Technology: Trickster, Tyrant, or just a Tool?
Professor of political science, statistics, and computer science Edward Tufte gives a chilling description of our relationship with technology when he claims that, “There are only two industries that refer to their customers as 'users': illegal drugs and software.”
Being considered a “user” of anything brings up complicated emotions. My first thoughts jump to the movie Tron. But once I realize that I won’t be entering a parallel, digital world nor will I be racing around on a light-cycle, I can consider the real implications of Edward Tufte’s remark.
It is an inflammatory statement but one that we all know to be true. He intentionally meant to elicit an emotional reaction by likening software, and more specifically mobile software and social media, to harmful, addictive drugs. In that connotation, a user is someone whose free will and personal agency are taken over, at least in part, by the substance. Anyone who has been lost in an infinite scroll understands this comparison.
My second and more sober reaction is, “well sure, but I use lots of things: power tools, my chef’s knife, this mouse and keyboard, and this coffee mug.” User also means, quite literally, someone who uses something. The reason that Tufte’s comparison feels so troubling is that it reflects something that we all seem to feel in varying degrees about our smartphones and social media—we are dependent (even addicted) and they have made a negative impact on our lives. Sure, they perform amazing tasks for us, but they have also begun to creep into areas of our lives we’d rather they never touch. As users, we’ve come to feel more like the used.
Netflix recently released a new documentary called The Social Dilemma. It features Tristan Harris, co-founder of The Center for Humane Technology, and many other former Silicon Valley players who tell a chilling story of the effects that social media has on our psyche, and thus, our lives. The documentary paints a grim picture. We see studies about the effect that social media has on our attention, political polarization, emotional states, and purchasing habits. We hear firsthand accounts from former engineers and executives about their intentions as they designed key features, such as the “Like” button and infinite scroll. While the overall message insists that social media is not all bad, we cannot help but come away with a sense that these platforms have already grown too large, that we are powerless to reclaim our old life, or that we can even remember what our “old life” felt like.
The pervasive, and frankly scary, lessons from this documentary are not foregone conclusions. As I come down from my “sky is falling” first impressions, I’m struck by the fact that many of the problems they outlined do not affect me personally because of the restrictions that I’ve put on my use. I’m also struck by the obvious hypocrisy of Netflix, a platform that utilizes auto-play and “recommended” videos, two features that the documentary criticizes.
However, beneath the scary tactics for entertainment value, there is an important lesson—we, that is the individual users of social media, are not the consumers, we are the product. Social media platforms rake in billions of dollars each year, yet these services remain completely free for us, the users. The profits come from advertisers. Their business models began relatively innocent—sell advertisers simple access to the vast sea of people on their platforms. Even under this benign first iteration, the advertisers are the customers and we are the product. But as in any market, profit incentives drive the need to build a superior product and capture a larger portion of the market share. Their market share is your attention and screen-time. A superior product to compete for advertisers is the company’s ability to influence your behavior better than any other. So while these platforms continue to roll out features with the ostensive goal to “improve” our lives, their economic incentive dictates that they invent methods to pull us into their service, keep us scrolling, and influence our behavior and purchasing habits while we’re there.
“You are free to choose, but you are not free from the consequences of your choices.”
Whether we are willing to admit it or not, most of us have allowed our phones to become a second brain, or perhaps an alien appendage that has tapped into and taken over our first brain. We find ourselves scrolling for 20 minutes but can’t remember why we even picked up our phone in the first place. Most likely, we didn’t “decide” to use our phone at all but were called in from some meaningless notification.
This is not a reason to delete all of your accounts and move to a remote cabin (although how great does that sound?). Social media can improve our lives, but we can only have a healthy relationship with it when we realize that its deepest financial commitment is not to our personal betterment. The services remain free and the companies continue to thrive based on their ability to coerce and control our behavior. Knowing this going in helps you to better navigate these dangerous waters.
There are tons of tips and tricks to combat “smartphone addiction.” You can turn your screen to greyscale to render photos and videos less appealing, uninstall the most addictive apps (especially social media), turn off all notifications, and set daily limits on apps and websites that typically pull you in. These are helpful methods (and I use them all), but they are meaningless without a fundamental shift in how you think of your phone.
Creating a healthy relationship with your smartphone and social media means using them as tools. This might seem obvious, but consider the relationship that you have with the non-digital tools in your life. My pen doesn’t send me frequent notifications to get me to pick it up. My screwdrivers aren’t designed to give me a continual dopamine hit if I twist them indefinitely. My BBQ doesn’t give me a score of how many consecutive days I’ve grilled. A tool helps me perform a specific task and lays inert when not in use. It doesn’t call me to pick it up. I decide, as an autonomous, free-thinking human being, what tasks need to be done, and how to use my tools to accomplish them. A smartphone or social media account with default settings hardly fits this definition of a tool.
The Social Dilemma is a captivating film in a Dateline NBC, dystopian future, doom-and-gloom-porn kind of way. It’s chilling and accurate and I recommend that everyone watch it to learn the specific tactics that apps and platforms use to manipulate behavior. Seeing behind the curtain goes a long way. But also remember that these giant tech companies are not all-powerful overlords yet. Let’s keep it that way. We still have agency in our relationship with our phones.
Whatever methods you use to accomplish it, remain a simple user not one of the used. Do not allow your phone or any app to make decisions for you. Do not allow notifications to pull you into use. While online, do not follow any “recommended” or auto-play content. Your phone is a tool, you decide when, how, and how much to use it.