Hacked to Distract

Are big tech companies getting us addicted to our phones on purpose?

Every morning when I wake up, the first thing I do is shut off my alarm and check my notifications. If any news articles catch my eye, then I check them out. Otherwise, I immediately check Instagram to see how many likes I got overnight. (This is not my personal Instagram. I run a “bookstagram” where I write and review about books.) I have been in this habit all summer, but since it is my “business,” I don’t see an issue. As I get ready for the day I am scrolling, I am listening to an audiobook, and I feel quite productive. My only problem? If I have a day off, I find myself doing this until noon — and I wake up at 8 am. There seems to be a bottomless pit of content, and I can never get to the end. I just recently found out why. 

This week I read some very fascinating articles that make me want to throw my phone out a window. For one thing, tech insiders are beginning to highlight the dangers of phone addiction (Lewis, 2017). Paul Lewis, the author of this Guardian article, interviewed several tech giants to get their perspective on the new technology revolution. They all express a heavy warning about cellphone usage. They exclaim that engineers specifically code their platforms to ensure that you come back to them (Lewis, 2017). Overall, the engineers are trying to come up with ways to keep you addicted to your phone. When I was reading, all I could think about was that I was one of those addicts. But that wasn’t the most alarming part of the article. The author made some excellent points about how social media is affecting our society as a whole (Lewis, 2017). It’s no secret that social media played a role in the recent election. But can we take a second to point out that social media is so prominent that it influences our politics? Let’s not even get started on how social media impacts our economy. There are now hundreds of social media influencers all around the world, getting paid full-time to advertise products on social media. Now image if social media were to be removed from our society.

Lewis emphasizes that it could cause a dystopia. Now that we have lived with social media for so long, there is no going back. According to Lewis, that’s why prominent tech executives are making so much money. It all comes from ad revenue.

According to this CBS article, social media platforms are trying to keep you addicted to your phone. How do they do that? According to the article, third party companies take your data and use it for experiments. They do this to create a better “user experience” (“What is Brain Hacking,” 2017). If you ask me, it is so creepy. They look at your search history and what trends you like (“What is Brain Hacking,” 2017). Then they take that information and deliver ads that will interest you (“What is Brain Hacking,” 2017). But in doing that, they are preventing you from seeing a variety of different products. These companies are creating an illusion. You think you are choosing what you see on social media, but you don’t. 

Who is in control here? I want to say that I get to choose who I follow and what content I see, but I now know that is not true. I used to think social media was a chance for a person to express their individuality, but now that feels like a lie too. With information from the article above, I now know there is an algorithm that chooses the products that I see (“What is Brain Hacking,” 2017). According to this Washington Post article, companies like Facebook purposely surrounds us with content that interests us. Since we see posts and ads that inspire us, we keep coming back for more

These social media companies are the reason that as a society, we are starting to develop smartphone-related anxiety (Foer, 2017). Do you ever feel a burning sensation to check your phone? You are not alone. 

“What we find is the typical person checks their phone every 15 minutes or less and half of the time they check their phone there is no alert, no notification. It’s coming from inside their head telling them, ‘Gee, I haven’t checked in to Facebook in a while, I haven’t checked on this Twitter feed for a while. I wonder if somebody commented on my Instagram post’. That then generates cortisol, and it starts to make you anxious. And eventually, your goal is to get rid of that anxiety, so you check-in.”

— Larry Rosen, 60-minutes interview with Anderson Cooper

Phone-induced anxiety is a thing. According to a Psychology Today article, there are now national help centers that people can go it if they have a problem. So after seeing headlines of how detrimental social media and smartphone can be, you would think we would see a small shift in their overall usage. Not yet. 

Now we know about the consumers of social media, but what about inside these companies? How are they coming up with these ideas? Cal Newport, the author of Deep Work, explains how some of these tech offices work. First, he explains that most of these companies are now exploring open floor plans. These public spaces allow for employees to talk and communicate with one another to come up with new ideas (Newport, 2018). Next, if employees wish to avoid face-to-face communication, then they can use Instant Messaging (IM) to get information they need almost immediately (Newport, 2018). Lastly, he explains that big companies are demanding that their employees have a strong social media presence (Newport, 2018). You would think this is a fine idea because of how accessible social media is, but when the employees are spending hours a day engaging, they are just wasting time — and money too. 

According to Newport, Tom Cochran, the owner of Atlantic Media, experimented within his own company. He found out that he was spending over one million dollars a year just to pay his employees to send emails (Newport, 2018). Although Cochran’s idea was innovative, it is complicated to measure an employee’s value to a company. Newport explains the concept as The Metric Black Hole (Newport, 2018).

This hole then leads to another concept. If employees notice that so many people are sending emails instead of doing work, then they are going to do that too. This attitude sets the expectation bar lower and lower. Eventually, employees come to the Principle of Least Resistance (Newport, 2018). Without anyone to call them on it, these employees are going to do the least amount of work to get paid. Who could blame them? If I were getting underpaid to complete a hard job, I wouldn’t want to give 100% either. 

The big issue is that this is creating a lazy work environment. With being encouraged to talk all the time, continually messaging people, and updating social media, it’s no wonder that they end up producing easy, shallow work. Not only is there little work getting done, but there is a busyness as a proxy for productivity (Newport, 2018).

I fall victim to this all the time. Since I spend hours on social media, liking, and posting, at the end of the day, I feel productive. Since there is a lot of proof that I have engaged in a lot of content, I feel like I have done a lot of work. But, on the grand scale of things, what have I actually accomplished? Did I get more followers to my blog? Are more people reading my reviews? Often, the answer is no, so why do I keep doing it? 

Who is coming up with these ideas to keep us hooked? Who is doing the hard, deep work? Newport suggests that it is not the people sitting in the open floor plans, but the people sitting in isolation. The people that are comfortable within their own thoughts end up controlling ours. They are coming up with these ideas and concepts through deep work (Newport, 2018). So how do we stop being an average office robot? To get individuality back, Newport suggests you got to stand out from the crowd. Take time to come up with ideas and don’t be afraid to put the phone away for a couple of hours. By putting yourself in a distraction-free environment, then you are more likely to come up with more significant and deeper ideas. 

Every week I am slowly awakening to the dangers of my phone. I am also asking more questions. Will I have a high risk of a heart attack when I am older because I didn’t get over 200 likes on my Instagram photo? I now know that I am not nearly in control of my social media usage as I thought I was. A lot of the articles I was reading sounded like the concept of the Netflix hit show Black Mirror. *Fade in “Anyone Who Knows What Love Is” performed by Irma Thomas.* (The overall idea for each episode is that technology will one day be society’s downfall.) If tech insiders, the people running social media, are warning us about phone addiction, then I think we should heed their advice. 

Before you go:

If you are curious, find out if you are addicted to your phone by clicking on the following link. Enjoy!

Quiz

Notes:

References:

Foer, F. (2017, September 8). How Silicon Valley is erasing your individuality. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/how-silicon-valley-is-erasing-your-individuality/2017/09/08/a100010a-937c-11e7-aace-04b862b2b3f3_story.html

Lewis, P. (2017, October 6). ‘Our minds can be hijacked’: the tech insiders who fear a smartphone dystopia. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2017/oct/05/smartphone-addiction-silicon-valley-dystopia

Maxwell, R., & Miller, T. (2019, March 6). Can You Live Without Your Smartphone? Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/greening-the-media/201903/can-you-live-without-your-smartphone

Newport, Cal. (2018). Chapter 2: Deep Work Is Rare. In Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World (pp. 59-82). New York, NY. Grand Central Publishing.

(2017, April 9). What is “brain hacking”? Tech insiders on why you should care. Retrieved from https://www.cbsnews.com/news/brain-hacking-tech-insiders-60-minutes/

(2019, September 4). Quiz: How Addicted Are You To Your Phone? Retrieved from https://www.amexessentials.com/cell-phone-addiction-quiz/

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