THE BLOG
15/09/2015 06:56 BST | Updated 14/09/2016 06:12 BST

Free Will vs Notifications: Who Will Win?

We all flatter ourselves that we have a great capacity to be independent, and have a free will that directs our actions and enables us to make choices. But from the very moment that life begins, the hopes and expectations about an unborn child within a family start to introduce influences that colour this independence. Culture, national policy, or the law will also shape our thinking. The great Dennis Potter, in his final work likened our plight to that of the Karaoke singer - the music is already written and arranged, and even your small part is that of singing someone else's words. Knowing your own mind and expressing it has never been easy.

Yet the opportunities of social media, and functions such as anonymity, seem to promise greater possibilities for self-expression, and whilst this may be true for many, choosing not to participate in social media no longer seems a choice. Neither does owning or using a smartphones seem to be an issue of choice, and here the Fear Of Missing Out certainly plays its part. But as it is unlikely that just one factor influences our use, there is a need to stand back and consider: "Why do we all use Smartphones so much?"

Data concerning our daily use of Smartphones comes thick and fast, each survey suggesting even greater use than before. The recent report from Deloitte on the use of the Smartphone contained staggering statistics. For example, Britain's mobile phone owners together look at their devices nearly 1.1 billion times a day, the equivalent of 400 billion times a year. A sixth (16%) of respondents look at their smartphone more than 50 times a day.

The explanations offered for this use seem plausible - sophisticated, always connected mobile devices allow for multiple activities that seem either necessary or important for our well-being. As the credit card slowly inches towards its demise, the smartphone is now our wallet, as well as our camera, television, music player and primary means of communication; they are indispensable. A day can be enhanced by seeing a great video or getting likes and followers on social media, and we may pass the time whilst travelling reading or gaming, still on the same device. They seem so indispensable that the idea of reducing use, as one might suggest to someone with an addiction, is just nonsensical. But when you observe someone on their smartphone, it is far from clear that they feel they are getting a reward typically associated with addictions, whether an exciting buzz that lifts the mood, or a calming activity to de-stress. It is not even clear that they are actually conscious of their use or are choosing to use the smartphone. The use of the smartphone is now so great or immersive a fifth of 18 to 24 year-olds look at their phones when crossing the road. Use of mobile devices whilst walking or driving may be the greatest road safety issue of our day. But what is going on? How can we understand this behaviour which seems to erase danger or the urge to preserve of life?

Fortunately, whilst it is extremely difficult to really know what is happening when someone is looking at their Smartphone, the rise of wearable activity trackers such as the Fitbit or Jawbone wristbands can tell us something about our evolving relationship with technology.

Whilst these devices are purchased voluntarily, as commitment devices that enable the user to reach a specific goal - fitness, weight loss or a good night's sleep - the impact of them on the user is far from straightforward. According to a recent survey of 200 women who were using the Fitbit tracker, whilst there were many positives, including an enhanced sense of well-being, there was also a darker side. As the users 'embraced the devices as part of themselves and stopped treating it as an external technology' the buzzes and other notifications created conflicts over the choice of activity or behaviour. 59% of users felt Fitbit controlled their routine, and 30% felt that Fitbit was an enemy and it made them feel guilty. Little wonder that 22% of users then felt less inclined to exercise.

Perhaps more fascinating is the way Fitbit became incorporated into the perception of one's self or body, as 45% felt 'naked' without it, and any exercise not tracked by Fitbit was 'wasted'. How quickly it became master, and a troubling version of the children's game 'Simon Says'. Whilst this loss of agency, perhaps loss of influence in decision making (now shared with Fitbit) was achieved in the service of a higher goal, what cost is there to our well-being in other ways through submission to a vibrating plastic wristband?

Of course the Fitbit versions of notifications are simple and trivial compared with the many notifications on the lock screen of your smartphone that clamour for your attention. Each App through its notifications now competes for and demands more of your attention, making the process of ignoring them more and more of a challenge. And through these requests and demands, the smartphone seems to acquire an iron will and we have less and less resolve to challenge. So it is no longer an issue of 'I can't switch it off' or 'put it down', it is now a case of 'I dare not put it down'. We can't easily resist the command from the smartphone: 'look at me!'.

The smartphone is become a device which commands attention and it will be involved in the choices you make today. If uncomfortable about this there is a solution: you switch the notifications off, or are at least selective in which ones are left on. This simple step may become one of the most important keystones of digital well-being today.

Reclaim your free will and try it.