Just Keep Scrolling: On attention, distraction, and human rights

By Janelle Koh
Jennifer Daniel

I woke up this morning, and the first thing I did was check my phone. I opened Facebook and felt a tightening in my stomach as I began to scroll through the newsfeed. I swiped upwards, and looked away as the screen whirled dizzily with news. Eventually, like the ticking of a roulette wheel, the feed slowed to a stop. I began to move through my newsfeed in reverse – slowly swiping downwards, casting my eyes over each story. My thumb, so well trained in the up-swipe, stuttered at the abrupt change. Gone were the casual upward flicks that allowed me to coast easily and endlessly through my newsfeed. They were replaced instead with the downward scuttling of my thumb on the screen, against its natural instincts.

There is something I find draining about my use of social media, but it is as tiring as it is habitual. I resent the habit almost as much as I resent my acceding to it. Perhaps this feeling comes down to a stubborn nostalgia, a desire for a time now past where phones were not necessary as they are now. But I can’t ignore how notifications inflict my nerves – creating a tiredness, a languor, that I can’t seem to escape.

Many people have critiqued the place of social media in modern society. One such person is Jenny Odell, a multidisciplinary artist and writer based in San Francisco. In her book How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy, Odell considers how technology has not only changed our lives, but has also eroded our ability to pay attention – to ourselves, each other, and the natural world around us. The Facebook newsfeed consists of snapshots of a life outside (and occasionally within) our own, haphazardly thrown at us in a way that has a discombobulating effect. As Odell notes, news pieces come from different sources or locations and are presented together  into a narrative of the feed that, together, makes little sense. But the seamless interface of Facebook and other online architectures persuade us to continue scrolling through the feed even as posts blur together within minutes. Such persuasive technologies render us fixated to a bunch of information that cannot, in any real sense, command our attention. But still, we pay attention, tipping quarters into the slot without even knowing it. As Odell notes, our attention may be “the last resource we have left to withdraw” – yet the attention economy is depleting our reserves by the ton.

At a cursory glance through my Facebook, I see a headline about a stray cow strolling down Newman Drive in Western Australia. I see an Uber ad, an update from an Asian-Australian media organisation, and posts from Subtle Asian Pets, Subtle Asian Traits and The Guardian. All these pages post things that interest me. But that’s precisely the problem – our attention is devoured by content that we find infinitely interesting. The problem is not that we are curious to know how a duck-flavoured marshmallow tastes. The problem is that through the speed of social media and technology, our curiosity is being exploited at an incredible velocity.  The internet hurls content at us until something sticks. And in some faux-democratic sense, there’s always going to be something for everybody. Often, it is all we can do to hang on for dear life to the most interesting thing that flies in front of our faces.

This is not the first time in human history that the speed of human endeavour has exploited our attention spans. During World War II, Richard Feynman, widely acknowledged as one of the world’s greatest physicists, was invited to work on the Manhattan Project, in which he helped developed the atomic bomb that was detonated over Hiroshima in 1945. In a 1959 interview, Feynman said that his initial reason to join the project was that he felt he had to join in order to protect civilisation: “There was nothing that I knew that indicated that if we could do it [the Germans] couldn’t do it, and therefore it was very important to try to cooperate.” As the project and the war continued, Feynman said he was compelled to remain involved: “with any project like that you continue to work trying to get success, having decided to do it…” But, at the crucial moment of deciding whether or not to drop the bomb, Feynman said, “I simply didn’t think”.

Not about the fact that the atomic bomb was of no material use to the defeat of Japan, or that ‘Little Boy’ would level an entire city. Feynman knew both these things. What determined the Hiroshima bombing was none other than sheer momentum, an exercise in war-making that no one thought to put the brakes on in time. Whether you ended up on the right or wrong side of history, it was events such as the Hiroshima bombings that created the impetus for human rights as we know them today. While the UN’s official solution is one of nuclear disarmament, I believe that the bombings were equally a result of something just as damning: human distraction. To have the time and space to make important decisions are entirely crucial to the preservation of human rights, and of “the inherent dignity” of the human person which the mandate of human rights strives to protect.

Although social media certainly doesn’t look or feel anything like the devastation that occurred at Hiroshima, it is prescient to consider the way it, too, operates to create a distraction. While once there was a single-minded focus on one’s duty to one’s country, now we find the very conditions that once enabled us to focus to be at stake. Distraction once created unthinkable acts, but now it is creating unthinking persons, which is certainly having its’ consequences. The Republican Party’s targeting of swing-voters through Facebook in the 2016 US election is but one example, which has already led to the election of Trump, and consequently to numerous rollbacks in human rights in the US. And one would be loath to forget the atrocities of World War II, and Hannah Arendt’s prescient observation that “most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil.” The relationship between distraction and the denigration of human rights is well-established, as is the importance of making up ones’ mind. The question then is: how do we regain our attention spans, and to some extent, our lives?

One of Jenny Odell’s solutions is bird-watching. An avid bird-watcher herself, Odell suggests that reconnecting with nature, and immersing oneself in one’s surroundings may be an antidote to the current climate of attention deficit. She encourages the use of the app, ‘iNaturalist’, whereby one can take pictures of the flora and fauna one observes, and attempt to identify them within the app, with the help of an avid and helpful nature-watching community. I have begun using the app, and it has changed how I apprehend my day in small ways. I allow myself to stop in my tracks to listen to a birdsong, and wonder: which species is that? I may miss my bus in the process, but I remember that I can always catch the next one. This remembering is in itself calming, and loosens the hold busyness and immediacy has on me. Nature, and apps such as iNaturalist allow us to reintroduce ourselves to the world around us – allowing the conditions of the natural world to surround us, to register and remain in our consciousness. Instead of always looking forward, to the next bus or the next Twitter update, we remember that the world does not proceed solely by the logic of scrolling down. It is multidirectional; it is everywhere, even in places we don’t want it to be (good day to you, spider in my bath-tub) and I find that realisation infinitely comforting – to know that we are human, but not particularly alone.

However important natural worlds are to regaining our attention, more solutions are needed. We need to dig deep. We should not just recognise the importance of nature, but also to demand more of our technologies and ensure that they work  to support human existence. Such demands might mean more legal restrictions on social media, such as the banning of YouTube’s ‘auto-play’ feature, and Facebook and Twitter’s ‘infinite scroll’. While such measures might be said to be a form of government “shoving arbitrary restrictions…down [our] throats”, it is hard to deny that our social media and mobile technologies appear to exist in an ethical vacuum. Take the example of political communication in online settings. We can say whatever we like on social media, barring outrightly discriminatory or defamatory content. These are highly technical thresholds that exclude a whole range of more ‘subjective’ acts, not to mention the additional step of enforcing those standards against somebody else in a court of law – fuhgeddaboudit.

App stores might be no better and have resembled a sort of wild-wild-west situation in recent years, with countless developers openly abusing app store screening processes. Apps such as iNaturalist are great, because they help us to see the world in more of its complexity, and allow us to participate within communities we would otherwise not have access to, but I would be hard-pressed to name another. Online environments can be hostile, take-it-or-leave-it places. Legal restrictions going forward should aim not simply to ban or limit online environments but to rehabilitate them. Through the promulgation of legislation, ethical standards, and design regulations, such legal tools do not have to be blatantly restrictive, but might promote creative outcomes, pushing developers to think about how to design environments that may be capable of supporting productive communities. Online environments might not be so different from our natural environments – just as environmental regulations preserve the natural world for future generations, online environments too should be curated and cared for more thoughtfully, if we are to live within them.

It is difficult now to imagine a world without phones and social media, and I don’t think that’s a bad thing. Academics like Hugh Davies have written about how mobile phones, like various instruments before it, fulfil important social functions. But it is important also to acknowledge the effects of online environments on our lives and attention spans. I often hear, especially in social justice conscious circles, about how difficult it is to save the world today. There is a pervading sense that we are doomed, and speeding quickly and helplessly toward it. While the ‘doom’ part might be true, we have the ability to slow the speed of our descent, to soften the blow. Perhaps we cannot even think about saving the world, about addressing the danger that is to come unless we learn to see it first. Perhaps such seeing can be relief, as well as resistance. So, can we actually save the world? We won’t know until we start paying attention.