I have a love-hate relationship with my phone. I mean, I love all that it can do: tell me the weather, quickly find a recipe, quickly answer a child’s “but why?” question. And there’s an app for almost anything. Want to track a new habit you’re trying to build? There’s an app for that! Curious to begin a meditation practice? There’s an app for that too! In fact, there are usually multiple apps designed to meet your needs.
And we haven’t even talked about photos yet! Not only does this sweet little device capture — and save— some excellent photos, but I can instantly share the snapshots with virtually anyone…er, anyone, virtually.
But I fear that this small device spends entirely too much time in my hand and as the focal point of my attention. When it’s the first thing I grab in the morning, or the last thing I look at at night, that doesn’t feel healthy. And then there are the endless hours I spend scrolling social media. It always feels worthwhile while I’m doing it. But is it?
I decided to use an “Digital Wellness” feature that came installed on my phone to track my usage, and even put up some gentle reminders. It revealed that I am spending a lot more time than I realized in a virtual landscape.
Case in point, the other night I was doing my evening Facebook scroll. I noticed that a friend had posted an announcement that she’d be deleting her social media account in a week, so please message her to exchange contact information if you wanted to stay in touch. She described how she’s watched a new documentary called The Social Dilemma on Netflix, which pointed to the degrading impact of social media, in particular, on our culture and society. And as a result, she was leaving.
I was intrigued. We’ve refused to get an Alexa (Amazon’s voice-activated “helper”) in our house, and I don’t use Siri or Google Assistant. Those seemed clearly too Big Brother to me. But I wondered if this film, coupled with my urge to disconnect from my technology proclivity, might just nudge me to choices that feel more aligned with my values. So I watched The Social Dilemma last night. It was chilling. And it made so much sense.
We’ve all heard about the potential threat of Artificial Intelligence. If you’re like me, that might make you think of a dystopian world where armed military cyborg robots take over the world, along the lines of The Terminator. The tech industry insiders featured in this docudrama argued that in fact AI is already here and taking over— in the form the algorithms that track and predict individuals’ behaviors— and then use that data to provide an endless stream of customized content, creating the echo chambers we know.
So what? Who doesn’t love something that’s special, just for them? I mean, I’ve been vaguely aware of this for some time, but I figured it was pretty harmless, and why wouldn’t I prefer seeing what I don’t even know I’m looking for?
My mom always told me that ‘if something’s too good to be true, then it’s probably not.’ And, ‘you don’t get something for nothing.’ Both of those tried-and-true adages hold up here as well. Why are Google, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc free? Because we are the product.
Have you ever wondered how lately we seem so far apart? How the divide in our country seems to be growing wider by the day? Have you noticed how your social media feed seems to show the same folks, despite your vast friend list? Why the ad for the product you were just talking about seems to magically pop up on your feed? Turns out none of it is a coincidence.
For most of us, our every move is tracked online. And that data is a commodity. It’s what Harvard Business School Professor Shoshana Zuboff calls surveillance capitalism, and it’s eating at the fabric of our society. Our minds are being colonized by machines, algorithms, that are becoming stronger and more successful every day. They are creating alternative realities, spewing conspiracy theories, and spawning unrest and division.
Because machines can’t decipher truth from fiction. They can only respond to clicks and likes.
Yet even knowing this, it can be hard to break away. And that’s also by design. Technology engineers exploit human psychology to tap into our weaknesses, in the same way that a slot machine delivers a pulse of dopamine to keep us happy and endlessly pulling the lever. We love technology because it’s been custom-designed for us.
Am I overreacting? Being paranoid? Maybe. Maybe not. Say I am overblowing the severity of this, what then? I ditch social media and spend a lot less time with my phone. Maybe I read more, connect with the people I care about via email, or even, gasp, the phone (until we can be in person again). I spend a little more time being present. And if this isn’t overblown? Maybe, just maybe, I free my mind from the Matrix.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not ditching technology altogether. In this world apart these days, Zoom is a lifeline. I find having the day’s headlines or the weather at my fingertips extremely convenient. But I don’t want to be the product anymore.
So join me here. I promise I’ll keep up with the gardening, food, and tree photos. And probably a little climate activism as well.