I’ve recently curbed an addiction: my phone.
The ongoing pandemic has exacerbated the already unhealthy relationship I had with my phone, particularly with two social media apps: Reddit and Instagram.
You may have watched or heard of The Social Dilemma, a documentary about the vast influence of social media and other aspects of our hyper-connected societies. It features interviews with engineers, designers, and executives from the biggest tech organizations, psychologists, ethicists, and business people from in and out of tech, all explaining the dilemma of how a disproportionate amount of our thoughts, actions, and life choices are indirectly influenced by decisions made by a handful of people who, by no real fault of their own, have been handed the reigns to humanity’s caravan despite being unequipped to steer it.
I watched it three weeks ago, and even before the 94-minute program ended, I had already deleted many social apps from my phone. Let me tell you about why and the effect on my life since.
The single most compelling point from The Social Dilemma is ethicist Tristan Harris’s illustration of how technology has been, intentionally and unintentionally, designed to hijack our human nature. He juxtaposes our fear of the impending moment of technological singularity with what has already happened years ago: Harris calls it the point where technology “overwhelms human weaknesses”.
The technological singularity is a hypothetical point in time at which technological growth becomes uncontrollable and irreversible, resulting in unforeseeable changes to human civilization. Wikipedia
Harris’s point of “human weakness” refers to the neurochemical reward mechanisms that motivate us to keep swiping through our feeds regardless of whether the content is actually what we are interested in, regardless of whether there’s something else we’d rather be doing, and even regardless of our awareness that the hijacking is happening in the first place.
An analogy is drawn with a slot machine: subconsciously, we don’t know whether our feed will feature a new heart-warming story, dank meme, or food porn, but we’ll take the chance to swipe just for the chance to win big (i.e. we are rewarded with a dopamine rush).
I relate to the slot machine analogy 100%. Once my phone was devoid of Reddit and Insta, I immediately noticed myself pulling it out and poking through my various folders looking for entertainment. Luckily, I can now identify that behavior and nix it right away.
The hyper availability of content allows people to treat it as a crutch even more subtly than any chemical substance. Awkward moment? Whip out the phone. Waiting a few seconds between activities? Whip out the phone. Taking a poop? Whip out that phone! Why, if not for the chance of hitting meme gold? And we rarely think twice.
Say nothing about fake news and unachievable beauty standards. Learning about this overpowering of our brain chemistry was the moment I whipped out my phone, deleted the apps, and slid it far across the floor in disgust.
So what has changed since I’ve purged my phone of social media? Well… you’re reading it! I feel like I’ve unlocked time and energy that I’m now avidly funneling into writing and other initiatives that I previously placed second to redditing. It’s more than tangible: it feels like a tailwind pushing me towards my goals.
To be clear: I didn’t delete social media entirely, just from my phone. Since our phones are so easily always on our person, we’re susceptible to their ease of use. Social media itself has plenty of upsides so I’ll still use it from a computer.
And I cheat in a few ways: I still have chess and YouTube on my phone. They are certainly distractions but are somehow self-regulating in a way others are not, so they ultimately don’t detract much from what I’d like to focus my attention on. The big loophole I have to be wary of is web browsers. Browsers are almost just as sticky but the few extra taps are enough to deter me, I suppose.
I have a final, powerful rule: no phone in the bathroom. Our phones are ideal companions for when we do our “business”, but I’ve nonetheless wasted time sitting on the throne aimlessly scrolling and I want that time back!
Again, I cheat, but I really try not to and instead persist at protecting my attention from the grasps of advertisers and unsolicited content.
Reddit and Instagram specifically may not be black holes for you like they are for me. So in general, I implore you: consider how you would like to spend your time and compare that to reality. If it's a perfect match, I’m extremely envious; please teach me your ways! But if you’re like me, perhaps consider eliminating at least some of your distractions.
In articles yet to be written, I want to dig deeper to investigate the related software design, neuropsychology, and ethics, so stay pleased tuned.