In a fantastic two-part series, Judy Estrin breaks down “Authoritarian Technology,” detailing how we developed such an unhealthy relationship with our digital devices and what we can do to make things better in the future.
The underlying theme of the first part, “Authoritarian Technology: Attention!”, is how tech companies are taking advantage of psychology to highjack our attention to increase their profits. This progression is often slow and insidious, and before we know it, we’re hooked…
We have a natural desire to avoid pain and discomfort; we choose ease of use even when we know the downsides for ourselves and our environment. We give up power, privacy, and agency to make it easier to login, shop, connect, or make decisions as to what to read, watch, buy, or vote on. Quickly we become dependent on features that we didn’t know we needed.
The result of this isn’t just that we cede control of our well being to a few companies that are mostly concerned with keeping our attention in order to serve us more ads. We become addicts, constantly stimulated by the devices on our desks and in our pockets, unable to bear even a moment of boredom.
In order to connect with our inner lives in a healthy way we must to be willing and able to tolerate uncomfortable feelings without immediately seeking distraction or escape.
The first time I made a plan to limit my phone use was an unmitigated disaster. Until that time, I hadn’t realized that everything about the apps I was using were designed to keep me engaged with them throughout the day, regardless of whether or not this made me happy.
If you’ve ever lost your phone or gone without it for a few days, this becomes apparent very quickly. The first day is unbearable. You feel like you’re missing out on everything: the urgent emails, the family emergencies, the invitations, and your favorite podcast. Checking your laptop at the end of the day, you realize you didn’t miss out on much. The next day is easier, as you start to enjoy the absence of push notifications, Trump tweets, and actually find the time to read that book that’s been on your shelf for years. By day three, you’re as relaxed as you can ever remember being and seeking out more face to face interactions to get your social updates.
Then you get your phone back. Having seen the light, you consider tossing it out the window to continue enjoying the peaceful feelings you experienced over the last 24 hours. I’ll do it! You think. Right after I get on Facebook and let everyone know I’ve got my phone back. And just like that the cycle continues.
After trying to make a change and failing, we beat ourselves up for not being able to resist the lure of our devices. But as Estrin points out, this is how they’re designed…
Incessant notifications, scrolling timelines, and brightly colored games hijack our brain chemicals, much in the same way a narcotic or sugar does, ensuring our maximum attention and use.
So, outside of relinquishing all of our material possessions and moving to an ashram in India, what can we do?
In part 2, “Authoritarian Technology: Reclaiming Control,” Estrin presents a multi-dimensional framework for action that, among other things, includes empowering people with information, protecting the vulnerable, and establishing a field of research to provide understanding of the byproducts of technological innovation.
Empowering people means getting to them when they’re young and most receptive to hearing new information. One way we could do this is to change the curriculum of students.
The curriculum should go beyond teaching coding or using PowerPoint. It should also include subjects like why one might want to turn off notifications, etiquette for sharing articles, dealing with online bullying, basic security practices.
In a perfect world, the tech companies will do their part by prioritizing the needs of the people over their own profit, but Estrin knows this is unlikely. Instead, she argues that we should work toward incremental change. Some of the proposed changes she has seem more likely than others.
With the current uproar around all the data these companies are collecting, I can see them becoming more transparent in the future. But, and it’s a big BUT, I believe they’ll only do this if they’re told they have to (new laws) or if they believe doing so is better (more profitable in the long run) for them as a company than the alternative.
Other changes seem less likely, such as limiting the amount of engagements on a post in order to slow down its virality by making people think longer about whether they should be sharing it or not. To me, this seems like giving Vicodin to a heroin addict. It might keep them from going through withdrawals for 30 minutes, but they’re going to keep hunting for a bigger fix, and someone will be there willing to provide it.
On the surface, it seems the most likely catalyst for immediate change would be government regulation. Maybe in the future our iPhone will come with the warning: Many apps are designed to be addictive, hijacking your attention and leading to a myopic worldview, increased anxiety and depression and an overly egocentric attitude.
Considering how much money the tech companies have to pay lobbyists to advocate on their behalf, this seems highly unlikely to happen anytime soon. After all, as liberal as Silicon Valley appears, the American Dream tech founders are chasing is still built on the premise that “success” is measured most often in monetary gain.
In my opinion, the catalyst to change our obsession with technology and indifference to its calamitous effects will occur through quantitative research. Estrin argues for an entire new field of research to be developed.
Actions must be informed by data — not tech optimism or panic.
I believe this is slowly happening and offers the highest potential for mitigating the negative aspects of addictive technology. Seeing Media Psychology offered as a doctorate program at Stanford gives me hope for the future.
For now, we should all aim to increase our self-awareness around the tech we use by continually asking ourselves questions.
- Am I happier after scrolling through social media or might the notifications and colorful buttons just be manipulating my brain the same way drugs do?
- Did I make the choice to pull out my phone, or is it unlocked and on an app before I realize I’ve even reached for it?
- Is liking photos and re-tweeting and posting pictures the best use of my limited time, or might reading that book I’ve put off lead to a more fulfilling life?
Until we start to take some personal responsibility and demand change with our pocketbooks, corporations with hidden agendas will continue to deny or downplay the negative aspects of digital technology and promote its positive benefits. Thankfully, there are brilliant and powerful people like Judy Estrin increasingly advocating for change on all of our behalf. It’ll be slow, but I for one am looking forward to the day when more of my decisions are made by me.