Ollie’s Modern Life: You’ve got mail

This month, Ollie Peart asks if constant smartphone babble is ironically eroding our ability to process information


Ping, toot, swish, swoop, bling, ching, buzzz, arggghhhh, fuck! Shit! SHUT UP! Welcome to my world circa 9:17am every goddamn day.

A series of recent events have perfectly aligned in order to deliver to me the maximum number of notifications that anybody can withstand before losing their mind completely, stripping off in a public place and declaring “I’m a little teapot” with a pencil up their bum. I’m on the cusp of hurling my phone from an incredibly high building at an incredibly hard floor shrieking at the top of my voice “I’m free!” I’ve reached PNC, Peak Notification Capacity.

So, what were the events that led to this point? The first is Slack. If you work for a semi-trendy company you are probably familiar with Slack. It’s a corporate communication tool for people who don’t consider themselves corporate. It legitimises corporate bureaucracy for those who hate corporate bureaucracy because it was said in a chat, with an @ and an emoji. It also comes fully loaded with its own notification sound, a sort of hollow-clicking-weird-thing that kind of sounds like someone typing on a glockenspiel (are they the wooden ones? I literally don’t care*).

Next came the new phone. I’ve switched from iPhone to Android in the shape of a Google Pixel 2, and that’s fine, aside from the fact that I have absolutely no idea how to change how and what I get notified about, or when. This has led to a barrage of notifications ranging from “let us know what you think of this Sainsburys” to “It’ll take you two hours to get to work” on a Sunday. The sounds are new to me, all totally different, so I have no idea what any of them mean or how urgent they are. The barrage is steady, so that when you finally think the onslaught might have ended, you’re met with more notifications bleeping, peeping, buzzing away your sanity.

To get away from it, I started leaving my phone in another room, away from my computer. “This’ll work” I thought to myself, smug in my smartness. Meanwhile, the code controlling my notifications was counter-thinking “you daft prick” and simply notified me about “Pi Day” and “World Sleep Day” from a calendar I signed up to four years ago. The pattern was the same, the constant, steady stream of application updates, news notifications and other nonsense in the form of pop-ups, bouncing and otherwise, beeps, pops and pings. FUCK OFF!

I don’t know what these tech people are thinking. When they all sit down in “Meeting Room 43” – complete with bean bags and freshly ground coffee, led there by a notification letting them know that’s where the meeting is to be held – why are they discussing “how can we make our notifications more annoying, more distracting, more prohibitive to the very important activity that is, living?”

I can see them now, “Adrian” from the “Social Sounds Development and Engagement Department” standing in front of his team with a hammer, some glass bottles, an infant, a wasps nest and a bucket of E-Coli. “Right guys,” he’ll say, all chirpy in his $200 checked shirt, “Let’s see what works best to get people’s attention”. Four hours and three dead employees later, they’ll declare “that’s the one, let’s send out an update” unleashing their digital weapon onto the masses in the form of, you guessed it, a notification.

Attention deficit is something affecting us all and it’s not our fault. In an effort to provide proof to this, I found that since the year 2000 our attention span has dropped from 12 seconds to 8 seconds. In the same search, I found evidence that countered that, clicked on a link to Time Magazine, read some stuff and ended up scanning through Wikipedia trying to find out more about The Northern Hairy Nosed Wombat. I literally couldn’t focus myself for long enough to provide you with any tangible evidence to back up what I am saying. I’m sorry.

We are being driven. These “calls to action” that litter the digital world: hyperlinks, ads, and notifications are designed specifically to drive us in a particular direction. We are being herded by the internet shepherds who analyse our every move to work out how to get us to look at the thing they want us to look at. We think we are getting distracted but as far as marketing people are thinking, we are focussing in exactly the right place, the sweet spot that gets the graph ticking upwards.

It’s got to stop. We need our attention back and personally, I think those supplying the notifications should have to go through a whole heap of legal rigmarole to justify it. If the BBC needs to send a popup notification to us all in the event of an imminent nuclear strike, I’d see that as good use of notifications. But if that gets swiped away with the rest of the “How was your trip to Tesco?” bollocks, we’re all dead.

You can lead a horse to water sure, but if you want to make him drink, just bombard him with a shit storm of notifications until he gives in.


*No, they’re not – Rich.

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