Why technology’s makers don’t want to be its users.

You know that part in the movie, when the protagonist is served food or drink by someone who clearly won’t touch it themselves? We all know what comes next if the protagonist actually consumes it.  Something very bad will happen to them. 

This warning sign could be applied to other scenarios. Imagine if you had an architect design a house for you but they refused to enter it when it was complete. Would you be hesitant or nervous about living there? I think some would find that concerning and look for ways to validate the safety and integrity of their new home.

Let’s consider yet another situation. What if the people who design social media went on record saying it “exploits human vulnerability” and “you don't realize it but you are being programmed"? Does that raise any concerns for you? If so, how much? Enough to make you rethink your use of social media?

This last situation isn’t one I made up. There have been numerous tech insiders who have gone public over the past few years, expressing their concerns about the use of social media. Many are calling out the dangers for children specifically, saying things like “god only knows what it’s doing to our children’s brains” and that they “…won’t let children use that shit.

The people speaking out are those who have designed, engineered and marketed social media. They understand how it works and the purpose behind it all—to turn our time and attention into revenue. They didn’t set out to create something harmful but, as Justin Rosenstein (former Google and FB engineer) said, “It is very common for humans to develop things with the best of intentions and for them to have unintended, negative consequences.” He should know.

Not only are these insiders talking about their concerns, they are actually doing something about it. They are taking measure to wean themselves from the very technology they helped create. Some are imposing time limits while other are switching to a ‘dumb phone.’ Besides protecting themselves, they are also protecting their family by limiting their screen time or sending their kids to schools where devices are banned. In the case of Nir Eyal, who teaches tech folks how to create habit-forming products, he uses a timer to cut off Internet access to his home during specific hours. This is a man who said “The idea is to remember that we are not powerless. We are in control.” I don’t know about you but that doesn’t sound like the behavior of someone in control to me.

But all these warning signs seem to be lost on most people, as the use of social media continues to expand. The most popular social network, Facebook grows every quarter, reaching 2.07 billion monthly active users in Q3 2017. Instagram monthly active users doubled over the past two years, totaling 800 million in September 2017. And both Twitter and Snapchat have over 300 million monthly active users. Is it that the warnings aren’t being heard or those hearing don’t believe or, worst case, they heard and believed but can’t seem to stop themselves?

I hope that these messages are getting through and that, at minimum, they cause people to question their use of social media, the benefits and potential dangers. For me, it’s like a good piece of dark chocolate or a nice glass of wine. A little is a good thing but too much and I end up regretting my indulgence. So, I spent the last year building healthy tech habits that allow me to maintain control of my time and attention. It’s not always easy but it’s well worth it. After all, who wants to be powerless?

 

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