A decade of evidence now suggests that digital tech is eroding our attention, which is eroding our moral attention, which is eroding our empathy.

Vox, August 2021

Where has all our empathy gone?

The writer of this deep dive into Big Tech’s moral abyss shares his own fable, revealing his response when he saw a Facebook post from a sick friend saying the friend was being rushed to hospital. The author correctly read this as a plea for support and began to form a concerned response but was soon diverted by a new email notification that he checked out instead.

Glasshouses

We are all that person, the author contends. When we simultaneously scroll through Instagram while talking on the phone to a distressed friend. Or avert our eyes from the news about starving children in Yemen onto a funny meme that pops up above. Or we film a dramatic incident like a fight or a car accident rather than stepping in to help.

Moral attention

We are increasingly more focused on amplifying our own lives rather than giving attention to our fellow humans. According to moral philosophy, ‘old fashioned’ attention is a pre-condition for moral attention, which is a pre-condition for empathy and ethical action.

So it’s our fault?

Not entirely. The social media companies understand us better than we understand them: they employ opaque algorithms to capture and keep our attention, that we give freely and which they monetise.

Bad news good for business

When Facebook experimented with demoting posts deemed ‘bad for the world‘ down its News Feed – the number of times people opened Facebook decreased. Facebook recalibrated its algorithm so that just enough harmful content stayed in users’ news feeds so that sessions, or time spent, did not reduce.

Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen claims Facebook’s own research revealed its products “harm children, stoke division and weaken our democracy.” Haugen has implored the US and other governments intervene to make Facebook safer.

What’s to be done?

We have to take our eyes off our screens and onto our governments, the only authority with sufficient power to do something effective at scale. Lesson from history: when colourful lithograph advertising posters emerged in 19th Century France flooding the urban environment and disgusting Parisians, the government passed Defense d’Afficher (Post No Bills) laws limiting where the posters could be plastered. Those regulations are still in place, protecting civic buildings, institutions and schools from becoming advertising boards.

Poulpy, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Lift our eyes

The amplified individuals megatrend traces the increased connectivity between individuals as a result of technological developments. This is happening apace, but we need to also chart the sort of connections are we building and the amplifications produced.

Individually we can take some moral action: ‘resisting’ the tech prompts and – here is the important part – ‘investing’ our attention elsewhere. In the amplified individuals megatrend it is important to recognise our personal authority can be strengthened by choosing to invest in our real-world connections as well as our digital life. 

In capturing the underlying implications in the evolving interplay between the human and technological worlds this megatrend forces to the surface the often hidden moral ambiguities that can be ignored or glossed over in our drive towards the ‘new’ and the entertaining.

Subverting
Stable
Accelerating

This update is part of our Megatrends Watch series, which tracks developments that inform our six global megatrends….

Image: Maxim Hopman

What are megatrends and how they are shaping the future of business?

Impactful Technology
Demographic change
Rapid urbanisation
Amplified individuals
Economic power shift
Climate and resource security

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