“People don’t succumb to screens because they’re lazy, but instead because billions of dollars have been invested to make this outcome inevitable.” -Cal Newport, Digital Minimalism
We Didn’t Sign Up for This
Do you remember the first time you looked at thefacebook.com? You surfed the website, checked out your lab partner’s photos. It was passive.
How about the first time you saw an iPhone? It was like your phone, but with a touch screen and an iPod built in. Very handy.
Now, turn on your phone. Fight pass the notifications, open the Facebook app, and see those red alarms. It’s difficult and aggressive. What happened?
You didn’t ask Silicon Valley to transform their helpful tools into the most distracting forces in your life. Their investors did. In Digital Minimalism, Cal Newport explains that, “People don’t succumb to screens because they’re lazy, but instead because billions of dollars have been invested to make this outcome inevitable.” In this article, I’ll cover the highlights of this progression, through the lens of Dr. Newport’s book.
The New Smoking
News personalities, such as Anderson Cooper and Bill Maher have made it clear that social media is an extremely powerful and addictive force in our lives. In a 2017 monologue on his HBO show Real Time, Bill Maher said:
“The tycoons of social media have to stop pretending that they’re friendly nerd gods building a better world and admit they’re just tobacco famers in T-shirts selling an addictive product to children. Because, let’s face it, checking your “likes” is the new smoking.”
Personally, I like the smoking analogy, but see social media as a close sister to gambling. As former start-up founder and Google engineer Tristan Harris explained to Anderson Cooper, “This thing is a slot machine.” Harris was holding up his smartphone.
Harris goes on to debunk the myth that technology is neutral and it’s up to the user to make the best of it. Cooper asks, “Technology is not neutral?” Harris replies, “It’s not neutral. They want you to use it in particular ways and for long periods of time. Because that’s how they make their money.”
There’s no question that these technologies have tremendous power to hook people. Stanford University has a Persuasive Technology Lab under Dr. BJ Fogg, also know as the “millionaire maker.” Fogg makes good on his nickname, with former pupils including Tristan Harris and Instagram co-founder Mike Krieger.
In his studies, Harris learned that the modern attention economy is a “race to the bottom of the brain stem.” The race is run on two tracks.
Track 1: Intermittent Reward
“It’s hard to exaggerate how much the ‘like’ button changed the psychology of Facebook use.” -Adam Alter
When you post on social media, think of it as gambling. You are risking something, time, energy, the risk of eating a Tide Pod, and betting on it to win big. Then, you check the “likes.” Did this bet pay off? Did it get re-tweeted? I face this every time I post a video on YouTube. Did it go viral? Did it get shared? How many views?
These rewards are unpredictable. That’s what makes them sticky.
When a gambler gets addicted, it’s the losing that keeps them coming back. If you won every pull at a slot machine, you’d get bored. It’s much more exciting to lose a few times and then win. The engineers who design slot machines know this and optimize their algorithms to keep you coming back. It’s the same stimulus that keeps you posting and checking on social media. In an interview, Cal Newport said that Instagram would artificially hold “likes” and drip them out at a rate that was optimized to get the most attention possible from users.
Good luck resisting.
Track 2: Social Approval
“We’re social beings who can’t ever completely ignore what other people think of us.” -Adam Alter
For millennia, human survival depended on the group. If you’re cast out, you’re dead. If you’re popular, all is well. Your brain always scans for signs that all is well. Social media conglomerates know this and design their products to take advantage of your needs.
The trouble is that social media can never satisfy your needs. Could you ever have enough Instagram followers to stop needing real life friends? It’s a junk food not a salad. Like junk food, it is designed to provide a fast, cheap, irresistible experience that keeps you coming back. When your post gets lots of heart icons, you feel valued by your tribe, even when you’re totally alone staring at a glowing screen licking Cheetos dust off your fingers.
Founding president of Facebook, Sean Parker, describes the endless cycle of posting, liking, tagging, getting likes, getting tags, and posting again as, “A social validation feedback loop . . . exactly the kind of thing that a hacker like myself would come up with, because you’re exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology.”
There’s no doubt that these technologies have use. The issue is that they jeopardize your autonomy. To learn more about Digital Minimalism, and strategies for your own life, you can buy the book here and follow along with my digital minimalism series on Medium.