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MacBook Pro, Apple Watch, Microsoft Surface Pro 6, Instant Pot, KitchenAid, and more on sale for Dec. 13


Save on kitchen gear and laptops.
Image: amazon/walmart/best buy/macy’s/mashable photo composite

With the weekend almost here, we’ve rounded up the best deals on kitchen gear, laptops, and Amazon devices so you can get the most out of your days off. We also found great deals on online courses from Udemy starting at $10.99 if part of your New Year’s resolution is to learn a new skill.

If you’re looking for a last-minute gift, then look no further. Here are the best deals from Amazon, Walmart, Best Buy, Macy’s, and more for Thursday, Dec. 13:

Best tech deals: Laptops, Apple Watches, and more

You can save $50 on Apple Watch Series 3, as well as save up to 29% on Apple MacBook Pro (with Touch Bar). You can also save up to 38% on Microsoft Surface Pro and Surface Laptops.


Kitchen gear

Create the kitchen of your dreams with sales on appliances from KitchenAid, Cuisinart, and Blendtec. You can save 40% off the Instant Pot smart Wi-Fi multi-cooker, which is priced at just $90, plus so much more.


Amazon devices on sale

Amazon has plenty of deals on their own devices for video streaming and home security. You can save $15 on the Fire TV Stick 4K, as well as $50 on Fire TV Cube, and so much more.


Deals on Udemy online courses

If you’re looking to learn something new like web design, animation, and even photography as part of your New Year’s Resolution, Udemy is a great place to start. Scroll through thousands of online courses on sale for $10.99. 


PEXELS
$10.99
$189 OFF (95%) $199.99

Photography Masterclass: A Complete Guide to Photography

Apple Watch Series 4 is the most accessible watch yet

Every time I ponder the impact Apple Watch has had on my life, my mind always goes to Matthew Panzarino’s piece published prior to the device’s launch in 2015. In it, Panzarino writes about how using Apple Watch saves time; as a “satellite” to your iPhone, the Watch can discreetly deliver messages without you having to disengage from moments to attend to your phone.

In the three years I’ve worn an Apple Watch, I’ve found this to be true. Like anyone nowadays, my iPhone is the foremost computing device in my life, but the addition of the Watch has somewhat deadened the reflex to check my phone so often. What’s more, the advent of Apple Watch turned me into a regular watch-wearer again, period, be it analog or digital. I went without one for several years, instead relying on my cell phone to tell me the time.

To piggyback on Panzarino’s thesis that Apple Watch saves you time, from my perspective as a disabled person, Apple’s smartwatch makes receiving notifications and the like a more accessible experience. As someone with multiple disabilities, Apple Watch not only promotes pro-social behavior, the device’s glanceable nature alleviates the friction of pulling my phone out of my pocket a thousand times an hour. For people with certain physical motor delays, the seemingly unremarkable act of even getting your phone can be quite an adventure. Apple Watch on my wrist eliminates that work, because all my iMessages and VIP emails are right there.

The fourth-generation Apple Watch, “Series 4” in Apple’s parlance, is the best, most accessible Apple Watch to date. The original value proposition for accessibility, to save on physical wear and tear, remains. Yet Series 4’s headlining features — the larger display, haptic-enabled Digital Crown and fall detection — all have enormous ramifications for accessibility. In my testing of a Series 4 model, a review unit provided to me by Apple, I have found it to be delightful to wear and use. This new version has made staying connected more efficient and accessible than ever before.

Big screen, small space

If there were but one banner feature of this year’s Apple Watch, it would indisputably be the bigger screen. I’ve been testing Series 4 for a few weeks and what I tweeted early on holds true: for accessibility, the Series 4’s larger display is today what Retina meant to iPhone 4 eight years ago. Which is to say, it is a highly significant development for the product; a milestone. If you are visually impaired, this should be as exciting as having a 6.5-inch iPhone. Again, the adage that bigger is better is entirely apropos — especially on such a small device as Apple Watch.

What makes Series 4’s larger screen so compelling in practice is just how expansive it is. As with the iPhone XS Max, the watch’s large display makes seeing content easier. As I wrote last month, once I saw the bigger model in the hands-on area following Apple’s presentation, my heart knew it was the size I wanted. The difference between my 42mm Series 3 and my 44mm Series 4 is stark. I’ve never complained about my previous watches being small, screen-wise, but after using the 44mm version for an extended time, the former feels downright minuscule by comparison. It’s funny how quickly and drastically one’s perception can change.

Series 4’s bigger display affects more than just text. Its bigger canvas allows for bigger icons and touch targets for user interface controls. The keypad for entering your passcode and the buttons for replying to iMessages are two standout examples. watchOS 5 has been updated in such a way that buttons have even more definition. They’re more pill-shaped to accommodate the curves of the new display; the Cancel/Pause buttons in the Timer app shows this off well. It aids in tapping, but it also gives them a visual boost that makes it easy to identify them as actionable buttons.

This is one area where watchOS excels over iOS, since Apple Watch’s relatively small display necessitates a more explicit design language. In other words, where iOS leans heavily on buttons that resemble ordinary text, watchOS sits at the polar end of the spectrum. A good rule of thumb for accessible design is that it’s generally better designers aim for concreteness with iconography and the like, rather than be cutesy and abstract because it’s en vogue and “looks cool” (the idea being a visually impaired person can more easily distinguish something that looks like a button as opposed to something that is technically a button but which looks like text).

Apple has course-corrected a lot in the five years since the iOS 7 overhaul; I hope further refinement is something that is addressed with the iOS 13 refresh that Axios’s Ina Fried first reported earlier this year was pushed back until 2019.

Of Series 4’s improvements, the bigger screen is by far my favorite. Apple Watch still isn’t a device you don’t want to interact with more than a minute, but the bigger display allows for another few milliseconds of comfort. As someone with low vision, that little bit of extra time is nice because I can take in more important information; the bigger screen mitigates my concerns over excessive eye strain and fatigue.

The Infograph and Infograph Modular faces

As I wrote in the previous section, the Series 4’s larger display allowed Apple to redesign watchOS such that it would look right given the bigger space. Another way Apple has taken advantage of Series 4’s big screens is the company has created two all-new watch faces that are exclusive to the new hardware: Infograph and Infograph Modular. (There are other cool ones — Breathe, Fire & Water, Liquid Metal and Vapor — that are all available on older Apple Watches that run watchOS 5.)

It’s not hard to understand why Apple chose to showcase Infograph in their marketing images for Series 4; it (and Infograph Modular) look fantastic with all the bright colors and bold San Francisco font. From an accessibility standpoint, however, my experience has been Infograph Modular is far more visually accessible than Infograph. While I appreciate the latter’s beauty (and bevy of complications), the functional downsides boil down to two things: contrast and telling time.

Contrast-wise, it’s disappointing you can’t change the dial to be another color but white and black. White is better here, but it is difficult to read the minute and second markers because they’re in a fainter grayish-black hue. If you choose the black dial, contrast is worse because it blends into the black background of the watch’s OLED display. You can change the color of the minute and second markers, but unless they’re neon yellow or green, readability is compromised.

Which brings us to the major problem with Infograph: it’s really difficult to tell time. This ties into the contrast issue — there are no numerals, and the hands are low contrast, so you have to have memorized the clock in order to see what time it is. Marco Arment articulates the problem well, and I can attest the issue is only made worse if you are visually impaired as I am. It’s a shame because Infograph is pretty and useful overall, but you have to be able to tell time. It makes absolutely no sense to add a digital time complication to what’s effectively an analog watch face. Perhaps Apple will add more customization options for Infograph in the future.

Infograph Modular, which I personally prefer, is not nearly as aesthetically pleasing as Infograph, but it’s far better functionally. Because it’s a digital face, the time is right there for you, and the colorful complications set against the black background is a triumph of high contrast. It is much easier on my eyes, and the face I recommend to anyone interested in trying out Series 4’s new watch faces.

Lastly, a note about the information density of these new faces. Especially on Infograph, it’s plausible that all the complications, in all their color, present an issue for some visually impaired people. This is because there’s a lot of “clutter” on screen and it may be difficult for some to pinpoint, say, the current temperature. Similarly, all the color may look like one washed-out rainbow to some who may have trouble distinguishing colors. It’d be nice if Apple added an option for monochromatic complications with the new faces.

In my usage, neither have been issues for me. I quite like how the colors boost contrast, particularly on Infograph Modular.

Haptics come to the crown

Given Apple’s push in recent years to integrate its so-called Taptic Engine technology — first introduced with the original Watch — across its product lines, it makes perfect sense that the Digital Crown gets it now. Haptics makes it better.

Before Apple Watch launched three years ago, I wrote a story in which I explained why haptic feedback (or “Force Touch,” as Apple coined it then) matters for accessibility. What I wrote then is just as relevant now: the addition of haptic feedback enhances the user experience, particularly for people with disabilities. The key factor is sensory input — as a user, you’re no longer simply watching a list go by. In my usage, the fact that I feel a “tick” as I’m scrolling through a list on the Watch in addition to seeing it move makes it more accessible.

The bi-modal sensory experience is helpful insofar as the secondary cue (the ticks) is another marker that I’m manipulating the device and something is happening. If I only rely on my poor eyesight, there’s a chance I could miss certain movements or animations, so the haptic feedback acts as a “backup,” so to speak. Likewise, I prefer my iPhone to ring and vibrate whenever a call comes in because I suffer from congenital hearing loss (due to my parents being deaf) and could conceivably miss important calls from loved ones or whomever. Thus, that my phone also vibrates while it’s ringing is another signal that someone is trying to reach me and I probably should answer.

Tim Cook made a point during the original Watch’s unveiling to liken the Digital Crown as equally innovative and revolutionary as what the mouse was to the Mac in 1984 and what multi-touch was to the iPhone in 2007. I won’t argue his assertion here, but I will say the Series 4’s crown is the best version of the “dial,” as Cook described it, to date. It’s because of the haptic feedback. It gives the crown even more precision and tactility, making it more of a compelling navigational tool.

Considering fall detection

As I watched from the audience as Apple COO Jeff Williams announced Series 4’s new fall detection feature, I immediately knew it was going to be a big deal. It’s something you hope to never use, as Williams said on stage, but the fact it exists at all is telling for a few reasons — the most important to me being accessibility.

I’ve long maintained accessibility, conceptually, isn’t limited to people with medically recognized disabilities. Accessibility can mean lots of different things, from mundane things like where you put the paper towel dispenser on the kitchen counter to more critical ones like building disabled parking spaces and wheelchair ramps for the general public. Accessibility also is applicable to the elderly who, in the case of fall detection, could benefit immensely from such a feature.

Instead of relying on a dedicated lifeline device, someone who’s even remotely interested in Apple Watch, and who’s also a fall risk, could look at Series 4 and decide the fall detection feature alone is worth the money. That’s exactly what happened to my girlfriend’s mother. She is an epileptic and is a high-risk individual for catastrophic falls. After seeing Ellen DeGeneres talk up the device on a recent episode of her show, she was gung-ho about Series 4 solely for fall detection. She’d considered a lifeline button prior, but after hearing how fall detection works, decided Apple Watch would be the better choice. As of this writing, she’s had her Apple Watch for a week, and can confirm the new software works as advertised.

Personally, my cerebral palsy makes it such that I can be unsteady on my feet at times and could potentially fall. Fortunately, I haven’t needed to test fall detection myself, but I trust the reports from my girlfriend’s mom and The Wall Street Journal’s Joanna Stern, who got a professional stunt woman’s approval.

Problematic packaging

Apple Watch Series 4 is pretty great all around, but there is a problem. One that has nothing to do with the product itself. How Apple has chosen to package Apple Watch Series 4 is bad.

Series 4’s unboxing experience is a regression from all previous models, in my opinion. The issue is Apple’s decision to pack everything “piecemeal” — the Watch case itself comes in an (admittedly cute) pouch that’s reminiscent of iPod Socks, while the band is in its own box. Not to mention the AC adapter and charging puck are located in their own compartment. I understand the operational logistics of changing the packaging this way, but for accessibility, it’s hardly efficient. In many ways, it’s chaotic. There are two reasons for this.

First, the discrete approach adds a lot in terms of cognitive load. While certainly not a dealbreaker for me, unboxing my review unit was jarring at first. Everything felt disjointed until I considered the logic behind doing it this way. But while I can manage to put everything together as if it were a jigsaw puzzle, many people with certain cognitive delays could have real trouble. They would first need to determine where everything is in the box before then determining how to put it all together; this can be frustrating for many. Conversely, the advantage of the “all-in-one” approach of Series past (where the case and band was one entity) meant there was far less mental processing needed to unbox the product. Aside from figuring out how the band works, the old setup was essentially a “grab and go” solution.

Second, the Series 4 packaging is more fiddly than before, quite literally. Instead of the Watch already being put together, now you have to fasten the band to the Watch in order to wear it. I acknowledge the built-in lesson for fastening and removing bands, but it can be inaccessible too. If you have visual and/or fine-motor impairments, you could spend several minutes trying to get your watch together so you can pair it with your iPhone. That time can be taxing, physically and emotionally, which in turn worsens the overall experience. Again, Apple’s previous packaging design alleviated much of this potential stress — whereas Series 4 exacerbates it.

I’ve long admired Apple’s product packaging for its elegance and simplicity, which is why the alarm bells went off as I’ve unboxed a few Series 4 models now. As I said, this year’s design definitely feels regressive, and I hope Apple reconsiders their old ways come Series 5. In fact, they could stand to take notes from Microsoft, which has gone to great lengths to ensure their packaging is as accessible as possible.

The bottom line

Three years in, I can confidently say I could live without my Apple Watch. But I also can confidently say I wouldn’t want to. Apple Watch has made my life better, and that’s not taking into account how it has raised my awareness for my overall health.

My gripes about the packaging and Infograph face aside, Series 4 is an exceptional update. The larger display is worth the price of admission, even from my year-old Series 3. The haptic Digital Crown and fall detection is the proverbial icing on the cake. I believe the arrival of Series 4 is a seminal moment for the product, and it’s the best, most accessible Apple Watch Apple has made yet.

Read more: https://techcrunch.com/2018/10/21/apple-watch-series-4-is-the-most-accessible-watch-yet/

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Apple is releasing iOS 11.4 with support for Messages in iCloud, AirPlay 2 and more

Apple this afternoon will officially release the latest version of its iOS software for your iPhone and iPad, iOS 11.4, which at last adds support for Messages in iCloud, along with other new features, including most notably, AirPlay 2 and an update that allows two HomePod speakers to work together as a stereo pair.

Messages in iCloud was first announced a year ago at WWDC 2017 as a way of keeping conversations up-to-date across all your Apple devices, including iPhone, iPad, Apple Watch and Mac. Its introduction means you’ll now be able to access your entire Messages history when you set up a new Apple device, and, when you delete a message from one device, that change syncs to all your devices.

In addition to the benefit of being able to access your entire conversation history, Messages in iCloud will be especially helpful to those who tend to save their all their conversations, but have a device without a lot of storage.

Typically, this has led to those conversations taking up a sizable amount of space – sometimes even gigabytes of storage, thanks to all the photos and attachments that are shared across iMessage these days. With Messages in iCloud, however, everything – including attachments – are stored in iCloud, which frees up local storage space for other things – like music downloads, videos, podcasts, books and apps, for example.

The messages are also end-to-end encrypted for security purposes. They’re protected with a key derived from information unique to the device, combined with the device passcode – which only the device owner should know. That means no one else could access or read the data.

The Messages in iCloud feature had first appeared in early betas of iOS 11 last summer, but was later pulled before the iOS public release. It later popped up again in the iOS 11.3 beta, but it was unclear when Apple would launch it, given that it had been left out of earlier iOS releases, despite all the beta testing.

Today, the feature will roll out to all users, via iOS 11.4.

Also new in iOS 11.4 are features focused on media and entertainment, including the launch of AirPlay 2 and support stereo pair for HomePod.

AirPlay 2 allows you to stream your music or podcasts in your home to different devices, all in-sync. You can play music in any room from any room, move music from one room to another, or play the same song everywhere using an iOS device, HomePod, Apple TV, or by asking Siri. For example, you could say, “Hey Siri, play jazz in the kitchen,” while continuing to have different music played in another room. You can also adjust the volume across all devices (“Hey Siri, turn the volume up everyone”), or play or stop music across devices. 

A number of speaker manufacturers are already committing to support AirPlay 2, including Bang & Olufsen, Bluesound, Bose, Bowers & Wilkins, Denon, Libratone, Marantz, Marshall, Naim, Pioneer and Sonos.

The previously announced support for HomePod stereo pairs, meanwhile, lets you add a second HomePod to a room and create a stereo pair which play left and right channel content separately. The HomePod devices will automatically detect and balance with each other, and detect their place in the room in order to offer a better sound.

Apple has been positioning its speaker to better compete with more high-end audio systems, like Sonos or Bose. Stereo pair support will allow it to better compete on that front, but device sales could be held back by those who prefer Amazon’s Alexa assistant, which ships on the Sonos One, to Apple’s Siri.

HomePod is also arriving in new markets beyond the U.S., U.K. and Australia with a June 18 launch in Canada, France and Germany.

Calendar support is also arriving for HomePod with iOS 11.4, along with the usual bug fixes and performance tweaks. However, calendar support won’t arrive in Canada, France and Germany until later in the year.

You can check for the iOS update from the Settings app, under “General –> Software Update.” HomePod owners can update from the Home app. The update is expected to arrive at 10 AM PT.

Read more: https://techcrunch.com/2018/05/29/apple-releases-ios-11-4-with-support-for-messages-in-icloud-airplay-2-and-more/

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Finally, someone is developing an app you can use to make annoying people disappear

Image: screenshot/noshipu/twitter

If you’ve ever found yourself just wanting to disappear for a while, there may soon be an app for that. 

A Japanese developer has announced that he is working on an app that will make your head disappear in photos and videos, in a tweet first spotted by DesignTAXI

The developer, Kazuya Noshiro, CEO of game development company ViRD, shared a short video of his face (mostly) camouflaged into the backdrop of his kitchen. 

It’s still not perfect. The top and sides of Noshiro’s head are still visible, and there are little slits where his eyes and mouth should be, making him look more like he’s wearing a Spirited Away mask than an invisibility cloak. 

But the mask itself perfectly imitates the wall behind it, and smoothly adapts to the changing background as Noshiro moves his head. 

Noshiro told Twitter followers he made the app in Unity, a game development engine developed by Unity Technologies. 

There are a few ways you might be able to use this app, beyond its obvious purpose of making your own videos very creepy. You could use it to edit the faces of your least favorite actors out of movies. Or, you could “disappear” the faces of politicians you hate to make Presidential debates a more bearable experience. It’s unclear how versatile this app will be — but we hope the potential to eliminate those we despise is in there somewhere. 

And of course, the question of the hour: Who gets the app? Noshiro noted that he used the iPhone X to create the effect. It could be that the the TrueDepth camera, the only smartphone camera on the market with the necessary sensory technology to enable Animoji and FaceID, is necessary to power this function as well. If that’s the case, it might be exclusive to iPhone X users upon release. 

But when it comes to augmented reality, some Android phones are hot on Apple’s heels. Google in particular is taking AR very seriously: It recently released Star Wars AR stickers for the Pixel 2’s top-notch camera, and they look super realistic. So it’s not unthinkable that we may see this app, and others like it, on the Google Play Store soon enough. 

But for now, keep an eye on the App Store, and start brainstorming which politician you want to make disappear the most. 

Read more: http://mashable.com/2017/12/27/app-makes-you-disappear/

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‘Our minds can be hijacked’: the tech insiders who fear a smartphone dystopia

The Google, Apple and Facebook workers who helped make technology so addictive are disconnecting themselves from the internet. Paul Lewis reports on the Silicon Valley refuseniks who worry the race for human attention has created a world of perpetual distraction that could ultimately end in disaster

Justin Rosenstein had tweaked his laptops operating system to block Reddit, banned himself from Snapchat, which he compares to heroin, and imposed limits on his use of Facebook. But even that wasnt enough. In August, the 34-year-old tech executive took a more radical step to restrict his use of social media and other addictive technologies.

Rosenstein purchased a new iPhone and instructed his assistant to set up a parental-control feature to prevent him from downloading any apps.

He was particularly aware of the allure of Facebook likes, which he describes as bright dings of pseudo-pleasure that can be as hollow as they are seductive. And Rosenstein should know: he was the Facebook engineer who created the like button in the first place.

A decade after he stayed up all night coding a prototype of what was then called an awesome button, Rosenstein belongs to a small but growing band of Silicon Valley heretics who complain about the rise of the so-called attention economy: an internet shaped around the demands of an advertising economy.

These refuseniks are rarely founders or chief executives, who have little incentive to deviate from the mantra that their companies are making the world a better place. Instead, they tend to have worked a rung or two down the corporate ladder: designers, engineers and product managers who, like Rosenstein, several years ago put in place the building blocks of a digital world from which they are now trying to disentangle themselves. It is very common, Rosenstein says, for humans to develop things with the best of intentions and for them to have unintended, negative consequences.

Rosenstein, who also helped create Gchat during a stint at Google, and now leads a San Francisco-based company that improves office productivity, appears most concerned about the psychological effects on people who, research shows, touch, swipe or tap their phone 2,617 times a day.

There is growing concern that as well as addicting users, technology is contributing toward so-called continuous partial attention, severely limiting peoples ability to focus, and possibly lowering IQ. One recent study showed that the mere presence of smartphones damages cognitive capacity even when the device is turned off. Everyone is distracted, Rosenstein says. All of the time.

But those concerns are trivial compared with the devastating impact upon the political system that some of Rosensteins peers believe can be attributed to the rise of social media and the attention-based market that drives it.

Drawing a straight line between addiction to social media and political earthquakes like Brexit and the rise of Donald Trump, they contend that digital forces have completely upended the political system and, left unchecked, could even render democracy as we know it obsolete.

In 2007, Rosenstein was one of a small group of Facebook employees who decided to create a path of least resistance a single click to send little bits of positivity across the platform. Facebooks like feature was, Rosenstein says, wildly successful: engagement soared as people enjoyed the short-term boost they got from giving or receiving social affirmation, while Facebook harvested valuable data about the preferences of users that could be sold to advertisers. The idea was soon copied by Twitter, with its heart-shaped likes (previously star-shaped favourites), Instagram, and countless other apps and websites.

It was Rosensteins colleague, Leah Pearlman, then a product manager at Facebook and on the team that created the Facebook like, who announced the feature in a 2009 blogpost. Now 35 and an illustrator, Pearlman confirmed via email that she, too, has grown disaffected with Facebook likes and other addictive feedback loops. She has installed a web browser plug-in to eradicate her Facebook news feed, and hired a social media manager to monitor her Facebook page so that she doesnt have to.

Justin
Justin Rosenstein, the former Google and Facebook engineer who helped build the like button: Everyone is distracted. All of the time. Photograph: Courtesy of Asana Communications

One reason I think it is particularly important for us to talk about this now is that we may be the last generation that can remember life before, Rosenstein says. It may or may not be relevant that Rosenstein, Pearlman and most of the tech insiders questioning todays attention economy are in their 30s, members of the last generation that can remember a world in which telephones were plugged into walls.

It is revealing that many of these younger technologists are weaning themselves off their own products, sending their children to elite Silicon Valley schools where iPhones, iPads and even laptops are banned. They appear to be abiding by a Biggie Smalls lyric from their own youth about the perils of dealing crack cocaine: never get high on your own supply.

One morning in April this year, designers, programmers and tech entrepreneurs from across the world gathered at a conference centre on the shore of the San Francisco Bay. They had each paid up to $1,700 to learn how to manipulate people into habitual use of their products, on a course curated by conference organiser Nir Eyal.

Eyal, 39, the author of Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products, has spent several years consulting for the tech industry, teaching techniques he developed by closely studying how the Silicon Valley giants operate.

The technologies we use have turned into compulsions, if not full-fledged addictions, Eyal writes. Its the impulse to check a message notification. Its the pull to visit YouTube, Facebook, or Twitter for just a few minutes, only to find yourself still tapping and scrolling an hour later. None of this is an accident, he writes. It is all just as their designers intended.

He explains the subtle psychological tricks that can be used to make people develop habits, such as varying the rewards people receive to create a craving, or exploiting negative emotions that can act as triggers. Feelings of boredom, loneliness, frustration, confusion and indecisiveness often instigate a slight pain or irritation and prompt an almost instantaneous and often mindless action to quell the negative sensation, Eyal writes.

Attendees of the 2017 Habit Summit might have been surprised when Eyal walked on stage to announce that this years keynote speech was about something a little different. He wanted to address the growing concern that technological manipulation was somehow harmful or immoral. He told his audience that they should be careful not to abuse persuasive design, and wary of crossing a line into coercion.

But he was defensive of the techniques he teaches, and dismissive of those who compare tech addiction to drugs. Were not freebasing Facebook and injecting Instagram here, he said. He flashed up a slide of a shelf filled with sugary baked goods. Just as we shouldnt blame the baker for making such delicious treats, we cant blame tech makers for making their products so good we want to use them, he said. Of course thats what tech companies will do. And frankly: do we want it any other way?

Without irony, Eyal finished his talk with some personal tips for resisting the lure of technology. He told his audience he uses a Chrome extension, called DF YouTube, which scrubs out a lot of those external triggers he writes about in his book, and recommended an app called Pocket Points that rewards you for staying off your phone when you need to focus.

Finally, Eyal confided the lengths he goes to protect his own family. He has installed in his house an outlet timer connected to a router that cuts off access to the internet at a set time every day. The idea is to remember that we are not powerless, he said. We are in control.

But are we? If the people who built these technologies are taking such radical steps to wean themselves free, can the rest of us reasonably be expected to exercise our free will?

Not according to Tristan Harris, a 33-year-old former Google employee turned vocal critic of the tech industry. All of us are jacked into this system, he says. All of our minds can be hijacked. Our choices are not as free as we think they are.

Harris, who has been branded the closest thing Silicon Valley has to a conscience, insists that billions of people have little choice over whether they use these now ubiquitous technologies, and are largely unaware of the invisible ways in which a small number of people in Silicon Valley are shaping their lives.

A graduate of Stanford University, Harris studied under BJ Fogg, a behavioural psychologist revered in tech circles for mastering the ways technological design can be used to persuade people. Many of his students, including Eyal, have gone on to prosperous careers in Silicon Valley.

Tristan
Tristan Harris, a former Google employee, is now a critic of the tech industry: Our choices are not as free as we think they are. Photograph: Robert Gumpert for the Guardian

Harris is the student who went rogue; a whistleblower of sorts, he is lifting the curtain on the vast powers accumulated by technology companies and the ways they are using that influence. A handful of people, working at a handful of technology companies, through their choices will steer what a billion people are thinking today, he said at a recent TED talk in Vancouver.

I dont know a more urgent problem than this, Harris says. Its changing our democracy, and its changing our ability to have the conversations and relationships that we want with each other. Harris went public giving talks, writing papers, meeting lawmakers and campaigning for reform after three years struggling to effect change inside Googles Mountain View headquarters.

It all began in 2013, when he was working as a product manager at Google, and circulated a thought-provoking memo, A Call To Minimise Distraction & Respect Users Attention, to 10 close colleagues. It struck a chord, spreading to some 5,000 Google employees, including senior executives who rewarded Harris with an impressive-sounding new job: he was to be Googles in-house design ethicist and product philosopher.

Looking back, Harris sees that he was promoted into a marginal role. I didnt have a social support structure at all, he says. Still, he adds: I got to sit in a corner and think and read and understand.

He explored how LinkedIn exploits a need for social reciprocity to widen its network; how YouTube and Netflix autoplay videos and next episodes, depriving users of a choice about whether or not they want to keep watching; how Snapchat created its addictive Snapstreaks feature, encouraging near-constant communication between its mostly teenage users.

The techniques these companies use are not always generic: they can be algorithmically tailored to each person. An internal Facebook report leaked this year, for example, revealed that the company can identify when teens feel insecure, worthless and need a confidence boost. Such granular information, Harris adds, is a perfect model of what buttons you can push in a particular person.

Tech companies can exploit such vulnerabilities to keep people hooked; manipulating, for example, when people receive likes for their posts, ensuring they arrive when an individual is likely to feel vulnerable, or in need of approval, or maybe just bored. And the very same techniques can be sold to the highest bidder. Theres no ethics, he says. A company paying Facebook to use its levers of persuasion could be a car business targeting tailored advertisements to different types of users who want a new vehicle. Or it could be a Moscow-based troll farm seeking to turn voters in a swing county in Wisconsin.

Harris believes that tech companies never deliberately set out to make their products addictive. They were responding to the incentives of an advertising economy, experimenting with techniques that might capture peoples attention, even stumbling across highly effective design by accident.

A friend at Facebook told Harris that designers initially decided the notification icon, which alerts people to new activity such as friend requests or likes, should be blue. It fit Facebooks style and, the thinking went, would appear subtle and innocuous. But no one used it, Harris says. Then they switched it to red and of course everyone used it.

Facebooks
Facebooks headquarters in Menlo Park, California. The companys famous likes feature has been described by its creator as bright dings of pseudo-pleasure. Photograph: Bloomberg/Bloomberg via Getty Images

That red icon is now everywhere. When smartphone users glance at their phones, dozens or hundreds of times a day, they are confronted with small red dots beside their apps, pleading to be tapped. Red is a trigger colour, Harris says. Thats why it is used as an alarm signal.

The most seductive design, Harris explains, exploits the same psychological susceptibility that makes gambling so compulsive: variable rewards. When we tap those apps with red icons, we dont know whether well discover an interesting email, an avalanche of likes, or nothing at all. It is the possibility of disappointment that makes it so compulsive.

Its this that explains how the pull-to-refresh mechanism, whereby users swipe down, pause and wait to see what content appears, rapidly became one of the most addictive and ubiquitous design features in modern technology. Each time youre swiping down, its like a slot machine, Harris says. You dont know whats coming next. Sometimes its a beautiful photo. Sometimes its just an ad.

The designer who created the pull-to-refresh mechanism, first used to update Twitter feeds, is Loren Brichter, widely admired in the app-building community for his sleek and intuitive designs.

Now 32, Brichter says he never intended the design to be addictive but would not dispute the slot machine comparison. I agree 100%, he says. I have two kids now and I regret every minute that Im not paying attention to them because my smartphone has sucked me in.

Brichter created the feature in 2009 for Tweetie, his startup, mainly because he could not find anywhere to fit the refresh button on his app. Holding and dragging down the feed to update seemed at the time nothing more than a cute and clever fix. Twitter acquired Tweetie the following year, integrating pull-to-refresh into its own app.

Since then the design has become one of the most widely emulated features in apps; the downward-pull action is, for hundreds of millions of people, as intuitive as scratching an itch.

Brichter says he is puzzled by the longevity of the feature. In an era of push notification technology, apps can automatically update content without being nudged by the user. It could easily retire, he says. Instead it appears to serve a psychological function: after all, slot machines would be far less addictive if gamblers didnt get to pull the lever themselves. Brichter prefers another comparison: that it is like the redundant close door button in some elevators with automatically closing doors. People just like to push it.

All of which has left Brichter, who has put his design work on the backburner while he focuses on building a house in New Jersey, questioning his legacy. Ive spent many hours and weeks and months and years thinking about whether anything Ive done has made a net positive impact on society or humanity at all, he says. He has blocked certain websites, turned off push notifications, restricted his use of the Telegram app to message only with his wife and two close friends, and tried to wean himself off Twitter. I still waste time on it, he confesses, just reading stupid news I already know about. He charges his phone in the kitchen, plugging it in at 7pm and not touching it until the next morning.

Smartphones are useful tools, he says. But theyre addictive. Pull-to-refresh is addictive. Twitter is addictive. These are not good things. When I was working on them, it was not something I was mature enough to think about. Im not saying Im mature now, but Im a little bit more mature, and I regret the downsides.

Not everyone in his field appears racked with guilt. The two inventors listed on Apples patent for managing notification connections and displaying icon badges are Justin Santamaria and Chris Marcellino. Both were in their early 20s when they were hired by Apple to work on the iPhone. As engineers, they worked on the behind-the-scenes plumbing for push-notification technology, introduced in 2009 to enable real-time alerts and updates to hundreds of thousands of third-party app developers. It was a revolutionary change, providing the infrastructure for so many experiences that now form a part of peoples daily lives, from ordering an Uber to making a Skype call to receiving breaking news updates.

Loren
Loren Brichter, who in 2009 designed the pull-to-refresh feature now used by many apps, on the site of the home hes building in New Jersey: Smartphones are useful tools, but theyre addictive I regret the downsides. Photograph: Tim Knox for the Guardian

But notification technology also enabled a hundred unsolicited interruptions into millions of lives, accelerating the arms race for peoples attention. Santamaria, 36, who now runs a startup after a stint as the head of mobile at Airbnb, says the technology he developed at Apple was not inherently good or bad. This is a larger discussion for society, he says. Is it OK to shut off my phone when I leave work? Is it OK if I dont get right back to you? Is it OK that Im not liking everything that goes through my Instagram screen?

His then colleague, Marcellino, agrees. Honestly, at no point was I sitting there thinking: lets hook people, he says. It was all about the positives: these apps connect people, they have all these uses ESPN telling you the game has ended, or WhatsApp giving you a message for free from your family member in Iran who doesnt have a message plan.

A few years ago Marcellino, 33, left the Bay Area, and is now in the final stages of retraining to be a neurosurgeon. He stresses he is no expert on addiction, but says he has picked up enough in his medical training to know that technologies can affect the same neurological pathways as gambling and drug use. These are the same circuits that make people seek out food, comfort, heat, sex, he says.

All of it, he says, is reward-based behaviour that activates the brains dopamine pathways. He sometimes finds himself clicking on the red icons beside his apps to make them go away, but is conflicted about the ethics of exploiting peoples psychological vulnerabilities. It is not inherently evil to bring people back to your product, he says. Its capitalism.

That, perhaps, is the problem. Roger McNamee, a venture capitalist who benefited from hugely profitable investments in Google and Facebook, has grown disenchanted with both companies, arguing that their early missions have been distorted by the fortunes they have been able to earn through advertising.

He identifies the advent of the smartphone as a turning point, raising the stakes in an arms race for peoples attention. Facebook and Google assert with merit that they are giving users what they want, McNamee says. The same can be said about tobacco companies and drug dealers.

That would be a remarkable assertion for any early investor in Silicon Valleys most profitable behemoths. But McNamee, 61, is more than an arms-length money man. Once an adviser to Mark Zuckerberg, 10 years ago McNamee introduced the Facebook CEO to his friend, Sheryl Sandberg, then a Google executive who had overseen the companys advertising efforts. Sandberg, of course, became chief operating officer at Facebook, transforming the social network into another advertising heavyweight.

McNamee chooses his words carefully. The people who run Facebook and Google are good people, whose well-intentioned strategies have led to horrific unintended consequences, he says. The problem is that there is nothing the companies can do to address the harm unless they abandon their current advertising models.

Googles
Googles headquarters in Silicon Valley. One venture capitalist believes that, despite an appetite for regulation, some tech companies may already be too big to control: The EU recently penalised Google $2.42bn for anti-monopoly violations, and Googles shareholders just shrugged. Photograph: Ramin Talaie for the Guardian

But how can Google and Facebook be forced to abandon the business models that have transformed them into two of the most profitable companies on the planet?

McNamee believes the companies he invested in should be subjected to greater regulation, including new anti-monopoly rules. In Washington, there is growing appetite, on both sides of the political divide, to rein in Silicon Valley. But McNamee worries the behemoths he helped build may already be too big to curtail. The EU recently penalised Google $2.42bn for anti-monopoly violations, and Googles shareholders just shrugged, he says.

Rosenstein, the Facebook like co-creator, believes there may be a case for state regulation of psychologically manipulative advertising, saying the moral impetus is comparable to taking action against fossil fuel or tobacco companies. If we only care about profit maximisation, he says, we will go rapidly into dystopia.

James Williams does not believe talk of dystopia is far-fetched. The ex-Google strategist who built the metrics system for the companys global search advertising business, he has had a front-row view of an industry he describes as the largest, most standardised and most centralised form of attentional control in human history.

Williams, 35, left Google last year, and is on the cusp of completing a PhD at Oxford University exploring the ethics of persuasive design. It is a journey that has led him to question whether democracy can survive the new technological age.

He says his epiphany came a few years ago, when he noticed he was surrounded by technology that was inhibiting him from concentrating on the things he wanted to focus on. It was that kind of individual, existential realisation: whats going on? he says. Isnt technology supposed to be doing the complete opposite of this?

That discomfort was compounded during a moment at work, when he glanced at one of Googles dashboards, a multicoloured display showing how much of peoples attention the company had commandeered for advertisers. I realised: this is literally a million people that weve sort of nudged or persuaded to do this thing that they werent going to otherwise do, he recalls.

He embarked on several years of independent research, much of it conducted while working part-time at Google. About 18 months in, he saw the Google memo circulated by Harris and the pair became allies, struggling to bring about change from within.

Williams and Harris left Google around the same time, and co-founded an advocacy group, Time Well Spent, that seeks to build public momentum for a change in the way big tech companies think about design. Williams finds it hard to comprehend why this issue is not on the front page of every newspaper every day.

Eighty-seven percent of people wake up and go to sleep with their smartphones, he says. The entire world now has a new prism through which to understand politics, and Williams worries the consequences are profound.

The same forces that led tech firms to hook users with design tricks, he says, also encourage those companies to depict the world in a way that makes for compulsive, irresistible viewing. The attention economy incentivises the design of technologies that grab our attention, he says. In so doing, it privileges our impulses over our intentions.

That means privileging what is sensational over what is nuanced, appealing to emotion, anger and outrage. The news media is increasingly working in service to tech companies, Williams adds, and must play by the rules of the attention economy to sensationalise, bait and entertain in order to survive.

Tech
Tech and the rise of Trump: as the internet designs itself around holding our attention, politics and the media has become increasingly sensational. Photograph: John Locher/AP

In the wake of Donald Trumps stunning electoral victory, many were quick to question the role of so-called fake news on Facebook, Russian-created Twitter bots or the data-centric targeting efforts that companies such as Cambridge Analytica used to sway voters. But Williams sees those factors as symptoms of a deeper problem.

It is not just shady or bad actors who were exploiting the internet to change public opinion. The attention economy itself is set up to promote a phenomenon like Trump, who is masterly at grabbing and retaining the attention of supporters and critics alike, often by exploiting or creating outrage.

Williams was making this case before the president was elected. In a blog published a month before the US election, Williams sounded the alarm bell on an issue he argued was a far more consequential question than whether Trump reached the White House. The reality TV stars campaign, he said, had heralded a watershed in which the new, digitally supercharged dynamics of the attention economy have finally crossed a threshold and become manifest in the political realm.

Williams saw a similar dynamic unfold months earlier, during the Brexit campaign, when the attention economy appeared to him biased in favour of the emotional, identity-based case for the UK leaving the European Union. He stresses these dynamics are by no means isolated to the political right: they also play a role, he believes, in the unexpected popularity of leftwing politicians such as Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn, and the frequent outbreaks of internet outrage over issues that ignite fury among progressives.

All of which, Williams says, is not only distorting the way we view politics but, over time, may be changing the way we think, making us less rational and more impulsive. Weve habituated ourselves into a perpetual cognitive style of outrage, by internalising the dynamics of the medium, he says.

It is against this political backdrop that Williams argues the fixation in recent years with the surveillance state fictionalised by George Orwell may have been misplaced. It was another English science fiction writer, Aldous Huxley, who provided the more prescient observation when he warned that Orwellian-style coercion was less of a threat to democracy than the more subtle power of psychological manipulation, and mans almost infinite appetite for distractions.

Since the US election, Williams has explored another dimension to todays brave new world. If the attention economy erodes our ability to remember, to reason, to make decisions for ourselves faculties that are essential to self-governance what hope is there for democracy itself?

The dynamics of the attention economy are structurally set up to undermine the human will, he says. If politics is an expression of our human will, on individual and collective levels, then the attention economy is directly undermining the assumptions that democracy rests on. If Apple, Facebook, Google, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat are gradually chipping away at our ability to control our own minds, could there come a point, I ask, at which democracy no longer functions?

Will we be able to recognise it, if and when it happens? Williams replies. And if we cant, then how do we know it hasnt happened already?

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2017/oct/05/smartphone-addiction-silicon-valley-dystopia

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