I find myself caught at a crossroads. Personally, I sometimes fight a battle with myself regarding staying connected and being present in the moment. I’ll explain. Laptop, Kindle, iPhone, tablet…I don’t consider myself all that techy, but my primary source of seeking out information exists in gadgets. My primary source of mindless wasting time also exists in gadgets.
And that’s because the engineers behind everything internet and social media design it that way.
In the most basic of terms, tech designers are trying to keep us engaged for as long as possible. Over the years, they’ve come up with various innovations we are now all very familiar with, the “like” button, the timeline, the push notification, the ellipsis that lets you know someone is responding to your message… You’ve probably never thought about it before, but it’s genius, isn’t it? These things may seem minor, but they keep you reaching for your phone time and time again or maybe, you never even put it down, to begin with? (Guess how many times Americans touch their smartphones per day? In 2016, a marketing research company, DScout, reported Americans touch their phones about 2,617 times a day! Yes, seriously!) That’s exactly what tech designers hoped for.
And while you might think, “So what? It’s just Facebook. It’s just Instagram.” Did you know that The American Journal of Epidemiology studied 5,000 social media users in 2017 and they all reported reductions in quality of life and declines in mental and physical health? That sneaky “like” button doesn’t seem so friendly after all, does it? In Our Brains are No Match for Our Technology, Tristan Harris, put it like this, “Our addiction to social validation and bursts of “likes” would continue to destroy our attention spans. Our brains would still be drawn to outrage and angry tweets, replacing democratic debate with childlike he-said, she-said. Teenagers would remain vulnerable to online social pressure and cyberbullying, harming their mental health.” Unfortunately, what‘s JUST Facebook and Instagram to us is a moneymaking machine to tech designers and big corporations and they aren’t above destroying our mental health and even the very fabric of our society to line their own pockets.
To this end, enter the algorithm. An algorithm is a function that predicts what a user wants to see next, based on information already collected about said user. Here, surface a couple of problems. One, an algorithm cannot tell real news from fake, which we all know exists in abundance in the cyberworld. Two, an algorithm is written to benefit the writer of the algorithm, so it may often be unfair to its subject. Three, there are often biases written into algorithms, subconscious or not, that effect the user’s outcomes. The irony in all of this is that we are continually feeding information about everything in our lives into these algorithms and this information is being used to manipulate us every minute of every day. So much so, that an internal Facebook report in 2018 indicated that 64% of users who became part of extremist groups on Facebook did so at the urging of algorithms!
But I’ve made an observation of my own. In the last couple of years, my mind has become scattered. I forget things. I can’t concentrate. There’s always a rush, let’s call it a buzz, streaming through my mind. I chalked it up to getting older, being a professional with a challenging job, or maybe even my own disinterest in the topic at hand, however, I am not alone in my dizziness of distraction. Others are also fighting off the information superhighway from pawing at their ability to think linearly. The Journal of Experimental Psychology published a study in 2015 involving 166 subjects. The study found that when working, even if concentrating on involved tasks, people’s work got careless if they heard their phones go off.
Like Nicholas Carr, author of Is Google Making Us Stupid, I too, find the internet diminishing my ability to focus. “And what the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. My mind now expects to take in information the same way the Net distributes it; in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.” The same idea has crossed my mind on several occasions – society being altered by the monopolizing and overwhelming “need” to be everywhere and see everything all at once, checking in and tagging friends. I didn’t think it applied to me because I had always been a champion for solitude, intense study, and time for reflection.
How convenient for these tech designers, no? The more technology we use, the less we are able to concentrate on anything other than using more technology! And to make matters worse, all of this is perfectly legal. Unfortunately, I become more and more convinced we will pay dearly for surrendering ourselves so completely to The Google Age.
So, what does all this mean in the big scheme of things? In reality, I just don’t know. We are all emotional beings. Although society is becoming more and more overrun by everything computerized and smart screen-ed, we are, at our essence, animals that require emotional connection and thoughtfulness so we can be compassionate towards one another, and not feel dead inside. How ironic that these social media platforms, whose initial purpose was to bring people closer together, have pulled us further apart than ever before. Harris, also the co-founder and executive director of the Center of Humane Technology, believes we can still find our way, “To create humane technology we need to think deeply about human nature, and that means more than just talking about privacy. This is a profound spiritual moment. We need to understand our natural strengths — our capacity for self-awareness and critical thinking, for reasoned debate and reflection — as well as our weaknesses and vulnerabilities, and the parts of ourselves that we’ve lost control over. The only way to make peace with technology is to make peace with ourselves.”
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