In a tech-ubiquitous world, I fear our reality is becoming more “tech” and less “world.” But how do you fight that? Well, if you’re recent college grad Kendall Marianacci, you ditch your phone and move to Nepal. In that process she learned that “paying attention to the life in front of you opens a new world.”
In a recent post, on Noteworthy, she reflected on lessons learned by truly getting off the grid: “Not having any distractions of a phone and being immersed in this different world, I had to pay more attention to my surroundings. I took walks every day just to explore. I went out of my way to meet new people and ask them questions about their lives. When this became the norm, I realized I was living for one of the first times of my life. I was not in my own head distracted by where I was going and what I needed to do. I was just being. I was present and welcoming to the moment. I was compassionate and throwing myself into life with whoever was around me.”
It's sad and a little shocking that we have to go to such extremes to realize how much of our world can be obscured by a five-inch screen. Where did tech that was supposed to make our lives better go off the rails? And was the derailment intentional?
“Absolutely,” says Jesse Weaver, a product designer. In a post on Medium.com, he lays out -- in alarming terms -- our tech dependency and the trade-off we’re agreeing to: “The digital world, as we’ve designed it, is draining us. The products and services we use are like needy friends: desperate and demanding.
"Yet we can’t step away. We’re in a codependent relationship. Our products never seem to have enough, and we’re always willing to give a little more. They need our data, files, photos, posts, friends, cars, and houses. They need every second of our attention.
"We’re willing to give these things to our digital products because the products themselves are so useful. Product designers are experts at delivering utility. “
But are they? Yes, there is utility here, but it’s wrapped in a thick layer of addiction. What product designers are really good at is fostering addiction by dangling a carrot of utility.
And, as Weaver points out, we often mistake utility for empowerment, “Empowerment means becoming more confident, especially in controlling our own lives and asserting our rights. That is not technology’s current paradigm. Quite often, our interactions with these useful products leave us feeling depressed, diminished, and frustrated,” he writes.
That’s not just Weaver’s opinion. A new study backs it up with empirical evidence. The Center for Humane Technology partnered with Moment, a screen time tracking app, to ask "how much screen time in apps left people feeling happy, and how much time left them in regret.”
According to 200,000 iPhone users, here are the apps that make people happiest:
That’s three meditative apps, three utilitarian apps, one fitness app, one entertainment app and two apps that help you broaden your intellectual horizons. If you are talking human empowerment -- according to Weaver’s definition -- you could do a lot worse than this round-up.
But here were the apps that left their users with a feeling of regret:
Even more interesting is what the average time spent is for these apps. For the first group, the average daily usage was nine minutes. For the regret group, the average daily time spent was 57 minutes!
We feel better about apps that do their job, add something to our lives and then let us get on with living that life. What we hate are time sucks that may offer a kernel of functionality wrapped in an interface that ensnares us like a digital spider web.
The Center for Humane Technology, headed by ex-Googler Tristan Harris, aims to encourage designers and developers to create apps that move “away from technology that extracts attention and erodes society, towards technology that protects our minds and replenishes society.”
That all sounds great, but what does it really mean for you and me and everybody else that hasn’t moved to Nepal? It all depends on what revenue model is driving development of these apps and platforms. If it is anything that depends on advertising -- in any form -- don’t count on any nobly intentioned shifts in design direction anytime soon. More likely, it will mean some half-hearted attempts to placate you, like Apple’s new Screen Time warning that pops up on your phone every Sunday, giving you the illusion of control over your behavior.
Why an illusion? Because things like Apple’s Screen Time are great for our pre-frontal cortex, the intent-driven part of our rational brain that puts our best intentions forward. They’re not so good for our lizard brain, which subconsciously drives us to play Candy Crush and swipe our way through Tinder. And when it comes to addiction, the lizard brain has been on a winning streak for most of the history of mankind. I don’t like our odds.
The developers' escape hatch is always the same: They’re giving us control. It’s our own choice, and freedom of choice is always a good thing.
But there's an unstated deception here. It’s the same lie that Mark Zuckerberg told last Wednesday when he laid out the privacy-focused future of Facebook. He said he’s putting us in control. But he’s not.
What he’s doing is making us feel better about spending more time on Facebook. And that’s exactly the problem. The less we worry about the time we spend on Facebook, the less we will think about it at all. The less we think about it, the more time we will spend. And the more time we spend, the more we will regret it afterwards.
If that doesn’t seem like an addictive cycle, I’m not sure what does.