Phubbed by FOMO

| March 19, 2020 | 0 Comments

Have you been phubbed recently, because of someone’s FOMO? I have, and I do not like it; sometimes it strikes me as the epitome of rudeness.

To explain the terms, phubbed is a combination of phone and snubbed. To snub someone is to disregard them. You have seen it happen; maybe you have done it. A conversation between two people. One person’s phone rings or jitters. Without even saying “Excuse me,” the phone is pulled out of the pocket or purse, and the other person involved in the conversation gets snubbed in preference for the phone.

Why does phubbing happen? Often because of FOMO. FOMO is an acronym for “Fear of Missing Out”: I may miss something important, so I am willing to break off my relationship with the person standing in front of me in preference for what jingles on the phone.

Let me air another gripe: Isn’t it downright rude to be on a conversation on the phone, and go through a checkout line? Isn’t the cashier another important human soul? I have seen it happen so many times: The cashier hardly gets a look, nod, or word while the customer chats happily away with an unseen entity. If the call is an important one, and the time is so short that checking out needs to move ahead anyway, couldn’t the phone conversation be interrupted at least enough to say to the cashier, “Hi! I am sorry, but this is an important conversation. Do you mind checking me out while I continue it?” I would guess that practically all cashiers would agree. Then when finished, a thankful smile and special little wave could at least make the human behind the cash register feel like he/she is indeed not just a part of the machine.

The attention economy

Many Christians focus on the evil that Internet has made so readily available, the darkest side of the world of iniquity now possible to have at the fingertips 24/7/365 wherever a phone signal can be accessed. This darkness is not to be ignored, but that is not the only dark side of that ubiquitous phone signal. At stake is what is called the “attention economy.” This is when human attention—of which each person only has so much—becomes a commodity and hence a battleground.

In this age of information consumerism, there is an oversupply—a humongous oversupply—of content. Demand for information is indeed high, but the supply has far outpaced even the strong demand. A war has erupted in the digital world over the limiting factor of our limited attention. If I have 16 hours of attention available to someone/something each day, and there are a million things that each want one hour of my time, the competition to get one of those 16 hours—or even just a couple minutes or seconds of it—is extremely intense.

For auction: Your attention span

Can you imagine going to an auction and hearing the auctioneer bark out, “On the auction block now is 100 hours of the attention span of _____________________ [put your name in the blank]! Who’ll give $100,000, $100,000, $100,000 …”

Wait a minute! My attention is not for sale! But if you are connected to the online digital world, major companies are indeed “bidding” for your attention as if they owned your attention, rather than you owning it. Companies like Google have become some of the most valuable businesses in the world, trading on the value of your attention span. For every second of attention that they can hack out of you, the value of their company goes up. Advertisers will pay large sums to Google (or another company) for just five seconds of your attention.

To be fair to Google and other digital companies, the same thing has happened since the beginning of time. Newspaper boys used to literally cry out in the streets to passersby for a moment of attention, trying to get them to buy a newspaper. Shoeshine boys in Bolivia used to come up to me in the city and either say something or point to my shoes to bring attention to the fact that they wanted to shine my shoes—whether my shoes needed a shine or not.

The home: No attention seekers permitted

The privacy of the Christian home has historically been a place of retreat from those who are bidding for our attention. Yes, newspapers or magazines started coming into homes, and neighbors have always been able to knock on the door at any time. But by and large, the home was a place where the individual was not bombarded with attention requests from outside the family. How did it come to be that a Chinese company could ping the phones of American citizens with an attention request several times a day, or Mongolian schoolchildren could get multiple requests daily to buy Israeli software?

In the average American home of today, Dad and Mom and each of the children carries with them an apparatus that is constantly beeping, ringing, or blinking with some bid for a moment of attention. Multi-tasking has become a positive goal to achieve, rather than being seen as a loss of focus on what one should be striving to do with all his attention. Jesus declared that one cannot serve both God and Mammon, but we seem set to try to prove that the more we spread out our attention, the more efficient people we are and the better our work will be.

Where will it stop?

The dizzying slide into becoming information addicts and FOMO puppets will stop exactly at the spot where we set our foot down and say, “HERE, and no further!” How high will you allow the peddlers of your attention to bid on it? When it becomes clear that you will simply not allow your attention to be diverted, you can be assured that the value of your attention will bottom out on the market. But as long as you click, look, and respond in fear of missing out on some great piece of information or some new gadget, the bidders will keep bidding for the next snippet of your attention. And be sure of this: They will not stop auctioning your attention until you make it clear that it is not for sale.

What the makers confess

In recent years, some tech company executives and workers have started confessing … and repenting. They helped design software that was specifically designed to get and hold your attention for as long as possible, even just another second. Now they have formed an organization called Center for Humane Technology, and others similar to it. The most well-known of these people is Tristan Harris, who worked for Google and other tech companies. Others in the group have worked for Facebook, Pinterest, Siri, Mozilla, Apple, NVIDIA, IBM, Microsoft, Samsung, and Creative Commons.

What are they saying? Remember, these are not people who identify (or at least make that identification primary) as Christians. These are heathen. If the unconverted say these things, what should the church be saying?

How tech harms people subconsciously

One of their main concerns with the Center for Humane Technology is that digital tech use (as currently designed and used by most people) is degrading our humanity. Remember phubbing the girl at the cash register? These men and women who worked, or still work, within the large tech companies are admitting openly that they and/or their company purposely strive to get and keep people’s attention, with the purpose of reselling it. How do they accomplish that?

Consider the “like” button found on so many social media platforms. That button was put there to keep people on the platform. If I post something and get 10 likes, for the next post I will want at least 10 likes or I will feel disappointed.

What about the automatic playing of the next video on YouTube and similar sites? That seems like such a nice convenience. But it was put there to make that next video pop into place as soon as possible so that you will stay on the website.

What about 1-click buying? Sounds like a nice convenience offered by Amazon, right? I mean, you don’t have to pull out your debit card to type in the numbers, put your address in, etc. All you have to do is make one simple click and it is all done. Of course, that gives you less time to think deeply about whether you should actually buy the product or not … which is probably why they offer the “convenience.”

And all of those suggestions of “You may like this, based upon your browsing history …” Such a nice convenience, not? Those are the attention getters and keepers. The longer you linger, the more chances that you will buy a product.

Then there is addiction. FOMO can be an addiction. Those tech company workers say that the companies know that, and they purposely design their software to be always giving you a new “shot” so that when the phone beeps, you just have to check it out lest you miss something important.

The devil in the details

Why do notifications on phones and computers often use the color red? Studies have found that red is a “trigger color,” a color that calls for instant attention. It is no mere accident that red is used as a reminder in software notifications to alert people of some new content to consume. One way, says the Center for Humane Technology, to counteract that is to turn your phone screen to greyscale. But that is ugly, right? Well, tech companies know that bright colors call the attention of the eyes, and purposely use multi-colored app buttons to stimulate your attention and emotions. (Hear ye, all ye wearers of clothes, what you need to do to draw attention!)

Do all those beeps and blasts of colors work? Are they effective in keeping people on the app and coming back?

One research group found that ¾ of all teens and half of all adults somehow feel compelled that they have to respond to messages and notifications immediately. Another research team found that about half of all teens admitted that social media distracts them from the person who is present physically in front of them, and 1/3 say that social media causes them to spend less time in face-to-face interactions.

But let’s look at those last numbers a little deeper. Those numbers reflect the numbers that the teens themselves are self-diagnosing, not what is probably the reality. The reality is that a good number of respondents may well be phubbing people and ignoring local interactions in lieu of digital interactions, and not even realizing it.

How many people are addicted to their electronic gadgets? Half of all teens said they were at least “somewhat” addicted, while ¼ of their parents admit addiction. But again, these are self-reported numbers, and I think it is safe to say that many people may be more addicted than what they are aware of.

Digital depression

Several peer-reviewed studies are showing consistent results that indicate that use of social media brings on more depression. The assumed reason for this is because people usually post only the positive and exciting things that happen during their day. They also post enhanced photos of themselves. This makes peers feel like their own life is humdrum and that they are not as attractive as their friends. So, they begin to feel distressed.

Compare this to face-to-face interactions, where it is harder to subtly distort the fact that we are not pimple-free. And, if we live with someone, we will soon find that they spend most of their day doing humdrum duties, just like the rest of us. With mostly digital interaction, we can soon begin—without realizing it—to get a false view of the real lives of other people. For example, if all you do is read articles written by me, you may not realize that I sometimes get headaches and eye fatigue from too much computer use, and that sometimes for days on end I suffer from “writer’s block,” where I find it really hard to focus on and finish a writing project. It’s not as fun and easy to be an author as it may appear to be! But you may not realize that if you do not have any personal interaction with me.

Twisted relationships

With the possibility of hundreds of friends on Facebook, hundreds of people on your contact list that you can text, and an unlimited supply of phone numbers to call, we must be the most well-connected generation of people earth has ever seen, right? We may be well-connected outwardly, but the fact of the matter is that our relationships are probably best described as similar to the rivers in the Plains states: A mile wide and an inch deep.

Since the competition has ramped up for our attention, and it is constantly interrupted by beeps and blinks, we are learning to respond instantly … and quite shallowly. I was reminded of my own shallow responses when I recently received a letter from a prisoner that was over 13 pages long, hand-written and the pages filled from edge to edge. By the time I finished that letter, I felt that I knew the person. He told me of his life, his conversion, his prayer times, his dreams, and his family.

I’ll be truthful here: I had a hard time filling one page in responding back. Perhaps that is due, at least in part, to the fact that I have been struggling to keep up with my work and other things, and one more long letter to write wasn’t what I felt I really needed that day. But yet, when I look at how many emails I may pop off in a day, along with a text message or two that I may respond to, they may equal the equivalent of a good long letter. But instead of one well-thought-out letter, I am afraid my day’s accumulation of responses may be closer to the frazzled ends of a pair of pants that has dragged on the ground for too many steps. Quantity-wise, the volume may be there. Quality-wise, not so much.

It’s not the phone’s fault! (Or is it?)

What am I saying? Digital communication has a strong tendency to cheapen our human interactions. But isn’t that our fault, not the means? Isn’t technology neutral?


Now, you noticed that word is in quotes, right? Who am I quoting? I am quoting the people from groups like the Center for Humane Technology, the very people who designed the software that make our machines whir, click, beep, and go. They have specifically said the following: “Technology is not neutral.” Why is it not neutral in the eyes of these educated people who have been actively involved in designing it? Because the software has been very, very, very purposely designed to snag and hold your attention for as long as possible. Perhaps we can clarify that the metal and plastic of the gadget is totally innocent. But in this case, the metal and the plastic contain things that are programmed by humans.

Let me make this clear. The people who are saying this are not some Luddites in the backwoods of Hickstown, Appalachia, who have not even used Internet. They are not a conspiracy theory group. It is not a one-horse or two-horse show. They are a group of people who live in Silicon Valley and have worked in the major software corporations in the Valley.

What they are not is Christians, at least they do not bring a Christian worldview into their perspective. This is where they will likely fail to achieve the deepest results they strive for, because they are offering some solutions that are premised upon humanistic ideas. But it may surprise you that some of their conclusions do resonate closely with a Christian worldview.

Quoting the designers

Let’s look at a few quotes from people who have been involved in designing the software on our gadgets.

Chamath Palihapitiya, who was previously the Vice-President of user growth at Facebook:

  • “I can control my decision, which is that I don’t use that [vulgarity for technology]. I can control my kids’ decisions, which is that they are not allowed to use that [vulgarity for technology]. The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops[1] that we have created are destroying how society works.”

Steve Jobs, CEO of Apple before his death:

  • “We limit how much technology our kids use at home.”

Tony Fadell, inventor of the iPod, co-inventor of the iPhone:

  • “We’ve unleashed a beast, but there’s a lot of unintended consequences.”

Current Apple CEO Tim Cook:

  • “I don’t have a kid, but I have a nephew that I put some boundaries on. There are some things that I won’t allow; I don’t want them on a social network.”

Sean Parker, founding President of Facebook:

  • “[I am] something of a conscientious objector [to social media].” “[Social media] literally changes your relationship with society, with each other … It probably interferes with productivity in weird ways. God only knows what it’s doing to our children’s brains.”
  • “The thought process that went into building these applications, Facebook being the first of them ... was all about: ‘How do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible?’” [Notice that he explicitly says they built the applications purposely to consume your time and conscious attention. Are you listening?]

Justin Rosenstein, former Facebook employee who created the “like” button:

  • “It is very common for humans to develop things with the best of intentions and for them to have unintended, negative consequences.” “The Like button did a lot of things it set out to do [but] it had a lot of unintended consequences.”

Leah Pearlman, who helped Rosenstein create the “like” button:

  • “I check [for Likes] and I feel bad. Whether there’s a notification or not, it doesn’t really feel that good. Whatever we’re hoping to see, it never quite meets that bar.” She now has someone else monitor her Facebook page (where she sells artwork after getting out of the tech world) so that she doesn’t have to deal with how many people “like” her artwork.

Loren Brichter, inventor of the “swipe to refresh” mechanism, which Twitter acquired when they bought his company:

  • “Smartphones are useful tools. But they’re addictive. Pull-to-refresh is addictive. Twitter is addictive. These are not good things. When I was working on them, it was not something I was mature enough to think about. I’m not saying I’m mature now, but I’m a little bit more mature, and I regret the downsides.”

James Williams, former Google employee who helped build the metrics system for Google’s advertising arm:

  • “[Digital advertising companies are the] largest, most standardized and most centralized form of attentional control in human history.”
  • One day James was watching the computer monitors at Google when he realized something. He says, “I realized: this is literally a million people that we’ve sort of nudged or persuaded to do this thing that they weren’t going to otherwise do.”
  • “The attention economy incentivizes the design of technologies that grab our attention. In so doing, it privileges our impulses over our intentions.”
  • “The dynamics of the attention economy are structurally set up to undermine the human will [my italics … are you paying attention?]. If politics is an expression of our human will, on individual and collective levels, then the attention economy is directly undermining the assumptions that democracy rests on. If Apple, Facebook, Google, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat are gradually chipping away at our ability to control our own minds, could there come a point, I ask, at which democracy no longer functions? Will we be able to recognize it, if and when it happens? And if we can’t, then how do we know it hasn’t happened already?”

Aza Raskin, former Mozilla employee and designer of infinite scrolling:

  • “Behind every screen on your phone, there are generally like, literally, a thousand engineers that have worked on this thing to try to make it maximally addicting.”
  • “In order to get the next round of funding, in order to get your stock price up, the amount of time that people spend on your app has to go up. So, when you put that much pressure on that one number, you're going to start trying to invent new ways of getting people to stay hooked.”

Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft, concerning how he regulates tech use by his children, in his home:

  • “We don’t have cellphones at the table when we are having a meal, we didn’t give our kids cellphones until they were 14, and they complained other kids got them earlier.”

Back to phubbing …

So, when someone ends up phubbing another living, breathing human right in front of their face, is it only the fault of the person using the phone? High-level, insider Silicon Valley employees are saying, “NO! Technology is not neutral. It was purposely designed to be addictive.”

To be sure, on the final judgement day, no one will be excused from sin by saying, “My phone made me do it.” But we must admit that although the serpent was not responsible for Eve partaking of the forbidden fruit, he was not a neutral entity.

And, neither is your phone a neutral entity!

What shall we say?  For discussion in your homes and communities...

What shall we say when non-Christians are saying what they are saying about how digital technology is subtly and very negatively affecting users?

Shall the children of this generation be considered as wiser than the children of light?

If the creators of some of these technologies are refusing their children access to them, how much more should we?

How can churches which do choose limited use hold each other accountable on using phones as tools for good purposes, and not for entertainment, addiction, and disrespect of others?

If we are effectively controlling our phubbing or have become free of the addiction, what is a good way to bring this subject up with others?

~Mike Atnip

[1] He is referring to the fact that dopamine, a chemical in the brain that makes a person feel good, is released under certain stimuli. One of the stimuli for such a release is to get a “like” on something you post on social media. This creates a desire to get two “likes” the next time, and this encourages you to stay on the site and post something else. Then when you do get two “likes,” you will be driven to try for three. And on and on it goes, to become an addiction. This becomes a “feedback loop,” where you are hooked into striving for more: I post, I get a feedback, so I post again and get more feedback, and so on. Facebook and other software developers now openly admit that is the reason they put the “like” buttons on their products. To be fair to software developers, this dopamine-driven feedback loop has been in society since the beginning; they are just purposely harnessing it to get you to stay in their app or on their site. And “like” buttons are not the only trick up their sleeves.


Category: Public

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