The story of human progress is arguably a story of two separate (yet related) components. Our social structures and our technology. Our social structures have governed how we interact with one another, whether we live in a patriarchal society, monarchy, a representative democracy or an authoritarian dictatorship. These social structures dictate the qualitative elements of our society, they dictate whether our democracy is one which embraces individuals or one where the tyranny of the majority crushes all discontent and alternative opinions. For those individuals who work in the social sciences an inordinate amount of attention is applied to these issues, yet they, on occasion, miss the elephant in the room. The ever present stalking horse of technological innovation.
There is a symbiotic and complimentary relationship between our social structures and our technology. Our social structures dictate which technology gets built and our technology dictates what the next iteration of our social structures is formed from. The Great Firewall of China would not exist without an autocratic government hellbent upon maintaining their grip on power. Twitter would not exist without a society which values communication and freedom of speech. When the tools of a free society, such as Twitter, have been transplanted into societies with different social structures the end result may either further support the ruling regime or help overthrow it. The Myanmar military using Facebook to commit genocide against the Rohingya minority is an example of the former. The use of Twitter to help organise protesters within the Arab Spring an example of the latter.
The point I am trying to make is that technology doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Our social structures and our technology are intertwined, they feed off one another. Technology cannot be considered to be neutral, it cannot be considered to only be an amplifying force which enables us to do things easier, faster and better with lower cost. We cannot divorce the social and cultural realms from technology. Often, our technology will tend to restrain and channel the kind of society we have. As Marshal McLuhan, the Canadian Philosopher and Intellectual said, “The Medium is the Message”. How we communicate often shapes what we communicate. A society with cheap air travel is very different to one without.
Technology, and it’s disciples who seek to extend and develop it, play a major role in our lives. These individuals, priests if you will, will often claim that technology is amoral and apolitical, that it can be used for good just as easily as it can be used for bad. I would agree with this view in principle, yet, our technology typically says nothing about what is the right thing to do. In short, just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should do it. Oppenheimer was obsessed with the technical component of developing the atomic bomb, whether it should be developed in the first place is a question that was far outside his remit.
Our technology cannot help us to answer these questions. Is it right that workers in the modern economy feel so overloaded by email that it takes up most of their day? Is it right that the tyranny of the push notification is taking a toll upon our mental health? Is it right that an unanswered “read” receipt on a messaging app may fill us with dread about how the other individual feels about us? Is it right that computer doctored images are mutilating our perception of the human body and leading to an epidemic of cosmetic enhancing surgery in the question for beauty? Our technology is shaping our personal and public lives whether we would like it to or not.
Of concern to me personally are two factors:
- The impact that technology has upon my personal life and mental wellbeing.
- The impact that technology has upon the society that I have to live in.
I do not wish to be a weathervane, continuously buffeted by the technological winds of change, and I (like many others) desire some form of control over my environment. It is disheartening for me to realise that a handful of billionaires controls almost the entirety of our communication infrastructure these days. These walled gardens which seek to centralise the most human of elements, socialising, are one of the reasons why the humble SMS, the federated email workflow, traditional postal mail and in person communication are so important. Being able to communicate with individuals outside of the allowed channels is incredibly important to democracy. “Wrongthink” is inconceivable when all communications are monitored. Yet governments around the world, like the Australian government in December 2018 are pushing to be able to read every message that we pass between ourselves. They can do this, because in communication, centralisation tends to win. Increased scale often means that a walled garden message app becomes the “place where all your friends are”. Network effects are brutal.
While the societal effects of technology are important they are not predominately what I am concerned with in this post. As technology continues to permeate into every facet of our lives the question that has continued to percolate within my mind has been; “What effect is this having upon us?” Is it purely a force for good? Does the introduction of technology have a purely linear positive response. More technology is better. Less technology is worse. Or is there a trade-off? A qualitative difference between the different forms of technology? There are obvious benefits to increasing our use of specific kinds of technology within our lives but are there non-obvious costs? Is there a possibility that from a cognitive standpoint, we are “picking up pennies in front of a steam roller?” So lost in the minor benefits that we don’t see the destruction bearing down upon us.
In my mind, the most disruptive of the technology that we have introduced are those based around “Always On” communication and social sharing. The most invasive of technologies are those that compete for our attention in an ever escalating game of psychological warfare. Humans are highly social creatures, to be exiled from the tribe was certain death in our pre-modern state and we are highly attuned to social signals. We are also incredibly visual creatures, ever alert to bright and flashy objects entering our surroundings. The pace of social communication and the degree to which image laden socialisation is now invading every element of our lives is changing social norms. We have wilfully eroded the private space by inviting discussion mediums deep into our homes. We have converted this medium into a visual buffet for which we’re evolutionarily not equipped to deal with.
These innovations are active and not passive, they follow us and attempt to get our attention regardless of the appropriateness. Push notifications tell us that we have a new like. An email interrupts your workflow and begs to be answered. The design of our tools has been modified to always highlight the new and the novel, the unread, the unseen.
These intrusions reach at us, grasping from the deep and seek to capture our attention. They are entirely novel in the history of mankind. Hundreds of years ago, if you weren’t part of the ultra rich, your correspondence with others likely consisted of purely verbal communication. Face to face. In part, due to the role of the unholy alliance between the feudal lords and the organised church the spread of education was limited and the ability to write implied belonging to a certain social class. Even if you were part of the literary class these letters may arrive on a periodic and spaced out basis. Contrast the recipient of a letter a week to the modern teenage girl who receives thousands of push notifications per day.
These twin boons of education and communication technologies have led to a renaissance in the written word which is a massively good thing though. We have never been reading so much nor writing so much as we have in recent years. The availability of good quality literature has never been higher. We are living in a cultural golden age from that perspective.
But most of our reading and writing is not literature, instead it is short messages, often without supporting evidence or context which float out of the aether. It is the thoughts of a world leader, who conducts foreign policy 280 characters at a time or perhaps that of a business magnate whose PR wing consists of (occasionally juvenile) tweets that appeal to his audience. Some tools allow a never ending supply of information to bombard our neocortex and come with their own inbuilt Skinner box, the feed, to ensure their own survival and self propagation. Our technology is taking on the characteristics of a virus, self interested in its own survival and willing to kill the host to ensure it. The latest Silicon Valley app developer doesn’t care about the impact upon the individual, only the engagement metrics they can game using dark patterns to pad the latest investor “deck”.
The most dominant communication technologies have all embraced the common framework of a never ending feed of content. On these sites such as Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, Facebook, Netflix or Reddit (and even more ‘highbrow’ alternatives like Quora, Medium, Hacker News or Wikipedia) there is a never ending supply of novelty for the user. A never ending hit of dopamine. If you so choose, these sites will continuously present you with new and interesting information from your family, friends, shared interests and the wider global community. They are bottomless honey pots of content, ever ready to suck you in and waiting for a moment of willpower weakness to try one more time.
These services are incredible expressions of humanity, they mirror our inherent willingness to connect and experience new things, they bring joy to millions of people and help others to share their passions with the world. They are too good to be ignored. But, we must understand their drawbacks. I’ve personally been sucked into the dark world of these services, hours of my life spent frittered away. I have struggled with the negative impact this has had upon my mental wellbeing and have attempted to develop my own personal structures for using them safely. I am not exaggerating when I say that without these structures I am merely a puppet, emotionally jerked around by the algorithmic puppet master.
It may seem self evident what my conclusions will be on this subject but I am still a technological optimist. I cannot, in good conscience, advocate a neo-luddism based rejections of the technology that we create today. Some forms of technology are simply so good and so useful that to ignore them is to do yourself a disservice. This is not a game where the only way to win is not to play.
Personally, I have a love-hate relationship with these services. YouTube has enabled me access to a huge range of incredible content from a man in the Queensland (Australia) bush who is recreating primitive technology from scratch to wonderful cooking shows which have improved my abilities tenfold. This access to information and expertly presented content has had a positive impact upon my life. I have been able to explore my interests and gain inspiration, building new skills and advancing my education.
But it has also taken it’s toll. Whether that be from hours spent staring into a small phone screen, straining my vision as I recreate the Reddit version of the famous Civilisation maxim “Just one more turn” or multi hour YouTube/Netflix binges running into the early hours of the morning. I have spent hundreds of hours on Instagram checking out fabulous creators who are doing wonderful things and sharing their talents with the world. Yet, the more I consumed the less I seemed to do in my own life.
Worrying, I have observed the impact these sessions have had upon my degrees of concentration and my sense of self worth. To be perfectly frank, I was falling into David Wong’s 3rd Truth, “You Hate Yourself Because You Don’t Do Anything” (If you haven’t read the original 2012 article it has been updated for 2019 and is still as cutting as ever, do yourself a favour and read it). These algorithmically curated and feed oriented sites were enabling my worst vices. I begun to hate the fact that I didn’t actually do anything. I was a writer who didn’t write, a reader who didn’t read, a cook who barely cooked, a researcher who didn’t research and an athlete who didn’t train. Rather than heading out with friends I would send them a meme on whatsapp. I was becoming more comfortable living life through a pixelated window than I was seeing it with my own eyes.
Scarily (to me at least) is that I am not an uneducated or unmotivated individual. I have a Ph.D in Engineering and have worked extensively in lucrative white collar jobs. Looking at society, I have been able to capitalise upon the dominant economic trends and have come out ahead. I have written a 50,000 word book before and if you were to look at my professional resume you would not also think that I do, on multiple occasions, spend 4-5 hours binging Britain’s Got Talent (or equivalent shows, I particularly like the Eastern European versions for the acrobatic prowess) at a time. You wouldn’t think that I would regularly spend an evening on Reddit and then be unable to get to sleep, waking up in a dreary haze and mainlining caffeine to get through the day.
I am not saying this to brag, merely to provide context. These services are designed to be addictive and anyone can get sucked into them. I became the millennial equivalent of the old drunk sitting in the pub playing the pokies with his pension. In fact, at one point it got so bad that I was unable to go a few minutes without picking up my phone to check something, anything. I needed the dopamine hit of a novel bit of stimulation. Fortunately for me, on this angle at least, strict screen discipline and the practice of meditation has seemed to restore my ability to focus a bit better. The cure is harsh, painful and unpleasant, but it works.
But is this harm that I have observed specific to me? Is it part of my personal makeup that I am naturally impacted by the continuous novelty that is available to me or is it a wider phenomenon? In the book The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr he explores this very question. Carr’s view is that the continuous interruption associated with the internet is leading us towards ‘Chronic Distraction’ and is destroying our ability to focus for longer periods of time. Interestingly this appears to be driven by the plastic nature of the brain itself. In neuroscience there is an adage, “Neurons that fire together wire together” (first used in 1949 by Donald Hebb) which illustrates this intuitively. Imagine two scenarios:
- An individual who only reads outrage driven, dopamine inducing, tweets from within their own Filter Bubble. They are continuously exposed to new pieces of information from different (yet algorithmically homogenous) sources and will often flit across hundreds of websites, apps and pieces of contents an hour.
- An individual who only reads long form literature and non-fiction works from reputable authors. They will spend an hour (or more) reading a single piece of work and often critically examine it.
Which individual is likelier to be a better dinner party companion? Which one is likelier to understand greater nuance in debate? Which one is likelier to be more empathetic? If you picked the second one then you’re correct. The second individual is training their brain for greater depth, they are training their brain for concentration. The first individual, well, I shudder to think what training a brain gets from a rapid fire inoculation of tweets of questionable accuracy. Which neurons are wiring together in that particular instance? Do we want them to wire together at all?
Our technology has an impact upon our lives by changing our brain. This sounds like hyperbole but it is not. In Silicon Valley, the drive is towards ever more addictive products, one of the new messiahs of this movement, Nir Eyal, has written a bible of sorts. In Hooked - How to Build Habit Forming Products he covers how to use behavioural design to guide users pathway. In his words, this behavioural design is the intersection of psychology, technology and business. It is based upon the same research as the works of Daniel Kahneman in Thinking, Fast and Slow or that of Richard H. Thaler in Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth and Happiness. To reiterate what this means. Tech Leaders are using cutting edge neuroscience research to learn how to take their products and form them into habitual addictions. Does this sound like it’s in your personal best interests or in theirs?
The product managers and tech entrepreneurs are now attempting to use our basic psychology against us. Whether this be EA introducing randomised “loot boxes” to create a particularly abusive kind of Skinner box variable reward system or Candy Crush, the mobile phenomenon which has these techniques at its very heart. These new games have more in common with gambling than they do games of skill and the developers are continuously testing their ways to greater engagement in the pursuit of profits. Tech is changing from something that is designed to enhance us to something that is designed to exploit us.
Entrepreneurs are not exactly the most religious bunch, but they do have religions of a sort. The cult of “Agile” development is one such religion. AB testing is another. In AB testing two variations of a product with subtle variations are randomly shown to users. Every element of the users interaction with the product is measured and the one which ‘wins’ is kept. At least, until the next AB test. In this way every button, every widget and every gameplay mechanic is able to be tested and iterated upon until it cannot be improved (using AB testing) any further. But, what metric should be used when running these tests? The adage made famous by Peter Drucker is that “What Gets Measured Gets Improved”.
Often, the metric of choice is engagement. How often are users checking the site? How much time are they spending there? What is causing them to leave the site? Then, the business seeks to ruthlessly optimise for these metrics on average by changing design components. Why did infinite scroll win out over pagination? Engagement. Why does Facebook have an algorithmic timeline versus a chronological one? Engagement. Why does Twitter have a “trending hashtags” feature? Engagement. Why does Netflix begin autoplaying the next episode in a series? Engagement. Incremental decision making in emergent systems can lead to some very suboptimal outcomes if the metrics themselves are wrong.
Every part of these sites has been designed to suck our attention in and keep it there. To maximise how much value can be extracted from us through showing us ever increasing numbers of advertisements. The business models of these companies are essentially user hostile. They want to keep you ensconced within their cosy little bubble for as long as possible and the best way to do this is via mastering the darker elements of human psychology. In Asia it is not unheard of for individuals to die from prolonged gaming sessions in internet cafes. But recall, these sites are optimising for relatively simplistic metrics. How long you spend on a site, how often you check it. They do not necessarily care for how much joy or how much value their site brings. In the modern attention economy the time spent on a site correlates to the number of advertisements they can shove down your throat. The more addictive they can make their products the more money they make.
Yet, this does not have to be an entirely pessimistic story, although it has been one in this piece so far. There are growing movements to recapture our attention from our technological overlords. Movements to wrest our concentration away from the technology and content producers and redirect it back towards people. There are movements to understand the impact that technology has upon our lives. The Center for Humane Technology describes this problem harshly:
Our society is being hijacked by technology. What began as a race to monetize our attention is now eroding the pillars of our society: mental health, democracy, social relationships, and our children.
As humans we do not inherently possess the tools we need to cognitively fight off the bombardment that we receive every day. We have not been trained to defend ourselves. Fortunately there are basic techniques and hygiene that we can use to act as the first line of defence.
As I alluded to earlier I reached a dark place through my infatuation with technology. I am a self confessed and reforming stimulation junkie. Previously, I was unable to read a book, watch a movie or have a conversation with friends without continuously checking my phone for the latest update. It got to the point where it was seriously impacting my cognitive performance and having a negative effect on my life.. It is difficult to be creative or to build something containing depth if you are “multitasking” to different forms of stimulus every 30 seconds. If you have an Apple iPhone, check the screen time feature for just how often you’re picking up your phone and how much screen time you’re ingesting. It’s scary. Each interruption or disruption is small in isolation, but in aggregate the result is an agitated, anxious, individual. Are the youth of today really ADHD or has their psychology simply been deployed against them.
So I sat down and set about developing a plan, a regime of sorts to improve my life of which technology use is a major part. I did not wish to join an Amish community or to become a Neo-Luddite. A blanket ban serves no-one well. I alluded to in my introductory post that I now live my life according to a generalised regime and that it has made me happier. Controlling and understanding my usage of technology is a major part of that.
The strategies that I have used to reclaim my attention are as follows. I appreciate that these may seem extreme but many of them relate to the same overall concept. Reducing the amount of time I spend as a consumer of content. Please note, that I did not introduce all of these simultaneously and there has been an incremental process over a number of months and years to develop them to this current incarnation. The most weaponised (against your cognitive faculties) asset in your possession is currently your smartphone followed closely by your laptop or desktop computer and if you are wondering where to start it should be with your smartphone
- Modifying my computers hosts file to block particularly addictive websites (Facebook, Reddit, news websites).
- Reason: Restrict my ability to mindlessly browse.
- Using the iPhone content restrictions feature to block these websites on my phone.
- Reason: Restrict my ability to mindlessly browse.
- Deactivating my Facebook account (I still use messenger due to it being the only method I have to communicate with some friends).
- Reason: Facebook attempts to control all communication.
- Deleting my Instagram and Twitter accounts. Cancelling Netflix.
- Reason: Shift time spent to creation away from consumption.
- Focussing upon giving myself at least 8-9 hours of Sleep Opportunity each night and restricting screen time before bed.
- Reason: Chronic sleep deprivation leads to a host of ill effects. When I’m tired I’m far more likely to laze around on my phone.
- Using the airplane mode and do not disturb features liberally whenever I need to concentrate.
- Reason: Acknowledging that continuous communication can wait. It is more important to be productive.
- Turning off all notifications for emails/slack or other forms of office communication outside of set hours.
- Reason: Regain control of my attention.
- Keeping my phone in a separate room or drawer to increase the cost of checking it and remove the ability to habitually check it.
- Reason: Reduce my ability to mindlessly browse.
- Setting goals for how much “productive” work I wish to achieve each day.
- Reason: Working gives me a lot of fulfillment, it is easy to “pretend” to be productive.
- Setting “windows” within which I seek to check messages and respond to correspondence .
- Reason: Regain control of my attention.
- No browsing in the evening when tired (this is a quick way to eat into your sleep!).
- Reason: Restrict my ability to mindlessly browse.
- Try to do one thing at a time. Avoid multi-screening.
- Reason: Multitasking is a lie, I want to work towards Flow states.
I am fortunate that my employment and my hobbies are not based around real time communication and being continuously on by design but even then I was surprised at how effective these strategies have been (though I do not perfectly follow them, they are aspirational pursuits not pass-fail ones).
I have been able to improve my concentration to levels that I haven’t seen in years, often focussing for hours at a time on a project which takes my interest. I have become more creative, generating new ideas for projects that I’m interested in and often taking the first step towards assessing whether I actually want to actualised them. This is important to avoid David Wong’s 3rd truth as alluded to above. I have been sleeping better and have been less reactive to the world around me. I have written more, spoken with people in person more and completed more projects. I have exercised more. Most importantly, I have been happier.
Unfortunately, by slowing down and reducing my consumption of the services which deliver us this addictive content I have missed out on things. I missed the latest outrage regarding that Trump tweet from last month, or last week, oh wait, they’re constant, which had no impact on my life whatsoever. I missed the latest cute cat photo that made the rounds on social media. I missed the most recent meme and I didn’t get to spend a few hours enjoyably sending and consuming memes to random strangers over the internet I will never meet.
Some of the things I have missed out on have been non-trivial though. There have been sacrifices to following my strategies. I missed a good friends birthday party as he only organised it on Facebook and I didn’t hear about it through any other channels. I have missed out on events that have only been shared on social media platforms which has been upsetting. I have had to accept that not using the dominant social media platforms may lead to missing out. Fortunately, the older I get the more my Fear Of Missing Out (FOMO) declines.
Though, perhaps I didn’t miss out at all? From my time using Facebook I often missed out on these events anyway. Facebook is particularly bad about actually surfacing the relevant events that I would like to go to and since I had friends on the platform who spanned countries I was often suggested incredibly irrelevant content. For all of their tracking and the phenomenal intellectual brainpower behind their algorithms they couldn’t suggest anything which was relevant to me. More galling, they would often suggest an event after it had already finished. Is it really a sacrifice to leave a platform when it cannot even do its job properly?
Living Slower is a lifestyle choice more than anything else. It involves conscious decision making about the kind of life you want to live. It involves honestly recognising bad habits that may have snuck in and seeking to root them out.
The easiest way to change habits is not to remove them cold turkey. It often leaves a gapping chasm or a void that is desperately searching to be filled. In the beginning at least, boredom is the enemy. When you’re bored a battle rages between the different parts of your brain as the cognitive elements battle it out with the instinctual elements. Breaking habits is hard.
So go offline. Head out for a long walk without your phone or any music (scary I know). Go rock climbing. Check out an art gallery, start to learn a musical instrument or take up a hobby to help fill the time. Create more art. Exercise more. Catch up with a friend for coffee.
We all know the things that we should be doing. Take the time that will be freed up by the reduction in content consumption and put it towards these activities.
Try it out. See if you like it. What have you got to lose? The ephemeral nature of the content we consume means that there’s always going to be more of it and what was popular today won’t be popular tomorrow. You can take a break from the social arms race without as much downside as you would expect. I haven’t regretted slowing down yet.