This Digital Life

Aligning Technology with Humanity

Max Stossel and Time Well Spent envision a future where technology companies measure success by how much they enrich users’ lives.

By Charlotte Lieberman

Many of us find it difficult to manage our technology habits given the omnipresent temptation for distraction in the digital age. Sure, each of us can try our best to be mindful in the moment and try to control the impulse to scroll, swipe, or click our way to satisfaction, but what about the technology companies that deliberately design their products to keep us dependent on them? Shouldn’t they bear some of the responsibility?

With these questions in mind, I recently spoke with Max Stossel, storyteller, poet, and one of the minds behind Time Well Spent, a movement to “align technology with our humanity.” When Stossel and I met, he made sure to recognize the genuine sense of malaise that many folks, myself included, feel when we think about the effects of technology on well-being. “It’s easy to look at this topic and say, ‘Technology’s ruining everything.’” And yet, the mission of Time Well Spent is decidedly tech-focused, aiming to reach the “architects of our digital world” (as Stossel refers to technology leaders in the video, This Panda Is Dancing).

In the video, Stossel appears on the streets of New York, completely fixated on his iPhone screen—certainly not a surreal tableau. He begins speaking directly to the camera and the architects of our digital world, narrating in spoken word all the things he is doing on his phone—from swiping right to “find a wife” to checking Facebook for his latest likes. The video is part of Time Well Spent’s initial campaign to get the word out about their unique ideology about technology and our future.

During our conversation, Stossel asked, “What if instead of measuring success in terms of time spent, you measure it in terms of time well spent? What if social media apps weren’t measuring how long they kept you, but instead helped you design your ideal social life?” In other words, Time Well Spent envisions a future in which media websites would trade clicks and time on site as their measure of success, and instead considered developing an algorithm to determine how well their content enriched the lives of their readers.

There is already evidence of some companies shifting their metrics of success. The popular dating app Hinge recently launched an update that obliterated the “swipe” feature, helping its users to look for quality matches rather than encouraging the addictive act of swiping that keeps users constantly on the look out for someone better. According to Stossel, “The first step is designers both in and out of these large media companies or large tech companies starting to talk about this, and think about how we’re measuring success.”

If you’re curious about what that looks like, Stossel had an example in mind: the travel platform Couchsurfing, which matches travelers on a budget to bare-bones accommodations (read: couches) around the world, has a unique model for measuring their success. Rather than merely counting the number of matched travelers and hosts, Couchsurfing calculates “net orchestrated conviviality.” Specifically, they estimate how many hours the traveler and the host likely spent together based on the number of nights the traveler stayed. Then, they ask both the traveler and the host to rate how positive their experiences were on a numerical scale. But the ratings aren’t the end of it: Couchsurfing then subtracts the “positive hours,” as Stossel referred to them, from the amount of time people spent on the website figuring out logistics, because that’s a cost to people’s lives.

“This is a key differentiator,” Stossel explained. “So many organizations count that time on site as their measure of success. This measurement creates a score that represents the net hours that would have never existed, had Couchsurfing not existed.” Couchsurfing presents a productive model to the ecosystem of digital culture. Imagine a world in which success for tech companies actually felt good for consumers. That’s exactly what Stossel and his colleagues are envisioning.

Time Well Spent is in its embryonic stages—“it’s just a group of people around a movement that wants a different, better world,” Stossel told me. As such, Time Well Spent’s message is geared at companies and designers, but also people like you and me. “It takes all of us,” Stossel continued. “Consumers must demand this different sort of measurement, and a different way that we’re looking at technology. The people inside of these companies must take a hard look at how they’re designing, and think, ‘Am I designing this in a way that is best for the people that I’m designing it for?’”

Questions like these are complicated, and they have yet to be answered. But there are also certain very small design features that could radically shift the mindless dependency on technology that I and so many others experience. Stossel and I brainstormed about a few ideas: What if there were a little notification on your phone that helped you see how much time you were spending on an app? “What if we let people know more about what their habits are?” Stossel asked.

It seems ironic that technology has enabled us to become ever more “in touch” with data about our bodies—how many steps or breaths we take in an hour, how much water we drink. You’d think that no one would want a FitBit for pain, and yet the technology exists, and is called a dolorimeter. And yet, technology hasn’t helped ramp up our cultural self-awareness about our own technology habits. If only Twitter gently urged me to sign off when it knew I was getting bored of it.

Of course, if companies truly begin to measure success based on how well they help us live by our values, we will have to probe the ideas of “values” and “a better life” a bit more. Clicks, swipes, and time spent are easy metrics for companies, given that they are numerical. But Time Well Spent is hoping to change the game by adding in the impressionistic word “well” which renders numbers irrelevant.

But Time Well Spent itself is open to interpretation of what well really means. “No one decides what’s best for you but you,” Stossel explained. “I want to be clear about that. There might have to be categories, whether it’s health, productivity, happiness, or fulfillment. But those are more philosophical questions that I would love for people to start having with technology companies.”

Charlotte Lieberman is a Brooklyn-based writer and editor. You can read her prose in Cosmopolitan, Guernica, The Harvard Business Review, i-D, Marie Claire, BOMB, and Refinery29 and her poetry in The Boston Review, The Colorado Review, and Nat.Brut. Follow her @clieberwoman on Twitter, or at her blog www.fatfreebalsamic.com.

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