Friday, May 5, 2017

“How Billionaires Stole My Mind”

“How Billionaires Stole My Mind”
by David Cain

"You may have fallen into the same trap as me, and I want to help us all get out. You use your phone as an alarm clock, and because you do, the first thing you learn, every morning, is that while you were sleeping someone messaged you, Liked you, or Mentioned you.

The one-second task of turning off the alarm leads to ten or twenty minutes of swiping and scrolling through pictures, messages, memes, jokes, diatribes and recipes. Maybe you find reports of a violent attack somewhere, or a gaffe by a politician, or a GIF of a baby goat. Or all of those things. You learn some things your friends have been up to - someone checked in at Olive Garden, someone ran in a 5k fundraiser, someone bought tickets for Yo-Yo Ma, someone doesn’t like some country’s labor minister, and someone plans to make cake pops later, or is at least thinking about it.

This ritual seems benign enough, but sometimes you think it takes up too much time. Twenty minutes a day (if somehow you only fall into this pit once daily) adds up to a lot of your life gone.  But wasting time isn’t all this habit does to us. More and more often, while making my morning coffee, I notice myself already agitated, or at least preoccupied, by something I read or watched in those impressionable few minutes after waking. It isn’t always about a serious news issue; it might just be a soccer player writhing flamboyantly to draw a penalty, or a guacamole recipe that contains some offensive ingredient like mayonnaise or green peas.

Whatever it is, ten minutes into my day I’ve already seen a hundred things that can easily push some psychological button, namely the ones for indignation, worry, judgment or ill will, just because I like getting notifications and I don’t want to get out of bed.

Think of how absurd it is to wake up this way. Before your mind can take in the immediate reality of your life this morning - your bedroom, your house, your neighborhood, and the other concrete details life is actually made of - you are already asking it to process the implications of different health care systems, compare your work and family life to those your peers, and take stands on genetically-modified food, Swedish immigration policy, whether ketchup belongs on hotdogs and a dozen other things.

Whether it makes sense to put all these elective tasks through your brain at all is an open question, but it should be clear that seeding your mind with fifty disparate concerns from all over the world - some petty, some very serious - is a completely insane way to begin a day. I don’t know about you, but I was only looking for an alarm clock that doesn’t use a horrible buzzing sound.

I take full responsibility for my actions. But it is understandably very hard to defend your attention from very smart tech-industry billionaires whose primary goal is to capture and keep as much of it as they can. They know how your mind works better than you do

From the designer’s end, nothing is accidental about your morning phone habit. Social media services are designed deliberately to take over as much of your attention as possible, from as early in the day as they can get a hold of you. Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and other services have teams of experts employed solely to exploit your psychological weaknesses, hijacking your reward centers and personal insecurities to serve their business goals.

Tristan Harris, a former design ethicist at Google, wrote a fascinating but also disturbing piece outlining nine common ways this is accomplished. Everyone who has a smartphone or a social media account should read it. We all joke that it’s easy to spend too much time on these services, but we don’t recognize quite how engineered our social media addictions are. I knew I had a bad habit, but I didn’t grasp the gravity of what has really happened: a few big tech companies have literally succeeded in securing my attention from literally the moment I wake up, every single day.

I don’t mean this to be a general rant against social media. I like social media. These tools give us useful, if costly, ways to learn and connect. But if we’re going to use them, we should understand two things:

1) They are designed to take up as much of your attention and time as possible. Harris frames it this way: a small number of designers at Twitter and Facebook influence how a billion people think and act every day, right down to how they get out of bed, how they eat breakfast, how they shop, how they vote, how they think. The goal of these services is not to improve your life, it’s to increase the amount of time you spend on their service - ”time on site” is the primary metric they gauge their success with. Everything else is secondary, including how much you enjoy that time. If the addictive experience they create harms your morning routine, workday, friendships, self-esteem, or ability to concentrate, that’s not their problem.

2) We don’t use them for the reasons we think. We think we’re connecting with people and staying aware of the world at large. But mostly we’re hooked on a carefully engineered, slot-machine-like reward schedule of notifications and social approval. Each time we check for a new such reward, we end up aimlessly scrolling and swiping for another fifteen minutes. I can’t be the only one who cycles through Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, then finds that they’ve opened Facebook a second time, or clicks “refresh” once or twice after opening all the new emails.

After reading the Harris piece (and listening to his interview with Sam Harris - no relation), I listened to an interview with Cal Newport, of "Deep Work" fame, on the same topic, and before it was over I had deleted Facebook and Twitter from my phone. Immediately after that, I had a classic 21st-century experience that brought this whole series of revelations home. I was swiping through my phone, dimly aware that I couldn’t do whatever I was trying to do. After failing to find what I was looking for for the third time, I realized that what I was trying to do was announce on Twitter that I had deleted Twitter from my phone.

And that was enough. Clearly my mind has been successfully warped by Silicon Valley tech designers. I began to fantasize about taking a month off the internet completely. I can’t really do that though, because in the years since my online behavior became so automatic I accidentally became a professional blogger.

I do love the internet. I would never quit using it. But I would like to stop bleeding my time and attention away every day seeking tiny Pavlovian rewards dangled by a few big tech companies. My goal is to not to stop using social media services, but to stop using them unconsciously.

Using the Internet, 2007 style: For the next 30 days, I will not be waking up to a torrent of images, opinions, jokes and fears from around the world. The first step was to get the most addictive apps - Facebook, Twitter and Reddit, for me - off my phone. I still have accounts, and will still use them, but I’ve set them up so that I can’t reach them from my bed, or from waiting rooms, coffee shops, and sidewalks. And they can’t reach me in those places.

All my social media use will be done “2007 style”: when I want to use one of these services, I have to go to my desk, and manually “log on” by typing in my username and password. At least for the next 30 days, social media will no longer have an all-day, or even everyday, presence in my life. I want to use them like the tools they used to be, picking them up when I need to use them and putting them down when I’m done.

This will be my first official lifestyle experiment of 2017. It starts today, and will last until the end of this month. [My four-month no-drinking campaign wasn’t an official experiment, but it ended yesterday and I’ll report on it soon.] Join me if you like. I’ll report my progress here.

I’m going to live in my local, concrete world, using the internet much like we used the television back in the 80s - there’s a world of stuff to discover on it, but it’s in one place, and you’re either using it, or it’s off.”

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