We are in the midst of a revolution.
The average Australian spends five hours on the internet every day. A third of the world’s population are active Facebook users.
Traditional newspapers are on the way out, and we get most of our information from social media, Wikipedia and sites with names like Junkee and Buzzfeed.
Journalists and businesses are graded on the number of clicks they can garner.
Attention, we are frequently reminded, is the new basis of our economy.
Does writing a play about the dark side of all this technology make me a medieval moralist? Not at all: rather than being stubborn or backwards, I’m fascinated. The introduction of the internet could be as radical for human society as the introduction of writing.
When my family first adopted the internet, I took to it like a duck to water. The tinny dial up tone signalled connection to a whole world of wonder. Before long, I was building websites, coding in HTML and CSS (these skills are now obsolete). And then, on my 18th birthday, I got my first iPhone. I lived life joyfully from wifi hotspot to wifi hotspot.
Now, with more data than I’ve ever needed, I am constantly connected to that great universal library. I have recognised someone across a foyer but not remembered their name. A crafty Facebook search saves the day. Research for a new play or writing project can be undertaken anywhere, anytime. More frequently, I check what’s on sale at the supermarket and then stand there Googling recipes.
Does this make me the tech-addicted millennial you love to hate? Yeah, probably.
But if you’re reading this article, you most likely got here by clicking on a link on social media, or in an email newsletter, or via the Audrey Journal homepage. Your brain made a decision to turn away from whatever it was doing before, and look at this specific page. If you spend any significant amount of time online, your brain is making decisions like this thousands of times every day.
Sophisticated algorithms tailor your online experience to fill it with information that is relevant and interesting to you. Their goal is to get you to spend more time online, to click more, to generate more data, so they can deliver advertising more efficiently. That’s basically it.
The rulers of the tech sphere are geniuses of psychology and engineering.
For us consumers, the design of giants like Facebook, Apple and Google may look simple, but each detail has been rigorously tested to the nearest pixel. Google famously tested 41 shades of blue for their hyperlinks, to see which shade attracted the most clicks. Is it any wonder we spend 20 per cent of our time online?
It’s like how we used to visit the duck pond as children. My parents would stop by the Richmond Bridge in Tasmania with a loaf of sliced white bread – something we rarely ate ourselves. They’d give me a slice, and off I’d run, tearing up the bread into little pieces and flinging them at the ducks like an erratic flower girl.
The ducks rushed to gobble it up, all of us unaware this diet would lead to malnutrition and potentially impair their growth. Nowadays, many duck ponds have banned white bread because the ducks fill up on it rather than their natural, more nutritious diet of insects, seeds and grains. Overfeeding also results in leftover bread, attracting dangerous bacteria and rodents.
In this new Age of Information, overstimulation and content generation for content’s sake, we are the ducks.
It’s not just because of ads. With the universe at our fingertips, we want to be able to parse that deluge of information to get to whatever’s relevant as quickly and easily as possible.
A 2006 eye-tracking study by research and consulting firm Nielsen Norman Group found that readers of online material commonly scan webpages in a rough F-shape. That is, they’ll read across the top first, skip down a little and read across some more. Then they’ll scan more quickly down the left-hand-side of the page. What they (and I mean we) are looking for are key words, signals that the information we want is nearby.
As our brains respond to this new technology, developing the skills that help us navigate the digital world, content creators are learning, too.
Hence, the rise of clickbait: headlines designed to grab your attention through sensationalism and suspense, typically without delivering on what is promised. Or they do deliver, and I click on the link for videos of pandas falling over, and that’s what I watch until the website suggests something else.
Online browsing is not linear (so thanks for sticking with me) but littered with links and distractions – all purportedly to help us find what we want, even if we didn’t know we wanted it.
There’s also the filter bubble effect, where personalised search and advertising algorithms are so good at showing content relevant to our existing interests and beliefs, we wind up intellectually and culturally isolated.
It’s this massive hole in the logic of the internet.
What should be making us more productive, actually makes us more susceptible to fake news, simplistic arguments and politically biased filtering.
So if you’ve ever suspected your attention span is getting shorter, it probably is. There will come a point in future generations where life before the internet will be incomprehensible, the same way we will never understand what it was like to live and imagine in an oral society.
I don’t want to be a duck. Maybe that’s why I keep going to the theatre. It takes us on a journey for an hour. An extended argument. It’s a place where we’re not constantly enticed to switch to something else.
And then we turn our phones back on as the lights come up.
Duckpond plays at the Old 505 Theatre, October 22-26, part of the FreshworksFEMME season.