The Coupé Against Technology: Taking back control of our devices

By Jessica Kirby, Senior Editor of TheGreenGazette

Technology’s draw is undeniably changing the way we live, love, work, interact, and hunker down in privacy. Social media, apps, and various devices have their own language, rules, and etiquette, and their ubiquitous use demands change in our homes, workplaces, and personal lives. We create space and time for things meant to grant us more time and space, and our thoughts, feelings, and brain chemistry are adapting to the fast-moving, instant gratification they provide. The last remaining hold-outs are laughed at and called Luddites (after someone googles Luddites and argues for 15 minutes on Facebook with a guy on another continent about whether “Neo-Luddite” or “subhuman” is a better term) and it is arguably worse to be someone who has a cellphone but only uses it for making actual phone calls—the horror.

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Illustration: www.clipartfest.com

But whether we shun, use, or obsess over technology, there is no doubt technology is here to stay. The responsible use pendulum has swung from total abstinence to complete immersion and is beginning to settle somewhere in the middle, at a place where people are not willing to give up their devices, but also beginning to question the efficacy of obsession and look for ways to live comfortably with technology, without the drain on brain power and compulsion.

Tristan Harris is co-founder of Time Well Spent—a Silicon Valley advocacy group that aims to empower technology users and convince technology companies to help users disengage more freely from their devices, the addictive nature of which the group says is a serious design flaw.

Like with any addiction, will power is the key to unlocking the compulsion that drives users to look at their devices up to 150 times a day; however, Harris points to the way apps and websites are designed to tap into the part of the brain vulnerable to addiction. The “itch,” he says, is the result of a thousand people on the other side of our screens engineering apps that will get us scrolling, reading, and clicking our way to keeping developers in business. Harris calls this contest for our attention a “race to the bottom of the brain stem,” and says technology is better designed to control us than we are at controlling it.

Time Well Spent is advocating for a Hippocratic oath for software companies that would eliminate the exposure or exploitation of psychological vulnerabilities in app development and restore control to users. Though Harris’ organization isn’t the first to study the science and publically declare the need for such change, it is the first to quantify the social and psychological cost and suggest a tangible solution—a new design standard not based on exploiting addictive qualities.

Harris’ ethical code of conduct for developers would look something like this: its first and foremost objective would be respect for the application user. Designers would have to re-envision their metrics for success to include a socially responsible and respectful approach to engagement. Rather than adhere to the science of hooking the brain, ethical apps would allow, teach, and encourage us to have boundaries around our technology use.

The current dogma governing communication, social media, and lifestyle apps capitalizes on a fool-proof “gamification” model that is infiltrating everything from restaurant apps to adult education courses. A successful app, that is, one that capitalizes on the “attention economy,” is typically made up of challenging but achievable “levels,” constant feedback, recognizable and relatable sounds and objects to stimulate the senses, and an infinite amount of possibility for further achievement. Every time we hear a tone, feel a buzz, win another virtual trophy, or gain approval from a like or share, the tiny thrill releases dopamine in the brain, which feeds our addiction centres.

Think about it: Facebook demands immediate feedback and a sense of social reciprocity by rewarding users with likes and comments, and deepens psychological engagement with features like allowing users to see when someone has read their message. SnapChat takes this feature a step further, informing users when someone they’ve messaged starts writing a reply, hanging an anti-social cloud over anyone who doesn’t finish a message they started.

Harris’ vision suggests time, attention, and effort regulation that doesn’t succumb to this cycle, such as the ability to set a daily limit for checking email, and the ability to budget and monitor one’s time in cyberspace. In fact, any application should help us see how we use our time—imagine a phone that keeps track of how many times we’ve “woken it up” in the last six hours.

Since focus is such an important part of how we use technology – it can take up to 25 minutes to recover our focus after a three-second distraction – such a code suggests the ability for inboxes to hold back incoming mail for a specific amount of time, or a similar function on messenger apps.

If Time Well Spent takes off, developers could work towards a “rating” or certification of the same name that would let the world know it was created with the user’s health, productivity, and sense of autonomy in mind.

Until Harris and others like him drum up enough support to take the app development market past the tipping point and into the realm of respecting users, there are a few ways to self-administer technology moderation. The most logical place to start is to turn off notifications when in certain situations—at a restaurant, during family time, during meetings. When circumstances don’t allow a complete blackout, says Time Well Spent’s website, consider setting custom vibrations for things like text messages so you can “feel” when it is a human calling and answer if necessary.

WR-device-control2 Think about how you order the apps on your smartphone. Simply viewing an icon or logo can trigger a whole series of specific thoughts and feelings, so keeping the main screen for single function programs like your GPS app or a calculator reduces habitual behaviour.

Harris recommends burying time sucking apps like Facebook and SnapChat into folders on your phone’s second home screen or further. He also launches these apps using the search function rather than by icon, reducing the impulsive tapping habit and leaving time to pause for thought.

Buy a real alarm clock and charge phones outside the bedroom to reduce or eliminate time spent on the phone before you even roll out of bed. In fact, charging your phone in an out of the way place can further reduce distraction as you are not using it while it charges.

However you choose to reclaim your time and attention, the moment to revisit the art of conversation, take back the right to eye contact, and experience life beyond the screen is now. Technology has brought a great deal of convenience to our lives, not to mention mobility (as a self-employed freelance writer and mother of two outdoorsy and athletic kids, ask me how I know this) so it is only logical that we find a way to capitalize on the benefits and take back our lives. Eventually the Luddites (Neo- and otherwise) may join us, as will our children and their children—let’s hope we have a solid, moderate example to share with them when the time comes.

 

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