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What are we talking about?
Why technology companies are obsessed with your attention
Why is it important to the future of work?
We need to take control of how we use technology and demand that it work for us, and not the other way around.
Learn more about Max Stossel
Welcome to the Work Minus Podcast where we talk to influencers about what needs dropped from how the work today and where they see work headed. Today’s guest is Max Stossel and this episode is Work Minus Distractions. Hi Max, how are you?
I’m good. Thanks for having me.
Very happy to have you on the show. You are connected to the Time Well Spent group, which is how we got together. But why don’t you tell a little bit about yourself who you are and what you’re passionate about.
Sure, so I am, in fact, Max Stossel. I got interested in this field because when I… My first job, I was, my first job in college. I was young. They were like, “Hey, you go figure out social media.” And so I fell into that industry and was doing social strategy for some small startups, and then Dove and Budweiser and some big brands.
And ultimately, I discovered that a couple of things really work well on social media, and one of those things is putting ideas in front of people that they already believe. When I was doing Budweiser work, for example, showing a picture of somebody having a drink on a Friday is a very popular image to that crowd. And then also extreme statements, “Budweiser is the greatest beer” does a whole lot better than “Here’s how Budweiser is made.”
And that’s one thing when it’s for brands. But then I slowly started to watch everybody kind of following those principles as the facebook algorithm rewarded those principles and started to see news organizations get a little bit more extreme and started to see filter bubbles really pouring some gasoline on the filter bubble fire.
And so I was actually after that job, I went into start up world and I was working on a social media app, and I was designing notification structures that essentially would take people out of their world and bring them into mine, because we were told that if we could hold your attention for two minutes or longer, we had a valuable company. So all of our design was based around how can we capture as much attention as possible.
And during that time, I didn’t think I was doing anything wrong. I thought that anything that I’m doing to make someone use my app means they want to use it. But it was actually conversations with Tristan Harris who is the founder of this Time Well Spent movement where I really started to realize the difference between what we want and what we’ll watch. Like what we will do, how human beings just are persuadable. We are persuadable as humans, and there are some things that will just make us act in certain ways and starting to align my thinking around that. And then taking a second look at the work I was doing, it felt as though this wasn’t work that I really wanted to be doing, and even scarier, this entire digital economy, this entire attention economy is based on this concept of how do we capture as much time as possible. And that has a lot of consequences.
So do you think this is a new phenomenon that we’re just becoming aware of since everything’s just amped up or has it been there in the past in media for a long time?
So I think a lot of this stuff has been in media for a long time, but it’s really… The internet is putting gas on the fire. A lot of this stuff is just in human behavior. A lot of our base instincts are being catered to, but we’ve gotten so good and we have so much data now that everything has been taken to a new extreme, and the consequences have never been this dire for some of the same systems that have been happening for a long time, it just has reached a tipping point.
Alright, for someone who is not familiar with Time Well Spent and kind of what you guys all doing together, just give us a few examples of what are some of the dangers that are out there when the whole system is built on attention.
So the symptom that we feel is, like “Oh look at that, I got sucked into something for twenty minutes that I didn’t mean to get sucked into.” But that’s not the scary part of the problem. It’s not so fun when everybody’s on their phones all the time necessarily. But what’s scary about it is how that attention is grabbed. So what are the things that work at grabbing and holding attention? And so you have some of the most intelligent algorithms that have ever been created, Facebook, Google, etc., that have been pointed at each individual human brain looking at every action, every data point, thinking, “How can we craft the perfect piece of content to show this person?”
And it’s not a person sitting behind a screen saying, “Aha, this is right for you!” It’s an algorithm. And so the way that works is that it morphs and shifts and tries a bajillion different things and discovers new ways of keeping people engaged, ways that humans might not have thought of. A lot of the solutions the algorithms have created are creating, “Oh it looks like when we push these ideas to the extreme this person is more likely to spend time here. When we show people things that they’re already likely to believe they’ll spend more time here.”
There’s an interesting example is on Youtube. During the election, we’re watching Trump videos, you would quickly be recommended to white supremacy videos. Those are not the same thing, they’re definitely not the same thing, but Youtube sort of categorized them in a similar bulk and thought, “Oh if you like this, you might like this.” You do or don’t. Maybe you click on that, maybe you don’t. It’s far actually more dangerous when it’s the kids who can’t read that are clicking on every side bar, but they’re not watching Trump videos, that’s a separate example.
And again, like you said, it’s not like Youtube is a person sitting up there deciding, oh yeah, this correlation exists. It’s all from the algorithm, which is really more of a reflection of our own society too, would you agree?
Yes, more and more our own personal behavior. As Tristan likes to put it, it’s a race to the bottom of the brainstem. It’s not information that we’re happy we watched later. It’s just what is most likely to get us to click now.
And you’re never hardcore enough for Youtube. If you watch videos about being a vegetarian, they’ll push you towards veganism. It’s just a recommendation on the side there. But the whole Facebook ecosystem and a lot of the digital world is slowly and subtly pushing us that way. And not because of a person who’s behind there making that choice, but because this is what the algorithm learns is best in keeping our attention. So we’re starting to learn, were starting to become more aware as a society, I think. This is not something that we want to run our digital world, that when everything is run based on how much attention we can grab, the cost is too high.
We’re talking about the future of work were talking to work trends. So let’s bring it into the office setting. If the current trajectory of design and this attention economy, just capturing more attention, keeps going, how does that impact the future of work from a user perspective? How are they going to be affected if the attention economy is allowed to just go free wheeling wherever it wants to?
So we’re only gonna get better and better at capturing and stealing your attention. Really this problem is going to get worse. Virtual reality is coming, and there are more and more interesting and engaging ways of capturing people’s attention. So if you think it’s hard to focus now, I would say it’s only going to get harder.
But what we’re hoping from Time Well Spent is that we can create a shift in that direction and that we can really start to design based on human needs and human values. And so if what you’re doing at work is something that’s important to you, technology should really be able to help you achieve those goals without being such a gigantic distraction machine.
And I do think we’re starting to reach a critical point where people are starting to realize how little we’re getting done often and how easily distracted we are, and I think there is starting to be a turning point there. So I think though it’s only getting worse in terms of the way that some of the social networks are capturing attention. I think we’re somewhat reaching a breaking point where the average worker is like, “Okay, I need to put this thing away if I’m going to get anything done,” and I think that might lead to some more positive innovation.
I remember when Facebook and Youtube first started to really come out strong in mainstream areas, there were a lot of even offices, organizations that would try to block it or say, you can’t access this from our office. But then slowly, it just became natural that you had to give employees access and…
Right you need them; they’re part of the job…
Right. Where do you see that going, are we going to go back to those days when employers or say, or even employees say, “Hey, we can’t do our jobs anymore because we have these tools.” Is blocking them, something as simple as that, what we need, or is there better solution?
So there is a tool called News Feed Eradicator for Facebook that takes away the newsfeed when you go on to it. So if you wanna go to Facebook to do a specific task, it’s much harder to get distracted and pulled in, not impossible, the notifications are still there and ready and eager to pull you out of what you were doing. And similarly, Youtube DF is Youtube “Distraction Free”, that gets rid of the recommendations and the sidebar. And so I think there are tools that can help people self regulate there. I don’t think it makes much sense for most offices to totally get rid of these things because they’re so deeply ingrained in society that they often are needed. What’s challenging is that as soon as you go in, it’s very hard to go out. And so I don’t think the future is offices blocking those sites. I really hope the future is Facebook and Google redesigning these products that really are helpful to people in helping us get what we want out of our lives. But in the interim, I hope people are able to do a little bit of work to self regulate, and those tools can help.
So you see most of the change, at least in the next few years needing to happen from individuals who decide themselves, “Hey, I’m too distracted to even do my work” to use some of these small tools or be more mindful of it. But is there anything else that, as someone who’s crafting an organization that wants people just have some distraction free time or say this is a no device hour or no computer Thursdays, or something like that? Are any of these initiatives worth looking at?
Sure. I think it’s absolutely worth experimenting of, “Do we try that?” I’m not familiar with the details, but I know if you Google different companies, email or response policies, I know a lot of different companies are innovating and trying to figure out the best solutions, both for our mental health and for productivity. And I absolutely think it’s worth experimenting to figure out what works best for your office. But it’s easy to think, well, when we’re connected we get the most done, but challenge that assumption and test that assumption and see if it’s true, see if maybe having a no device notice Saturday or no device Friday…
Double revolution going on there… Come to work on Saturday’s and don’t bring your phone…
There you go.
So, what about if you’re working for a company that is in this world of capturing attention, someone is having second thoughts about this. Maybe they’re not the chief designer, or they’re not the CEO, and they don’t feel that they can drive the vision of the company. What are some options they have to be more ethical in their design?
It’s a tough one because, if the primary goal or business objective of the company is different from the goal of the user. For example, if let’s use Facebook again, makes their money off of taking as much time as possible from the user, and that’s not the goal of the user. Little changes can make things better, but ultimately, you’re fighting a losing battle. And so it’s very hard to fight that. And so you can leave and that’s also not a choice.
I think it really it does become a choice of whether you want to start going to your higher ups and saying, “Hey, are there alternative models here? What does our premium product look like?” Some of this falls on the consumer and we need to be willing to pay for services that bring us value, because when we’re not paying, we’re paying with our attention and that is really harmful to society. And so I think that is one option, if you’re working on a product that runs on advertising or requires capturing so much attention, maybe you can think about what is the alternative there. We also have a design checklist on TimeWellSpent.io/designers, that will take you through about eight things, that as you are designing my product is this actually helping the end user? And if you could bring this list to your higher ups as well. I can run through those if it’s helpful, but it’s sort of long.
I think that if people check out the resource it will be a good tool for them. So, let’s talk about a different topic. It seems like in the world of software, we keep going through these ebbs and flows where sometimes companies and businesses want software that can do everything so that the organization spends all their time on one platform, all the communication, all the file sharing, everything happens in one place. And then we break out and say, “No, I want them on separate apps, I want them in separate places so that I can focus and not have distractions.” Where do you see this tension going in the near future? And what concerns should we have about that tension between those two?
So this feels like it could go in two directions again, and the key here is whether our goals are aligned. Because if my goal is aligned with a company that has this plethora of data and so many services, that’s great. They have more opportunity to better serve me, and that’s what they’re trying to do. But if their goal is time, then I don’t want one company also happening to controlling how I work or how I get around if their goal is not the same as my goal, because there will be at least subtle ways in which they are using me.
I think in the near term, to be honest, we have some very big companies that rule a majority of our digital world, and we’ll see more conglomeration, but around the productivity space, I’d like to think that if you’re not serving your customers in the productivity space, you’re going to lose and we’ll see different silos pop up, and naturally what will work best at helping you get things done is focused environments. And so it’s not in some of these tech monopolies’ best interest to give you a focused environment unless there’s a separate sort of experience. So I would imagine in the productivity space we would see things going in separate directions, at least, at least from other aspects of our lives. Maybe there’ll be work conglomerates, Salesforce, and Asana, and things like that. But those feel much less dangerous than the ones that control how we get our information as well.
I think going back to the point, you said earlier, a lot of it does come back to money in terms of how it’s coming in. If you’re using an app, you’re paying decently for it, then that company is making their money that way and their interests should ideally be to just improve your experience. Whereas if you’re not paying anything for it, you’re paying with time, you’re paying with your eyeballs watching different advertising and the company tries to maximize on that time. Do you feel like it’s that simple or is there more nuance to it?
That’s pretty much it, but there’s slightly more nuance in that what can be challenging is that even some companies that we pay for, like Netflix for example, or even the meditation apps have to send notifications and keep you coming back. There’s been this, in the attention economy, even some paid apps they have to compete for market share or they find that if you are binge watching, for example, you’re more lately to renew your subscription. And so there are things like that that are happening. And so we really need a different style of thinking as well. But having a paid product is definitely a better place to start and helps level the playing field.
So anyone who’s seen the Time Well Spent website, seen the TED talks, seen your video which is incredible too. This Panda Is Dancing, it’s the really fantastic… everyone should go check it out. When you look at it, I think everyone that sees it says, “Yeah, this is a great idea, it needs to happen, we need to do something!” But then we look at what we’re up against; we keep mentioning Facebook, Google, and the likes of them that are out there, who seem to have no incentive to buy into any of this. They say, that’s cute and nice. They could have a conference on it; they could throw in several million dollars just to make us all feel better. But in the end, we know where all their money is coming from and how it’s affecting them. What are some rays of hope you can give us, what are some things you’re looking for as indicators to say, maybe we might make a turn eventually?
Sure, so part of Step One in this for us, has been raising awareness that this just exist at all, that this is happening, and this is the way that it works, because in many ways this is an invisible problem and it’s very hard to bring to mass attention. In Step One of our working on it, just letting people know that how this is working. Many of us at TimeWellSpent were working at Google or Apple or within this industry, and we’re trying to raise awareness on that.
One project we’re working on this year is called The Beautiful World Project, which is to inspire Apple as a big target and some of their competitors, Samsung, Microsoft, and hopefully even Facebook and Google. We want to show them this is what the world could be like if this technology were actually designed by our values because it’s very hard to know how one even could change before we paint the alternative of that.
And we’ve been talking a lot about Facebook and Google, but Apple does not make most of their money on advertising, Apple is selling hardware for the most part. And so if there really is consumer demand for this other type of product that really cares about us, it is in a company like Apple or Samsung or Microsoft’s best interest to create a product that really protects us from these distractions and prioritizes success and what’s valuable to us differently. So I am really optimistic about the ingenuity of companies like that, and if we can really build real movement and consumer demand for this alternative, I think that could really make the world a much more wonderful place, especially as I believe that this problem is underneath every other problem because how can we focus on some of the bigger things if we can’t focus at all?
Well tell us some more about The Beautiful World Project, what is that, what’s it going to look like?
It’s so difficult, challenging to say with words and without videos, so I’ll show you, I’ll send them to you and they’re ready. But for example, showing what exists now, and then looking at something like Facebook and let’s say Facebook was really using all of its data and everything at its disposal to give you meaningful experiences and decrease the amount of loneliness in the world. What would that experience look like from a “what’s in your hand” standpoint? You open the app, it’s this time of day and this happens. So just highlighting and helping people think like, “Huh, I never thought of my technology in this way before”, but tech could be this, and I want the designers to think “Of course, why have I been creating this silly thing when I could be creating this thing that does so much good?” As I do believe the people working at these companies are good people who want to do well, to do good. And I think there is room to inspire those designers and developers, even if we also may need to do some finagling in the overarching business model of this industry.
I think what you said is absolutely true. Anytime you have a system that seems to take advantage of people, inside are always good people and people who want to do the right thing. And even at the top, I’m sure that there’s people in these companies that would genuinely believe in these things. But many can’t think of what it would look like to restart from the beginning and really make it from the values point of view.
We’re hoping to help in that regard.
Excellent. Excellent. Well Max, give us a picture of the future of Work Minus Distractions, but we’re still using technology. What does it look like, I walk into the office, what do I experience?
So the future of work without distractions should involve, technology should be a very powerful tool to help us get things done. And so I would imagine that it would be something along the lines of, everything was about what you wanted to accomplish this day, month, year, and you had smart technology that was working to help you accomplish the relevant tasks that were in your control to help you get towards those goals. Technology would be helping when it could help, and if it is not the best way of getting those tasks that really matter to you done and matter to what you care about in the office or in your professional career, if those tasks aren’t helpful to get you those done, then the technology should disappear. It should literally go away to help you focus on what does matter to you. I haven’t put in a thought into exactly what the different internet of things and what the device is and what the apps are that really help us do that. But I think that’s the idea behind it, if that makes sense.
And then what’s the alternative to… You get to the office and you open up your inbox and there’s a hundred emails waiting for you, or you open up your internal social media feed and there’s twenty thousand notifications you have to go through. What’s a good solution to that?
That’s gonna be there there. There a couple of resources on the Time Well Spent website: www.timewellspent.io/take-control, and some of those tools like inbox one ready (and I think that’s actually the only one email related that’s on the website) can be helpful in cleaning that up. But what I found most helpful, personally, is just sleeping, getting a physical alarm clock and not having my phone be the thing that wakes me up, so that the first thing I see in the day isn’t this whole new mess of new information and incoming requests. So I can actually take a second, think about what I want to get done, and then just be conscious of what in my inbox actually applies to that and what doesn’t and use my own judgment on what is urgent and needs to interrupt me, but not let the chaos of it interrupt me itself, it’s easier said than done. The inbox is sort of like a slot machine, we’re constantly checking and pulling, “Oh is there a new thing? What am I gonna get?” And especially when work gets hard, it’s very easy to want to drift away into the other things. But I have found personally that sleeping with my phone outside of the room has been helpful in letting me prioritize what I wanna get done in the day.
That’s a great idea. I do airplane mode at night just to make sure that first thing is not seeing or hearing notifications or anything like that.
Do you immediately turn it off after you wake up?
No, after breakfast.
Good. Yeah, I tried airplane mode, but then found myself just immediately on there as soon as I turned off my alarm, so I thought, okay, this is not accomplishing what it meant to accomplish.
Well great, Max thank you so much for being on the show. We appreciate what you are doing and it’s a good thing, I hope you continue to do it. Tell us where we can stay in touch with you.
I am @MaxStossel on all those social media apps. I post almost never for all these reasons because I hate this stuff, but it also is a valuable way of spreading the word around. So it’s a conflict, and it’s a bit ironic. I think really the best thing you can do is get involved on the site at: www.timewellspent.io
Well, this has been Work Minus Distractions. Thanks a lot for being on the show Max.
Max Stossel is an award-winning poet + filmmaker named by Forbes as one of the best storytellers of the year. His performances across five continents, from Lincoln Center in NY to the Hordern Pavilion in Sydney, have been described as mind expanding, profound, emotive, and hilarious all at once. His work has been translated to fourteen languages, won multiple film festivals, and has been viewed over 15 million times online.
Max Stossel is also the Head of Education & Content for the Center for Humane Technology, an organization of former tech insiders and CEOs dedicated to realigning technology with humanity’s best interests. Before joining CHT, Max was a media strategist with an extensive background in social, spending more time learning the ins and outs of the facebook algorithm than any human should. He ran social for multinational brands, and later worked for a social media company where he designed some of the same notification structures to distract students that he now criticizes. He provides a unique and much needed critical perspective on the role of technology in the classroom.
The merging of these fields allows Max to provide a fascinating perspective on modern content and culture. He is currently performing Words That Move in theatres, speaking or performing at schools, corporations & events, and helping select brands tell their stories in his style via video.