Saturday, October 22, 2016

Spending time well before you die

Over the years, I have come up with many arrangements in order to manage technology in my life. After I switched to the smartphone--which I did only because my old phone became non-functional--I made sure that notifications were turned off.  I set it up such that unless I activated email or Facebook or Twitter, well, there would not be any automatic downloading of the latest.

On top of all these, I almost always went for my favorite walk by the river without my phone.  It was me, the river, the trees, the birds, the everything but technology.  Sometimes, even my grocery and other errands were without the iPhone, which I would leave behind at home.

All because for the longest time I have operated with a clear notion that I get to decide how to use technology, and that technology should not begin to redefine my life.

Perhaps it is this distrust of technology at an instinct-level that also contributed to my wanting to ditch engineering at the earliest.  I am all the happier that such a good instinct has guided my life ;)

It is more than instinct, of course.  There is an increasing body of evidence that people of all ages, and the younger ones in particular, are addicted to the gadgets because of the number of apps that specifically prey on our wiring for addiction.  Yes, as much as the tobacco industry knew how nicotine is addictive, these app developers also know how addicting it can be.
While some blame our collective tech addiction on personal failings, like weak willpower, [Tristan] Harris points a finger at the software itself. That itch to glance at our phone is a natural reaction to apps and websites engineered to get us scrolling as frequently as possible. The attention economy, which showers profits on companies that seize our focus, has kicked off what Harris calls a “race to the bottom of the brain stem.” “You could say that it’s my responsibility” to exert self-control when it comes to digital usage, he explains, “but that’s not acknowledging that there’s a thousand people on the other side of the screen whose job is to break down whatever responsibility I can maintain.” In short, we’ve lost control of our relationship with technology because technology has become better at controlling us.
You, dear reader, are like me in how much you are fighting against the technology that wants to control our lives.  But, we are in a minority.  A shrinking minority.  A rapidly shrinking minority.

One of the main centers that has spawned highly intelligent software professionals who create such addictive apps is the Persuasive Technology Lab, at Stanford.
Run by the experimental psychologist B. J. Fogg, the lab has earned a cultlike following among entrepreneurs hoping to master Fogg’s principles of “behavior design”—a euphemism for what sometimes amounts to building software that nudges us toward the habits a company seeks to instill. (One of Instagram’s co-founders is an alumnus.) In Fogg’s course, Harris studied the psychology of behavior change, such as how clicker training for dogs, among other methods of conditioning, can inspire products for people. For example, rewarding someone with an instantaneous “like” after they post a photo can reinforce the action, and potentially shift it from an occasional to a daily activity.
Pause and think about this.  Highly intelligent people are sitting around and systematically creating ways in which people can become addicted to the apps they create.  You think a great number of humans will be able to fight such a concerted effort?  It is a losing battle for most people, my friend.

One of the examples cited there was something that I had not known about--the Snapstreak feature in Snapchat.  After reading the article--which I did offline the old fashioned way by holding The Atlantic in my hands--I had to Google "snapstreak" to understand it.  Check it out, if you are like me and you have no idea what that is.  Here is an effect that the addictive Snapstreak has:
Research shared with Harris by Emily Weinstein, a Harvard doctoral candidate, shows that Snapstreak is driving some teenagers nuts—to the point that before going on vacation, they give friends their log-in information and beg them to snap in their stead.
Of course we know why they have to make things more and more and more addictive:
“They want to make things more sugary and more tasty, and pull you in, and justify billions of dollars of valuation and hundreds of millions of dollars [in] VC funds.”
Tristan Harris is also a young tech dude, but is leading a good fight on behalf of us.  "Under the auspices of Time Well Spent, Harris is leading a movement to change the fundamentals of software design."

A few months ago, I sent a link about Harris and his "Hippocratic oath" to a student who was working on her thesis with my guidance.  I am always awed by people like Harris who are willing to give up gazillions in order to do good things.  I will end this post with one of his talks on this subject.  After reading this, and after watching his video, put your phone and laptop away, shut off the television, and go talk with a human.  Make eye contact.  Hold their hand.  Contemplate on what it means to be human.  You will be healthier--and wealthier too.


Ramesh said...

A recurring theme in this blog, which is very true. Yes, technology is very very addictive. I am less sympathetic to its impact on adults. However much an addiction it is, is always our choice and to say that poor us has been duped by capitalists is going too far the leftist view. Of course, companies should do their best to maximise customer interest in their product ; the minute you stop this, you will never have the Twitter you like so much. We will be left only with North Korean Television.

Where I am more worried is the impact on children. In the product world we have strict laws relating to potentially addictive products - tobacco, liquor, for example are strictly regulated when it comes to minors. But technology and children have become the Wild Wild West. Its not easy to regulate this, but we are not even trying. Therein, I submit, lies the greatest risks.

Sriram Khé said...

"not easy to regulate this, but we are not even trying" ... perhaps because it is next to impossible to regulate the new tech and the apps. Regulations in response will take a while, before which a gazillion new addicting apps will be launched. Talk about a hydra-headed monster!!!

Which means, we are screwed, my friend.

We can/should perhaps be ready for a lot more agitated people, who will then tend to rely on medications or legal and illegal intoxicants in order to try to escape from the world of tech dependency? Hello, ayahuasca!

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