But why the GAFA give us back our time?
In recent weeks, among the novelties announced by the American digital giants for their respective services, were a number of features aimed at “giving back control to users”. Apple puts it like this: “iOS 12 includes new features to limit interruptions and manage time spent in front of screens”. iOS and Android will henceforth offer the possibility of monitoring the time spent on their phone, as well as the possibility – like Facebook – to better control the notifications you want to receive.
It looks like America’s digital giants have heard the call from users. For several years, consumers, collectives or former employees of these large companies have been campaigning for them to be more respectful of their users in terms of the attention they require. Tristan Harris, a former Google executive and the most famous activist of this cause, thus advocates a better spent time (time well spent, the name of his first think tank). The features announced in recent months show that the weight of these increasingly pressing demands in the media has caused the American digital giants to react.
Nevertheless, this raises questions. In fact, most of these companies, and in particular Facebook and Google, operate mainly around what is called the attention economy. Their services are free and these companies are financed by the advertising, often targeted, which is disseminated there or by other forms of exploitation of the personal data of the users. When it’s free, you are the product. So what do these companies gain by meeting the demand of their users to spend less time on their services, or to be less solicited? When a user registered on Facebook does not connect to it, the company does not earn a priori any income from him, since he does not watch an advertisement. So what is the interest of Mark Zukerberg in declaring that he thinks that in the long term will be positive the fact that users of his social network spend on average slightly less time?
In reality, Internet users should rather be worried about these new features announced by GAFA. Because it implies that the latter have found a way to make money in other ways than by selling our available brain time to the highest bidder. This means that the attention economy, which largely pre-exists on the Web since it is at the heart of the economic model of our cultural and media industries, is no longer necessarily the only possible model for these large digital groups. . Or rather, what Mark Zukerberg suggests is that this attention economy no longer has a quantitative, but a qualitative value: “helping people to connect is more important than maximizing the time spent on Facebook” . There is no need to keep a user present for a large period of time if we can ensure that they will generate value quickly.
Thus, it is notable to note that the announced functionalities only allow us to evaluate the time that we spend on our phone. This brings us back to a very utilitarian vision of our society and its relationship to new technologies: optimizing your time, spending it usefully. However, Internet users are far from spending only time. We spend money (via e-commerce) and we “spend” personal data (on social networks or via the applications of our smartphones). However, it is these two expenses that are the most profitable for the digital giants. It is therefore no coincidence that the new application from Apple tells us the time spent on our phone and not the cumulative amount that we spend on the App Store or on the various applications that we use.
Despite appearances, the digital services we use are therefore far from giving us back control over our use of technological tools. It even seems that the fight for greater respect for the time spent by users is ultimately counterproductive. Indeed, this fight partly distracts attention from the root of the problem, that is to say the ability of users to control their uses in their diversity of digital services.
This is why it is now imperative to rethink the design of digital services, both in its methods, for the use of personal data or attention, as in its objectives, business models and impacts on our societies. Many designers of digital services are thus seeking to put meaning back into their work and their products, with the concern of putting the user’s demand for choice and freedom back at the center of the design.
Karl Pineau is a doctoral student in information and communication sciences and a member of the Les Designers Ethiques collective. He works on the impacts of design and digital conception on the users of these services, more specifically from the point of view of attention. The Ethical Designers collective brings together designers, sociologists, consultants, philosophers, digital project managers around issues related to the design of digital services. He is at the origin of the Ethics by design conferences.