of Business, Alter’s interview previews the argument of his recently published book, Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping us Hooked. There, Alter argues that because our attachment to our devices have all the markers of a behavioral addiction, defined as “something you enjoy doing in the short term, that undermines your well-being in the long term—but that you do compulsively anyway.”

For multiple reasons, our screens (and our attachments to them) deserve serious critical attention. And serious critical attention is precisely what our screens can rob from us. At the outset of Irresistible, Alter recounts his interactions with Kevin Holesh, a developer who created an app called Moment to track and limit use of what some now call “WMDs” (wireless mobile devices). According to Holesh’s data, most of us dramatically underestimate how attached we are to our WMDs. Before beginning to use Moment, Alter himself estimated he was using his phone for roughly an hour a day, checking it around 10 times. A month later, his Moment app reported that he spent an average of three hours per day on his phone, checking it roughly 40 times. Alter wanted to know how those numbers stacked up against other Moment users; Holesh responded that “We have thousands of users, and their average usage time is just under three hours. They pick up their phones an average of thirty-nine times a day.” And remember—these are the data of those concerned enough about their daily smartphone usage to download and use a tracking app in the first place. (To hear Alter describe his work in more detail, listen to this Fresh Air interview from March 13.)

Writing for the Atlantic last fall, Bianca Bosker profiled Tristan Harris, a former “design ethicist” at Google who places much of the blame for addictive technology at the feet of app designers and engineers. For this reason, Harris is at the center of a kind of counter-movement within Silicon Valley that encourages developers to attend to human frailty, rather than exploit it. As Bosker tells it:

While some blame our collective tech addiction on personal failings, like weak willpower, Harris points a finger at the software itself. That itch to glance at our phone is a natural reaction to apps and websites engineered to get us scrolling as frequently as possible. The attention economy, which showers profits on companies that seize our focus, has kicked off what Harris calls a “race to the bottom of the brain stem.” “You could say that it’s my responsibility” to exert self-control when it comes to digital usage, he explains, “but that’s not acknowledging that there’s a thousand people on the other side of the screen whose job is to break down whatever responsibility I can maintain.

This led Harris to launch Time Well Spent: a “movement to align technology with our humanity.” The goal, Harris says, is to start a kind of “organic-food movement, but for software.” As Bosker puts it, the objective of Time Well Spent is not to “dismantle the entire attention economy.” Rather, “Harris hopes that companies will, at the very least, create a healthier alternative to the current diet of tech junk food.” Fundamentally, this means bucking the reward structures of tech companies driven by user engagement and attention, and hopefully creating alternative market incentives for developers to increase the degree of agency users can express over their attention, maximizing the ease with which we can “bulldoze each other’s attention” (as one of Time Well Spent’s videos puts it here.)

The emergence of a group like Time Well Spent—in Silicon Valley, no less— is a testament to the massive shifts currently underway in our attentional economy. And unfortunately, these shifts seem to intensify the loneliness epidemic Billy Baker captures so well. Our new existence enables new forms of connectivity just as it renders others increasingly difficult and therefore rare. For this reason, we may well be experiencing the leading edge of a shift within what Wittgenstein called our “form of life”—that is, the grammar that structures the very logic of social behavior. What is required in the face of such a shift is precisely what we find increasingly difficult to access: sustained attention, both to the sources of this new form of life, and its effects on the relationships that give our lives meaning.

 


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