In many respects, technology is like food. Healthy food, junk food, raw, processed, home cooked, and take-out. All of those will sustain life, but some are harmful. Technology is the same. If you feel out of balance with technology, read on. There’s good information at the end of my story.
In 2017, I was overwhelmed by technology and took a break. A fast, you might say. I turned off my smart phone and bought a $20 flip-phone. I turned off my laptop and started carrying a notebook and pen. That experiment lasted about 3 months. I quickly discovered that I could no longer function in the world of 2017 with 1995 technology. Tapping out text messages on a flip-phone and trying to juggle a notebook didn’t make sense. I felt like a fish trying to rebel against water.
Next, I went the other direction for a while. I decided that I would conquer technology and social media. I would play the game and win. I re-joined Facebook and gathered over 2000 “friends”. I set up a new Twitter account and attracted about 7500 followers. I tried to leverage this social network for business success and influence. What I discovered is that everyone else was doing the same thing. Imagine a sales conference with 10,000 salesmen all trying to sell each other. It was madness.
In the meantime, I felt the pull of addiction. Imagine that same sales conference happening on a casino floor with all the light and sound. If you are highly active on social media, you might know what I’m talking about. Slot machines everywhere. Likes, re-tweets, replies, jokes, it’s a lot of fun. One night I made an off-hand remark about the movie Easy Rider, and two hours later Peter Fonda (or at least his verified Twitter account) replied to me. That dopamine hit was enough to keep me pulling the slot machine handle for a couple days. Another time I was quoted by Snopes for some fact-checking I did. I kept that pinned to the top of my Twitter account as a trophy for a couple months.
I started to recognize dark patterns on these technology platforms. For example, the “bottomless news feed”. If you use Facebook or Twitter, you know that it’s easy to lose time when scrolling and reading. It becomes trance-like. This doesn’t happen when reading a magazine or newspaper – because paper isn’t endless. There are many other dark patterns, and they are built-in deliberately.
When researching this further, I found the Center for Humane Technology. Tristan Harris is the co-founder and Executive Director. His bio says:
Called the “closest thing Silicon Valley has to a conscience” by The Atlantic magazine, Tristan was the former Design Ethicist at Google. He is a world expert on how technology steers us all, leaving Google to engage the issue publicly. Tristan spent over a decade understanding subtle psychological forces, from his childhood as a magician, to working with the Stanford Persuasive Technology Lab, to his role as CEO of Apture, which was acquired by Google. He has been featured on 60 Minutes, TED, The Atlantic, the PBS News Hour, and more. He has worked with major technology CEOs and briefed Heads of State and other political leaders.
In June of 2019, Tristan gave testimony to the United States Senate during a subcommittee hearing on “Optimizing for Engagement: Understanding the Use of Persuasive Technology on Internet Platforms”.
The extractive attention economy is tearing apart our shared social fabric.
They have some excellent, specific, tips if you want to take back your attention and take control of technology.
It is now October of 2019, and I have reached a different technology balance. I use a smartphone, but I also carry a notebook. I’ve discovered I think better with a pen and paper. I use a news service that has a “bottom”, so I know when I’ve read the important news of the day. It has no “likes” or comment section. I do not have a Twitter or Facebook account anymore. Every week I make a point to call a couple people on the phone and ask them to lunch. I send as little email as possible.
I highly recommend finding a balance that works for you.