Professor Adam Alter is a psychologist. He specialises in investigating how people spend their time and how they are affected by technology’s emotionless/relentless grip on our time, attention, and minds. He made three discoveries, each more interesting than the last.
The first is that we’re hooked on screens: since the introduction of the iPhone, we have started to use up almost all of our free time looking at glowing screens and tapping things on them. And statistically, the less time you spend interacting with a screen, the happier you get.
The second thing he learnt is that we use screens for stuff that make us happy (like exercise, reading, or educational apps) three times less than things that are proven to make us less happy (gaming, news, dating and social media apps, etc.) The latter apps play directly to our fears of FOMO, loneliness, and social inadequacy and they don’t tell us to stop using them. And we’re really bad at stopping using them.
The third thing he found out was that the people who make the tech that we’re addicted to and makes us unhappy already know the first two things and thus “don't use their own products.”
Silicon Valley high-flyer Athena Chavarria, who works at the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, puts it more hysterically: “I am convinced the devil lives in our phones and is wreaking havoc on our children.” Fun Fact: The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative is the philanthropic project of Priscilla Chan and Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook. Facebook owns Instagram. Users spend, on average, 53 minutes a day on the Android Instagram app.
Silicon Valley might care about its darling offspring, but it doesn’t seem to give a hoot about us, the dumbo drones who poke mindlessly at our screens waiting for enlightenment as our happiness slowly draining away. At this point, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the outlook for us screen-addled humans is a bit grim.
Tristan Harris, Co-founder of the Center for Humane Technology, describes our phones in a terrifying way: as “a slot machine… that several billion people have their pocket.” When we absent-mindedly refresh email, swipe on tinder or scroll on Instagram, we’re popping a coin in the slot and pulling the lever to see if three cherries pop up in a row.
It’s a compelling revelation and it fits with most people’s nervous-habit smartphone use. And while occasional gambling gives little bursts of happiness, consistent use almost always results in long-term unhappiness. Does that sound like any app you use?
White Punks On Dope
Dopamine Labs was “a controversial California startup that promises to significantly increase the rate at which people use any running, diet or game app.” Snapshots of the company’s old website from 2016 reveal that it offered products to “make your app habit-forming” which would help you “lock-in a habit user,” because “we’re literally an API for Dopamine… Hooking your users.”
Only you, dear reader, can judge how language like “habit-forming,” “lock-in a user,” and “hooking your users” makes you feel, but either way, gird your loins for the Pivot To End All Pivots: Dopamine Labs is now called Boundless Mind, a company that is “helping change human behavior for the better” by learning how people’s minds work - and then giving users the “reward” they want.
Boundless Mind’s site is splashed with eyebrow-raising concepts like Behavioural Engineering, which promises that “THE BRAIN IS PROGRAMMABLE… Predictably change your users' behaviour using real-time Persuasive AI Engines.” Presumably it’s the technology and the intent behind it which is different to that of Dopamine Labs’, and not merely the wording of the sales pitch.
But the clear takeaway is that there’s gold in them thar thrills, and app makers are willing to pay big bucks to a company that can “change the… behaviors, beliefs, and being” of it’s users and keep ‘em hooked on their screens.
That said, Ramsey Brown, co-founder of Boundless Mind, is altruistic in his ambitions, and acknowledges that people feel icky about things like, erm, mind control. He’s at pains to point out the positive use of his tech: “What if we sell you those mind-control tools to help people get off opioids? Or to communicate with each other on a more meaningful level?” And surely we can all agree on that.
He also says that the company has turned down opportunities to work with gambling companies and freemium game apps, who wanted to train their users to use their apps (and, presumably, spend) more. While this is extremely admirable, it does also kind-of make his company the arbiter of which technology does and does not intend to secretly make us chemically addicted to it.
At this point you might want to ask yourself: who knows best what will make me happy - me, the person who’s locked in here with my brain, or a company that wants to make money out of my subconscious actions? Do I want to allow myself to be manipulated by a learning AI that knows how to make me do things before even I know that I want to do them?
These, friends, are reasonable questions.
It’s possible, of course, to exist in 2018 while barely touching or looking at a screen. We all know That One Guy who insists on using a dumbphone and to whom you need to relay, via SMS, the details of a get-together that has been painstakingly arranged via WhatsApp with everyone else. So has That Guy got it right all along?
Short answer: yes. Long answer: probably, yes.
So what should we do about all this? Screens are making us unhappy, and the apps on them are making us addicted to screens. Whoops! Reducing your screen time is a good and stupefyingly obvious place to start: the simplest route to freeing up the mental space you hadn’t realised you’d lost.
MONTAG’s Hot Tips For Resisting Screen Temptation:
Oscar Wilde said “I can resist everything except temptation,” and it applies to all of us: we can’t drag ourselves away from the apps on our phones. It’s almost as if they have been designed to keep us psychologically addicted! Here’s MONTAG’s hot-hot-hot guide to putting the phone down and reclaiming your life:
1) When you get home from work/the pub/the whatever, immediately put your phone on silent mode.
2) Put the phone in a drawer of a cupboard so the screen can’t beckon you, siren-like, to its colourful morass of notifications.
3) Put the cupboard into a space rocket.
4) Stand back a safe distance.
5) Fire the rocket directly into the moon.
6) Relax, open a book or knit, or do woodwork, or whatever, and luxuriate in the weird… soothing… ancient… calm that almost instantly floods your life when you’re not constantly on edge, waiting to tap a colourful square on a small screen.
7) Buy a dumbphone and get used to telling friends that the reason you weren’t at that party last weekend was because you didn’t see it on Facebook.
If this plan seems a little complex or expensive, feel free to skip points #3, 4, 5 and 7 - but be aware that, on your death bed, you *will* fully regret not going the whole hog.
Screen If You Want To Go Faster
There are other ways to avoid screens. Some are about embracing lo-fi tech to combat the rectangular menace. MONTAG has marvelled before at the IRL Glasses, specially polarised sunglasses modelled on those in classic Sci-Fi flick They Live which instantly block all screens… except your phone. Hmm.
Alternatively, you can stop yourself being tempted to look at your pocket-screen in the first place. Clothing from Unpocket’s “1984 collection” contains a Faraday Cage in the form of a “stealth pocket made from police-grade shielding fabrics that securely block all Cell, WiFi, GPS and RFID signals” - into which you can pop your phone, safe in the knowledge that nothing will cause it to chirrup due to a notification.
Better still, why not remove yourself from the problem entirely? “Tech-free safaris” in South Africa are priced at $1000 a day, and promise utter luxury without a screen in sight. It’s eye-wateringly expensive and MONTAG’s intergalactic approach might be more cost effective: a swift calculation reveals that, if the cost of firing 1Kg of matter into space via Space X’s Falcon 9 rocket costs $4640, then to pop your 174g iPhone X aboard would cost a piffling $807.36 - less that one night on a tech-free safari, and a thousand times more satisfying, not to say explosive.
The above do feel like extreme responses (some more so than others). Real progress might lie in something rather prosaic, and a thousand times harder: using deliberate self-control to quietly, effectively brings back the happiness that has been nullified by screens. The dreadful truth is that training yourself to mindfully put down the phone or look away from the screen and to engage with books, friends and hobbies is the only real way to bring the happiness back that screens have sapped. But it will.
And there’s one other really important reason to start tearing your eyes away from the addictive rectangles. Boundless Mind’s mind-hooking tech is now ready to be used in VR and AR technology to make sure that the things users see floating in front of them is “what they want.” Facebook is one of the major players in VR/AR. If Facebook could seamlessly and “predictably change your behaviour” using AR content right in front of your eyeballs, what do you guess they would do with that power? And would it really make you happier? How would you know?
Now please, close this browser window and go read a book. But you won’t, will you…