I was reading the interview with Tristan Harris, the technological ethicist, in WIRED, the business and technology magazine, this morning and could not help but agree with him on his views about how social media has hijacked our lives and constantly compete for our very souls in this modern digital age.
“Phones, apps, and the web are so indispensable to our daily lives—a testament to the benefits they give us—that we’ve become a captive audience. With two billion people plugged into these devices, technology companies have inadvertently enabled a direct channel to manipulate entire societies with unprecedented precision” – Tristan Harris
I have always been concerned about the influence of the ‘three kings’, Facebook, Google and Apple on our lives, and on modern society in general. It is no longer news that these three are also the ‘king makers’ in today’s global village. Fake news is the dilemma of our time as millions of people are manipulated by false information. Elections across the world are being swayed by fabricated news, deliberately manipulating facts or plain falsehood disguised as truth. We are all swimming in a sea of information with most of it junk information. We are caught up in a web of smokes and mirrors and we cannot tell head from tail anymore. They tell us.
When I wake up in the morning, the first thing I check is my phone. If you are being honest, you are exactly the same. Phone notifications have come to rule our lives, we wait for those comments and likes on our social media posts, respond to these and then scroll to others’ posts, ‘like’ and comment on theirs, continue scrolling endlessly only to click on the link to that Youtube video and that’s your day gone. I don’t know what the research says, but I would think our generation may be the most attention deficit generation in the history of mankind with multiple distractions by the minute from apps. If it’s not Facebook, its Instagram, Twitter or Snapchat. These platforms compete endlessly for our attention by pushing the most aggressive advertising, tell us what we should like, show us what they think we are missing and give us subtle ideas about what we should be doing with our lives. They even hook us up with new friends who are friends of our friends. The amount of data they have on our innermost thoughts and beliefs is staggering. Never before have we put our deepest feelings and habits into the hands of corporations who are endlessly using this data to shape our lives.
“Religions and governments don’t have that much influence over people’s daily thoughts. But we have three technology companies who have this system that frankly they don’t even have control over—with newsfeeds and recommended videos and whatever they put in front of you—which is governing what people do with their time and what they’re looking at” – Tristan Harris
One of the leading cause of stress and distress in young people today is Facebook. In fact mental health issues are now considered directly correlated with use of Facebook, admitted by the tech giant itself. Body image, career expectations, self-perception are all linked to what we see others doing on a minute by minute basis. Mankind has never had this level of insight into other people’s day to day lives. Real human interactions are now suffering from addiction to endless digital feedback and validation. How many of us show up at a family dinner only to whip out our big screen phones and put it on the table, ready to continue engaging with the online world, as those notifications never stop coming. We never switch off! The effects of not having that old undivided attention to something is being eroded. It is a lot of stress on the brain, to have to keep all these channels going at the same time. Imagine you are about to rest for the night, then suddenly had a notification popped up on your phone just as you settle into bed, you check it and it’s a reply to your comment on a post earlier in the day, critical of your viewpoint, immediately your brain responds and you want to respond back with why you were right in your previous comment and alas you are up till midnight arguing on Facebook! Then you check your WhatsApp to see whether your mum has read that message you sent earlier (those two blue ticks), she has read it but not responded, you wonder why? You worry a bit, was it what you said in the text? Gradually your planned peaceful night rest slips away from you. You get to work the next day feeling like you have had a vigil, your productivity suffers.
“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”
– Tristan Harris (www.timewellspent.io)
Even though we like to believe we are in control of our use of these platforms and the information they feed us, in reality, we are all pawns in their great chess game. There are maybe 10-11 engineers at Google working together at the one time to ensure that video plays instantly when you scroll past it or ensure that advert uses the best visual possible to lure you to that expensive shop. They earn a lot of money for this. They cleverly design their apps to ensure we get addicted by keeping us constantly engaged, so they can push as many advertising as possible to us, make money for their shareholders and grow their influence. Most people get their news from social media links and form opinions based on what they see in their timelines. A few go after verification, but most consume these subtle suggestions passively without checking. Tristan believes tech companies instead of making their apps as addictive as possible, rather should look at the benefits to mankind and see the bigger picture. Those two ticks in WhatsApp for example keep you tied to the app, you want to see the message has been delivered, you want to see when they were seen, and then wait for the reply! With letters you put in the post, you only have one layer, not three, which means less mental stress. Tristan is not advocating going back to the dark days of paper letter writing under candle light, but says companies could help people by reducing those layers of engagement with their apps and giving them some measure of control. For example those two ticks in WhatsApp could be removed or modified to help the user reduce their need to check back constantly hence reduce distraction from real life. Same with Apple iPhones, where you can see those little dots showing when someone is responding to your text. If they (the responder) changes their mind and decide not to respond immediately, or postpone their response to a later time, then you start to worry and wonder why they changed their mind. If you didn’t see those dots in the first place, you probably would be less stressed and just receive the response when it finally arrives.
It is probably inevitable that we are ruled by our phones and tablets, but in the midst of the madness we can still seize back control if we understand that these companies are not working entirely in our interest and they are mainly concerned with their profits and expanding their influence and market share. Most of us will continue to depend on them and see the world through their lenses, the impact of this on the future of mankind is not entirely clear. We have unleashed a ferocious beast whose creators cannot even tame.