An in-depth analysis on what technology is doing to us
On December 31, 2019, an old friend of mine and I met at a newly opened snack bar (a small informal restaurant, where small and fast meals can be eaten or bought to take away) in Bertoua for a little chitchat. In the course of our interaction, I observed a sense of unease on her part – she was divided between enjoying our little chitchat and sharing it with the world. She found herself in a hypothetical conundrum on whom to satisfy, was it me –her sole interlocutor or was it them – the virtual audience. After the mental tug-of-war, she chose them over me, she uploaded some pictures of our encounter and instantly a tsunami of comments (appreciations, questions and disses) followed. These were statements like: “wow! You’re enjoying, life is so good for you, where’s that, who’s that? Etc”. Needless to say, that ruined our meetup, I was so pissed as to why technology had such a grip on people –to the extent that they couldn’t resist its snares. That got me thinking about several issues like: Is there an addictive pattern behind these technologies – social media and the likes? Are all technocrats do-gooders? When does technology get too far? What is technology really doing to us and how can we manage it appropriately?
The Origin Story
Facebook was created in 2004 with most of its pioneer users being university students. Back then it was called ‘thefacebook’ and the way most users characterised it, was with the term ‘Novelty’. Novelty? Yes! Novelty because it was analogous to the virtual version of ones’ directory and phonebook, but with some life in it. It was a platform that helped early users look up photos of their friend’s boyfriends and girlfriends, literally.
Facebook didn’t arrive in our world with the promise to radically transform the rhythms and course of people’s social and civic lives; it was just one diversion among many. “In 2004, the people who signed up for thefacebook.com were almost certainly spending significantly more time playing a Tetris-style game than they were tweaking their profiles or poking their virtual friends. It was interesting, but it certainly didn’t seem like this was something on which we would spend any real amount of time” asserted Cal Newport (Social media- whistle-blower).
However, everything changed around 2009-2010, when Facebook updated a single feature. This feature is what we all identify as the notification symbol. The notification feature was originally blue in colour – blue to match the palette of the rest of the site, but no one used it. So they changed the colour to red, which closely represents an alarm colour—and its clicking skyrocketed. Thence, all that Facebook and other social media platforms have been doing is beautifully captured in what one of Facebook’s founders declared: “The thought process that went into building these applications, Facebook being the first of them… was all about: ‘How do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible?’ And that means that we need to sort of give you a little dopamine hit every once in a while, because someone liked or commented on a photo or a post or whatever”.
It will, therefore, come as no surprise that at the Apple event of January 2010, Steve Jobs (co-founder of Apple) unveiled the iPad, claiming: “What this device does is extraordinary… It offers the best way to browse the web; better than a laptop and way better than a smartphone… It’s an incredible experience… It’s phenomenal for mail; it’s a dream to type on”. For ninety minutes, Jobs explained why the iPad was the best way to look at photos, listen to music, take classes on iTunes, browse Facebook, play games, and navigate thousands of apps. He believed everyone should own an IPad. Except for his kids. He refused to let his kids use the device. One of the leading technocrats turning his kids into technophobes.
In 2010, Jobs told the New York Times journalist Nick Bilton that his children had never used the iPad. “We limit how much technology our kids use in the home.” Bilton discovered that other tech giants imposed similar restrictions. Chris Anderson, the former editor of Wired, enforced strict time limits on every device in his home, “because we have seen the dangers of technology first-hand.” Evan Williams, a founder of Blogger, Twitter, and Medium, bought hundreds of books for his two young sons but refused to give them an IPad. Walter Isaacson, who wrote Steve Jobs’ biography once confessed that at Jobs’ home, “No one ever pulled out an iPad or computer. The kids did not seem addicted at all to devices.”
What this means quite literally is that top technocrats (those developing tech products), surreptitiously practice technophobia and follow the cardinal rule of drug production and dealing which is: Never Get Addicted On Your Own Supply. I liken this to a pastor who would tell his followers to believe some truths and practice some activities or even purchase a spiritual product he came up with, meanwhile, neither he nor his family do any of that. Would you use the product or follow his advice, if you knew he didn’t? I guess not. The same can be said for a medical doctor. But since it is possible to know this truth and still plunge fully into social media usage, I got interested in the mechanisms they use to make us addicted to these technologies? There are two main mechanisms, but for the sake of this piece, I will focus on the most salient.
Feedback & Addiction and the psychological significance of the like button
In 1971, the psychologist Michael Zeiler carried out an experiment to find out if the behaviour of lower-order animals e.g. pigeons and rats, could teach: governments how to encourage charity and discourage crime? Entrepreneurs how to inspire overworked workers to find new meaning at work? Parents how to shape perfect children?
Zeiler used pigeons to implement his rewards delivery system experiment. This experiment consisted of three types of reward delivery options:
- The first option was to reward every desirable behaviour, in the same way, workers get rewarded for good work.
- The second option was to reward those same desirable behaviours on an unpredictable schedule (i.e. rewarding good behaviour sometimes only) and creating some of the mystery that encourages people to buy lottery tickets.
The three pigeons had been raised in the lab, so they knew the drill. There was a small button, through which food was released to the pigeons after a peck when they were hungry. During some trials, Zeiler first programmed the button such that it delivered food every time the pigeons pecked; during others, he programmed the button so it delivered food only a few times. Sometimes the pigeons would peck in vain, the button would turn red, and they’d receive nothing but frustration.
Now, which of the two pigeons do you think kept on pecking, with high levels of motivation? Was it that the one who was rewarded always or the one rewarded sometimes? “When I first learned about Zeiler’s work, I expected the consistent schedule to work best. If the button doesn’t predict the arrival of food perfectly, the pigeon’s motivation to peck should decline, just as a worker’s motivation would decline if you only paid him for some of the work he performed – not all.” Declared the psychologist Adam Alter (Social media whistle-blower)
But that’s not what happened at all. Like tiny feathered gamblers, the pigeons pecked at the button more feverishly when it released food 50–70 % of the time. Their brains, it turned out, were releasing far more dopamine when the reward was unexpected than when it was predictable. Zeiler had documented an important fact about positive feedback: that less is often more. His pigeons were drawn to the mystery of mixed feedback just as humans are attracted to the uncertainty of gambling.
Facebook’s capitalisation on the experiment
Thirty-seven years after Zeiler published his results, a team of Facebook web developers prepared to unleash a similar feedback experiment on hundreds of millions of humans. Facebook had the power to run human experiments on an unprecedented scale. The site already had two hundred million users at the time—a number that would quadruple over the years. The experiment took the form of a deceptively simple new feature called the “like” button. Anyone who has used Facebook knows how the button works: instead of wondering what other people think of your photos and status updates, you get real-time feedback as they click (or don’t click) a little blue and white thumbs-up button beneath whatever you post. Facebook has since then introduced other feedback buttons, so you’re able to communicate more complex emotions than simple likes. It’s hard to exaggerate how much the “like” button changed the psychology of Facebook usage. What had begun as a passive way to track your friends’ lives is now deeply interactive, and with exactly the sort of unpredictable feedback that motivated Zeiler’s pigeons.
TINY LIKES & VIEWS
Social media users are gambling every time they share a photo, web link, or status update. A post with zero ‘likes’ isn’t just privately painful, but also a kind of public condemnation: either you didn’t have enough online friends, or worse still, your online friends weren’t impressed. Like pigeons, we’re more driven to seek feedback when it isn’t guaranteed. Facebook was the first major social networking force to introduce the like button, but others now have similar functions. You can like and repost tweets on Twitter, pictures on Instagram, columns on LinkedIn, and videos on YouTube. Most of the time to accrue the likes. Hence, as Cal Newport claimed: “Facebook was fun in 2004, and in 2019, Facebook is addictive”
Is technology even addictive?
Addiction is defined as a condition in which a person engages in the use of a substance or behaviour for which the rewarding effects provide a compelling incentive to repeatedly pursue the behaviour despite detrimental consequences.
That said, it is worth pointing out that behavioural addictions connected to technology tend to be “moderate” as compared to that connected to strong substances like drugs and cigarettes. Ex. If I force you to quit Facebook, you’re not likely to suffer serious withdrawal symptoms or sneak out in the night to a cyber café to get a fix. On the other hand, these addictions can still be quite harmful to your well-being. You might not sneak out to access Facebook, but if the app is only one tap away on the phone in your pocket, a moderate behavioural addiction will make it really hard to resist checking your account again and again throughout the day.
A key problem that techno-apologists have with likening drug addictions to the excessive usage of social media is that the latter is not focused on one activity. Users of social media constantly switch from WhatsApp to Facebook to Twitter. If it were addictive it may have been a single app for hours without end. It also isn’t clear to me that technology makes us dull or unproductive (all the research carried out for this piece was through technology). A much cleaner example is the excessively playing of video games; psychologists are still divided on whether it is detrimental or rather useful in brain development, since it helps us compute and solve complex problems. Truth be told, avid users of technology tend to be less productive across time, but extra-productive on specific times.
If technologies are trying to get us to stay on their platforms, it is because that’s how they make their money. Why do you think they notify you each time anything of interest (or not) happens? Why does YouTube have a play next tap that appears after you’ve watched the video you came to watch? Why does twitter delay for 5 seconds when you tab on notifications? It is to keep longer than you desired.
In the face of these realisations, I decided to give out some recommendations I have tried to apply to my life. They may be hard, but you can personalise them.
Recommendations on how to use Technology and social media
- Apply the Michael Lewis strategy. Michael claims to have 6 hours that we all – tech-idolaters don’t. How is this true? He says: “I don’t watch television, I don’t attend meetings & I don’t use social media. Just that simple decision has saved and keeps saving me 6 hours every day – hours in which a normal man gets entangled in the mess of online-life”
- Take technology breaks. If you can’t get harsh on social media like Michael, maybe you can take breaks. By breaks, I mean a month of no social media in a year or even more extremely a week per month where you go off.
- Defy the odds. Research shows that you check your phone over or more than 150 times a day. They estimate that you use social media for 4 hours each day. Do the math: 4 hours a day = 28 hours a week, 112 hours a month and 1,344 hours a year. That is roughly 3 months of your life each year that you waste or spend on social media. Is it worth it? Defy the odds by checking your phone in may be 5 key moments: morning, break time, rest time and an hour before bed time. That will train you to use it for may be just an hour a day. Which may still need moderation.
- Practise selective posting. Not all you do should be posted online; some or most of what you do should be kept private. Does the world really need to know what you and your spouse are up to? Where you are located at every single moment? What you’re eating? Who your new lover is? Etc. Selective posting, especially concerning what is beneficial to yourself and your audience.
- Turn of your notification button. Just this one decision will save you a lot.
During this offline moments, you get to appreciate life, rethink your social media strategy, talk to your God and be the master not the servant of some tool.
Do you have other suggestions that many can practise to not become glued and idolaters to technology and social media in general? Please drop them on the comment section blow.
Verberi Leslie Micheal