If you grew up in the 1980’s or 90’s, there was a good chance you knew a kid addicted to video games. Super Mario World, Sonic the Hedgehog, Mortal Kombat – those little grey cartridges sucked you into what, for some, turned out to be inescapable vortexes; tech rabbit holes 1.0.
Take those games, add email, texting, talking, photo sharing, posting, internet searching, video streaming, music sharing, podcast listening, online selling and payments and transportation booking and put them in that kid’s pocket. What happens to him then?
The proliferation of smart phones created an “always on, many ways accessible” culture. Gone were the days of limited contact channels – mail, phone, email, text. The smart phone – more specifically, the rise of apps – opened the aperture of accessibility so dramatically that people found themselves in a frenzied state in attempt to keep up. The younger populations, hungry for popularity, fame or simply friends to talk to (albeit electronically), absorbed these technological advances in the worst possible way. Absent the proper mechanisms to filter out crap they shouldn’t care about (to put it bluntly), they attempted to participate in everything. A 2015 report found that teens spent an average of 9 hours a day consuming media, tweens an average of 6, with some checking social media as many as 100-150 times per day. At any one time teens have dozens of apps open, switching between them at breakneck speed, spending mere minutes on any one thing.
We’re fairly certain most people agreed this was not a good thing. The short-term effects were obvious: they were addicted, and this addiction was unhealthy. The smart phone, ever on, never left their sides – not at mealtimes, not while walking (or God forbid biking), not in the bathroom, not during bedtime – that is, unless their parents ripped it from their frenzied fingers. As the years wore on more and more studies were released likening app obsession to gambling addiction, in many cases accusing their creators of intentionally creating addictive products via manipulation of brain pleasure centers and other neuropsychological voodoo (we side with the researchers). But it wasn’t until then-Microsoft-CEO Satya Nadella released this statement that the masses really started thinking about – well, thinking:
“The single greatest threat to the future of mankind is the decline of human attention.”
Following that, everything changed. Addictive smartphone apps were banned, and it became illegal for anyone under 14 to own one in the first place. An “App Ethics Review Board” was established to review any newly proposed apps and uniformly struck down any and everything that did not pass the litmus test. People – especially teens – reported significantly higher happiness scores, reduced depression levels, and improved health. They played sports more, interacted more and gleaned the benefits of focus and attention. App Addiction and Attention Centers were set up across the country to treat people with conditions carried over from the Attentionless Age.
Of course, none of this happened. Nadella’s statement – although taken seriously by many prominent academics and leaders – went the way of The Citigroup Memos, another fateful warning disseminated, briefly considered, and ultimately cast aside in lieu of other (more fruitful) pursuits.