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Protecting Our Minds From Digital Distraction And Other Trends To Watch For In 2018

(Sven Scheuermeier/Unsplash)MoreCloseclosemore
(Sven Scheuermeier/Unsplash)

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"We exist in a fog that makes the digital invisible,” observe the authors of the Fjord Trends 2018 Report, “and that blurs the boundaries between digital and physical.”

This is one of the more astute observations made in this season of cultural prognostication. At this time every year, cool hunters, futurists and marketing gurus issue their predictions about emerging trends that will impact business in the coming year. These reports tend to follow the same formula – a catchy name for the demographic or trend (such as “Digital Soul Seekers” or “Design Outside the Lines”), a brief explanation of what it is, examples of companies that are already riding the looming wave and tips for how smart businesses can do the same. The reward for capitalizing on the cultural or technical trend is that your company will stay relevant, they promise, maybe even be seen as bold.

In past years, and even in this unusually grim one, I’ve found it easy to mock many of these pronouncements for their hipsterish bloviation. Take this one — “The era of post-truth is giving rise to a tranche of consumers who are rejecting excessive optimism in favour of hyper-pragmatic realism.” That’s one way to wrap a pretty self-evident phenomenon — that some people are feeling pessimistic in the wake of Trump’s election — in language that only a pedant’s mother could love. And the essence of “First World Problems” is embodied in the pronouncement that “Post-demographic consumers -- of all ages! -- are crafting new narratives of adulthood … Now [they] will look to brands to each them life skills, let them outsource daily tasks, or help them realize personal life goals. After all, in 2018 adulting is hard work.”

It’s true; when your job requires you to read a whopper like that one with a straight face that is hard work.

But unlike past years, many of these trends, however preciously expressed, are grounded in real and potentially profound developments. One trend (dubbed  “Glass Box Wrecking Balls” by trendwatching.com) is the growing consumer demand that businesses stand for something besides their shareholder profits, that they be good employers and corporate citizens. Whether it’s Patagonia, REI and other outdoor retailers protesting the Trump administration’s decision to shrink the size of our national monuments, or tens of thousands of Uber users defecting to Lyft in response to stories about sexual harassment and poor treatment of drivers, people are voting with their pocketbooks ... or debit cards, or mobile payment apps.

But unlike past years, many of these trends, however preciously expressed, are grounded in real and potentially profound developments.

Another intriguing trend springs from increased recognition that our screen addiction is having unanticipated and dire consequences -- from deficits in empathy and attention, to cognitive impairment, to metabolic syndrome -- and the divergent commercial responses to this phenomenon.

In one corner are the technologies and businesses that seek to infuse our physical environments with non-screen-based digital content and tools. For example, initiatives like Amazon Go or Tao Café aim to eliminate cashiers and check-out lines by integrating digital technology more seamlessly into a physical space: A scanner records shoppers’ faces and/or smartphones when they enter the store, then uses facial recognition and/or sensors to track what they’ve taken off the shelf. Buyers leave when they’re done, trusting the algorithm somewhere in the cloud will debit their accounts.

In these and most other cases, the purpose of the emerging technology is to achieve traditional commercial objectives by new means, not to cede the battle for our attention or challenge consumerism in any way.

But there’s an intriguing counter-trend underway, too, one that responds to this screen addiction phenomenon with innovation of a different sort. TimeWellSpent is an organization founded by a few now-regretful software engineers and Silicon Valley investors who helped fuel Facebook, Google and the other corporate titans that govern so much of our daily life. They are mobilizing people to resist, or at least redirect, these ubiquitous digital demands for our attention. Some of their proposed solutions are simple technology tweaks, such as turning off automated notifications or setting the phone screen to grayscale to avoid the shiny inducements of brightly colored icons. Others are apps to block other apps, suppress a screen’s blue light at night or show us just how much time we’re frittering away on scrolling, pinching and zooming.

They are, in short, calling on us to burn off the fog that subsumes us, not to roll back technological advances, but to make the digital visible and our use of it more intentional.

But some solutions — perhaps the most compelling ones -- are their calls for conscious actions by human beings to “move away from technology that extracts attention and erodes society, towards technology that protects our minds and replenishes society.” By urging us to change our habits, articulate our values and apply political pressure to more closely regulate business practices, these “deeply concerned former tech insiders” are reverting to an old, proven approach — people talking, debating and organizing.

They are, in short, calling on us to burn off the fog that subsumes us, not to roll back technological advances, but to make the digital visible and our use of it more intentional.

Of course should such a movement gain traction, some futurist will baptize a new market segment of Windmill Tilters or dub 2019 The Year of Lost Causes. But if they do, I promise not to make fun of them.

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Julie Wittes Schlack Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Julie Wittes Schlack writes essays, short stories and book reviews for various publications, including WBUR's Cognoscenti and The ARTery, and is the author of “This All-at-Onceness” (Pact Press, 2019).

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