6 October 2021

It’s hard to be a moral person. Technology is making it harder.

It was on the day I read a Facebook post by my sick friend that I started to really question my relationship with technology.


An old friend had posted a status update saying he needed to rush to the hospital because he was having a health crisis. I half-choked on my tea and stared at my laptop. I recognized the post as a plea for support. I felt fear for him, and then … I did nothing about it, because I saw in another tab that I’d just gotten a new email and went to check that instead.


After a few minutes scrolling my Gmail, I realized something was messed up. The new email was obviously not as urgent as the sick friend, and yet I’d acted as if they had equal claims on my attention. What was wrong with me? Was I a terrible person? I dashed off a message to my friend, but continued to feel disturbed.


Gradually, though, I came to think this was less an indication that I was an immoral individual and more a reflection of a bigger societal problem. I began to notice that digital technology often seems to make it harder for us to respond in the right way when someone is suffering and needs our help.


Think of all the times a friend has called you to talk through something sad or stressful, and you could barely stop your twitchy fingers from checking your email or scrolling through Instagram as they talked. Think of all the times you’ve seen an article in your Facebook News Feed about anguished people desperate for help — starving children in Yemen, dying Covid-19 patients in India — only to get distracted by a funny meme that appears right above it.


Think of the countless stories of camera phones short-circuiting human decency. Many a bystander has witnessed a car accident or a fist-fight and taken out their phone to film the drama rather than rushing over to see if the victim needs help. One Canadian government-commissioned report found that when our experience of the world is mediated by smartphones, we often fixate on capturing a “spectacle” because we want the “rush” we’ll get from the instant reaction to our videos on social media.


Multiple studies have suggested that digital technology is shortening our attention spans and making us more distracted. What if it’s also making us less empathetic, less prone to ethical action? What if it’s degrading our capacity for moral attention — the capacity to notice the morally salient features of a given situation so that we can respond appropriately?


There is a lot of evidence to indicate that our devices really are having this negative effect. Tech companies continue to bake in design elements that amplify the effect — elements that make it harder for us to sustain uninterrupted attention to the things that really matter, or even to notice them in the first place. And they do this even though it’s becoming increasingly clear that this is bad not only for our individual interpersonal relationships, but also for our politics. There’s a reason why former President Barack Obama now says that the internet and social media have created “the single biggest threat to our democracy.”


The idea of moral attention goes back at least as far as ancient Greece, where the Stoics wrote about the practice of attention (prosoché) as the cornerstone of a good spiritual life. In modern Western thought, though, ethicists didn’t focus too much on attention until a band of female philosophers came along, starting with Simone Weil.


Weil, an early 20th-century French philosopher and Christian mystic, wrote that “attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.” She believed that to be able to properly pay attention to someone else — to become fully receptive to their situation in all its complexity — you need to first get your own self out of the way. She called this process “decreation,” and explained: “Attention consists of suspending our thought, leaving it detached, empty ... ready to receive in its naked truth the object that is to penetrate it.”


Weil argued that plain old attention — the kind you use when reading novels, say, or birdwatching — is a precondition for moral attention, which is a precondition for empathy, which is a precondition for ethical action.


Later philosophers, like Iris Murdoch and Martha Nussbaum, picked up and developed Weil’s ideas. They garbed them in the language of Western philosophy; Murdoch, for example, appeals to Plato as she writes about the need for “unselfing.” But this central idea of “unselfing” or “decreation” is perhaps most reminiscent of Eastern traditions like Buddhism, which has long emphasized the importance of relinquishing our ego and training our attention so we can perceive and respond to others’ needs. It offers tools like mindfulness meditation for doing just that.


The idea that you should practice emptying out your self to become receptive to someone else is antithetical to today’s digital technology, says Beverley McGuire, a historian of religion at the University of North Carolina Wilmington who researches moral attention.


“Decreating the self — that’s the opposite of social media,” she says, adding that Facebook, Instagram, and other platforms are all about identity construction. Users build up an aspirational version of themselves, forever adding more words, images, and videos, thickening the self into a “brand.”


What’s more, over the past decade a bevy of psychologists have conducted multiple studies exploring how (and how often) people use social media and the way it impacts their psychological health. They’ve found that social media encourages users to compare themselves to others. This social comparison is baked into the platforms’ design. Because the Facebook algorithms bump posts up in our newsfeed that have gotten plenty of “Likes” and congratulatory comments, we end up seeing a highlight reel of our friends’ lives. They seem to be always succeeding; we feel like failures by contrast. We typically then either spend more time scrolling on Facebook in the hope that we’ll find someone worse off so we feel better, or we post our own status update emphasizing how great our lives are going. Both responses perpetuate the vicious cycle.


In other words, rather than helping us get our own selves out of the way so we can truly attend to others, these platforms encourage us to create thicker selves and to shore them up — defensively, competitively — against other selves we perceive as better off.

A collection of mousetraps capturing different social media logos placed on a table.Efi Chalikopoulou for Vox


And what about email? What was really happening the day I got distracted from my sick friend’s Facebook post and went to look at my Gmail instead? I asked Tristan Harris, a former design ethicist at Google. He now leads the Center for Humane Technology, which aims to realign tech with humanity’s best interests, and he was part of the popular Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma.


“We’ve all been there,” he assures me. “I worked on Gmail myself, and I know how the tab changes the number in parentheses. When you see the number [go up], it’s tapping into novelty seeking — same as a slot machine. It’s making you aware of a gap in your knowledge and now you want to close it. It’s a curiosity gap.”


Plus, human beings naturally avert their attention from uncomfortable or painful stimuli like a health crisis, Harris adds. And now, with notifications coming at us from all sides, “It’s never been easier to have an excuse to attenuate or leave an uncomfortable stimulus.”


By fragmenting my attention and dangling before it the possibility of something newer and happier, Gmail’s design had exploited my innate psychological vulnerabilities and had made me more likely to turn away from my sick friend’s post, degrading my moral attention.


The problem isn’t just Gmail. Silicon Valley designers have studied a whole suite of “persuasive technology” tricks and used them in everything from Amazon’s one-click shopping to Facebook’s News Feed to YouTube’s video recommender algorithm. Sometimes the goal of persuasive technology is to get us to spend money, as with Amazon. But often it’s just to keep us looking and scrolling and clicking on a platform for as long as possible. That’s because the platform makes its money not by selling something to us, but by selling us — that is, our attention — to advertisers.


Think of how Snapchat rewards you with badges when you’re on the app more, how Instagram sends you notifications to come check out the latest image, how Twitter purposely makes you wait a few seconds to see notifications, or how Facebook’s infinite scroll feature invites you to engage in just one ... more ... scroll.


These apps make a game out of relieving anxiety. They may be on to something.