Here come the attention managers

“They will ask to be the John Kelly to the Trumpian Oval Office of my mind.”

The notifications have long since gotten out of hand. The notification managers are laughable. “Do not disturb” mode is a blunt and unwieldy instrument. The apps purport to manage the apps, to manage me, to lock out other apps, to induce what they call mindfulness, to prevent me from looking at any apps at all. I am pelted with offers from artificially intelligent agents, usually with feminine names, that promise to tidy up all the alerts and reminders, to lurk out of view until summoned, learning what I tap and what I don’t, making more and more of the decisions on my behalf. It looks like you’re discussing a meeting, the apps have learned to say. Would you like me to set up a time for you?

Concepts like “time management” and “productivity” and “getting things done” grow increasingly quaint. I can feel it: The “attention management” industry is coming.

The attention managers will promise One App to Rule Them All. Their products will sit between me and my calendar app, my to-do list, my email, my watch-and-read-later queue, my podcasts, my shopping lists, and my news alerts, throttling all the claims on my attention, deciding which to present to me. They will ask to be the John Kelly to the Trumpian Oval Office of my mind. A pleasingly generic voice will murmur in my headphones at algorithmically determined moments. It sounds like you’re brushing your teeth, it will say. Would you like me to play you The Daily?

This can shake out in one of two ways. There is a path of hope and a path of despair.

The thing I hope will happen: The attention managers will work by making the patterns of my attention visible to me. They will share with me the information that’s currently only being collected by third-party programmatic ad networks and major technology companies. They will encourage me to notice my own choices and the effects of those choices. Here are the tabs you opened today, the stories you started reading and didn’t finish. Were any of them interesting? You spent quite a while on this one, perhaps you want to save it? This many hundred emails came in, about 70 percent of them from senders you haven’t opened an email from in six or seven years, perhaps it’s time to bite the bullet and click those “unsubscribe” links? (That can be automated, just say the word.) By the way, you know this, but just to remind you, here’s a list of the networks keeping data on you, and here’s what they learned about you today. You have literally never clicked on a notification from this app; here is a mute button, just in case it’s helpful. (In fact, let’s throw in an uninstall button, to cover our bases.)

I hope the attention managers will be zealous about protecting my data, and keeping it, to the extent that portability permits, on my own devices. I hope they’ll endeavor to make the complex arabesques of my attention clearer to me, using algorithmic intelligence and tools of design to expose patterns, present options, and empower me to choose among them.

The thing I fear will happen: The attention managers will work by making the claims on my attention increasingly invisible to me. They will be built by the major technology companies, in an effort to bend my attention even more forcefully to their will. They will be constructed without regard for my security or privacy. They will charge me a premium for their use, and if I don’t pay up, they will dump me into a user experience so grotesquely degraded I will pine for the days of phones with cords. The real money won’t come from my payments, mind you. It will come from the third-party ad networks their Terms of Service will require me to open even more of my life to.

I’ve prioritized a few emails for you. Don’t you worry about the rest. Do me a favor and click this sponsored one first. Do you like how you’re not receiving many notifications anymore? Don’t you feel Mindful? Speaking of which, say yes and you can purchase five minutes of guided meditation right from this app. It sounds like you’re brushing your teeth. Would you like me to expedite your next PearlyBrite™ toothpaste shipment? By the way, a media organization has paid us an acceptable bounty to bring you this next news alert…

Matt Thompson is executive editor of The Atlantic.

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