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BW Businessworld

Living Digital: Designed To Distract

Today’s app ecosystem is designed to interrupt and instead of fostering productivity, generates toxic stress

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This column on technology has been part of Businessworld for a solid two decades. I started writing it on a temperamental desktop computer with barely a few MBs of RAM and storage space. I remember using Word for DOS. Oh where are you, Word for DOS?

In time, I moved on to pounding a patient enough IBM ThinkPad. My fingers all but flew on that keyboard and the solid laptop took whatever abuse I cared to mete out to it.

Then, slimmer and slimmer laptops came along. A Dell XPS 13 Ultrabook sat on my lap, burning through my dress a bit.

And finally, I moved to writing on tablets and phones and whatever was handy, really, because an article started on one device was available to take up on all the others.

But none of this ‘progress’ did much for my concentration. With the mobility came the apps and with the apps came notifications, a constant barrage of pips and squeaks and whistles and bottle openers and chirping birds... Something always calling my attention away from what I’m trying to do until I’m wondering whether this was really the productivity that technology once promised. I hardly think so. In fact, notifications that call to you every few moments are a ‘toxic source of stress,’ say psychology researchers. A WhatsApp group of relatives rallying around to help a sick nephew pings every now and then with an update; my phone lights up and catches my eye and I grab it only to find someone I never heard of is sending a junk image to tell me to rejoice because it’s finally my day — Women’s Day; someone at work has copied everyone in the organisation on a matter not relevant to all generating a chain of email alerts. Then there’s Breaking News from a dozen apps. Apparently Alaska Airlines is readjusting a flight so that passengers can see a solar eclipse. How nice. And let’s not even get into the number of vendors trying to sell me something. It’s the digital equivalent of a few dozen hawkers shouting just outside my window.
And so it goes the whole day, everyday. And well into the night.

One reason distractions from gadgets are considered toxic is because a task you’re trying to concentrate on is constantly interrupted and you can’t finish it in time. You do finish it eventually, but the satisfaction from a job done efficiently isn’t there anymore.

Another fall out of constant push notifications is that this is the state one’s brain becomes accustomed to. When you hear no pings, you will find yourself wondering what’s up, picking up a phone to check and in effect, distracting yourself to keep up the rhythm. A part of the corollary is the fear of missing out on something, being the last to know of something happening, failing to share an all-important viral object, and so on.

The horrifying thing is that the multitude of apps being created each day have little empathy for the user and in a bid to quickly enhance their own usage they build in as many notifications as possible. In so many cases, you have to take the time to get into the settings and turn off these interruptions. Instead of letting you opt in if you want to, they force you to take the trouble to opt out. The whole ecosystem is one that thrives on interruptions. Although I had never before considered timing out on all the interesting bits of capability new apps and gadgets bring, there’s nothing for it but to build in long curfew times when one can think and achieve without being driven to distraction.