Am I late to notice this? I was on a flight the other day and instead of a no smoking light above each seat, it had a no tech sign. Have you seen this?
I found it so strange. Partly because it’s always been a no smoking sign, so when something so habitual is changed, it feels weird. A tiny broken pattern. Like when they made green ketchup. Or when I discovered savoury pancakes. Or Berty Botts Every Flavour Beans. Or like when my grandma says a swear word. You’re in a specific context where you expect the same pattern as every other time, but a small thing is changed and so there’s some cognitive dissonance.
It mainly felt symbolic though. A cigarette was perhaps the one visible addiction that was socially acceptable at any time of the day in public. But in my life time they’ve never been acceptable on a flight. Now it’s technology. I’m assuming a single cigarette on a flight is more dangerous than a single rogue person sending text messages, but it is far less likely. Somebody addicted to smoking can exercise enough self-control to not smoke between terminal buildings. But technology…? Probably not.
The first thing most of us do when we land is check our phones. Like coming up for air after spending too much time under water. When we land in a new country, the first thing we do is come up for data, starved for it. It’s funny that even an hour online, and most of us will go through every app that could give us something new. We go in with that subtle feeling of uncertainty: “Has somebody text me?” “Has anybody liked my picture?” “Did I get any emails?” “Has anything happened in the news?”. This slight anxiety and uncertainty is no accident of course, it plays on something called a Variable Reward Mechanic, we are primed by subtle cues such as the spinning wheel, the drag to load function, the ticks next to your text message…etc.
Many of these mechanics are absolutely intentional. They are design choices which use the latest findings of cognitive psychology in order to exploit our biases, to get us to spend more time on site, so we see more ads, give more data, so we see more ads… repeat. In these business models the users are in fact the used. And these addictive strategies - which favour company shareholders rather than platform users - are so successful that airplane manufacturers have changed the no smoking sign for a no tech sign. Isn’t that amazing?! (not in a good way)
I was wondering why they would change the sign. I ended up at the conclusion that cigarettes are known to be dangerous for our health and especially dangerous in a huge metal flying machine. The norm is therefore firmly established that one must not smoke on plane. What about tech though? I think we are very far as a society from understanding its dangers. The norm is not firmly established. That’s my main takeout. Technology and particularly addictive technology is so new to us that we haven’t established healthy norms around them. I saw somebody walking down the street on a video call without headphones the other day! Grrr!!! My mum still keeps her ringtone on! Double gggrrrr!!!
What are the norms when it comes to this stuff? In my new book Tech Monopolies: A short rant about addictive design, I explain the logic by which these big organisations often work. Hopefully making it easier to feel the danger they present. And hopefully, helping us see that our behaviour with technology is far from normal, and perhaps some new norms need establishing. What do you think?
PS. For a synopsis, here’s the back cover of the book.
PPS. You can also watch my talk on this here.
Take care and be well,