On tech & social media

The world through tech-colored glasses

Yesterday I was telling my husband a story. “Wait… who said that?” he asked, so I repeated myself. I continued on for a moment before he said “Wait… why was your teacher talking about that?” And I said “no… my mom was telling me about that.” After a third, similar interruption, I realized trying to finish the story was pointless because he was only half-listening while playing a video game on his phone where characters from Disney movies fight each other. I wasn’t mad at him, though. There have been plenty of times that I’ve done the same thing, half listening while mindlessly scrolling through photos of dogs I have never met owned by people I have never met on Instagram.

Former Google employee Tristan Harris tells Anderson Cooper in an interview about Brain Hacking that a smartphone is basically a slot machine. Every time you check the phone, it is in the hope of receiving some sort of reward – likes on Insta, full lives in your game, an email with a code for 20% off at Bed, Bath & Beyond.

Every time I check my phone, I’m playing the slot machine to see, “What did I get?” This is one way to hijack people’s minds and create a habit.

Tristan Harris in Brain Hacking

As I read more about the addictive properties buried deep within apps and games, a number of examples came to mind. My sister plays a game called Design Home in which you are challenged to create a room and then others vote on it. She has told me, excitedly, on more than one occasion about how she “got five stars in Design Home.” Sure, the game brings her joy… she doesn’t love her own apartment and feels like she doesn’t have the time or the means to improve the situation. She gets gratification from the game in a way she doesn’t in her life. But there is a more insidious issue at play: the ability to ignore the things she doesn’t like in her real life by focusing on the game instead. Sure, she could fix the things that bother her about her apartment, but that is hard and it takes time and planning and resources. And the game is right there… it’s easy… beckoning her to come back with chirps and buzzes, luring her with the possibility for a five star rating.

I see similarly troubling behavior in the game NHL 20. EA Games is constantly pushing new content throughout the year, updating the game, and offering daily challenges that have special rewards. I don’t want to think too deeply about the hours my husband has devoted to “getting his dailies” this year but something tells me that he could have learned woodworking or banjo or conversational French in the same amount of time. He thinks it’s just a great way for the game company to give their customers the fullest experience, but what I see is finally the answer to my oft-asked question “why do they need to come out with a new NHL game every year?” Because all of the bonus content goes away once the new game is released, if you want to continue to “get your dailies,” which include all sorts of special “rewards,” you’d better get that new game right when it hits the shelf!

I, of course, am not immune to this addiction code. My online drug of choice is an Instagram account for my dog which I started when we adopted him last summer. Huck is cute and funny and what’s to stop us from getting “insta-famous” and living off all that Huck Money? His account grew quickly, getting over 1,000 follows in just a few months. I was obsessed, sometimes posting several times per day. One day I found myself crying after spending an hour scrolling through dog accounts. I felt horrible about myself. Everyone was a better dog owner than me: constantly training, or with perfectly behaved pets, cute dogs, funny dogs, dogs with 10,000 followers, dogs who had important jobs. Huck was just a bitey cattle dog puppy and I wasn’t doing anything to make him great. And that’s when I realized why I stopped using social media in the first place. It makes you feel bad. Then it makes you feel good when people say nice things to you because you feel bad about yourself because everyone on social media is mountain climbing in the Swiss Alps or living on their organic alpaca farm. And they’re thin. With perfect make-up.

The internet is an imperfect place. It can be a salve for your wounds in the form of false achievement, or it can create new wounds in the form of self-doubt. App engineer Gabe Zicherman tells Anderson Cooper “one of the interesting things about [these] engaging technologies, is at the same time as we can argue that the neuroscience is being used to create dependent behavior, those same techniques are being used to get people to work out…using their Fitbit” (Cooper, 2017). The same technology makes me want to check Instagram at 2 a.m. and reminds me to keep up my German lessons for fear of breaking my streak.

All of these technologies, all the techniques for engagement can be used for good, or can be used for bad.

Gabe Zicherman in Brain Hacking

I am not an internet teetotaler, but I do worry about the effects of all this technology on our society, and more specifically on the people that I love. I watch my eleven-year-old nephew pour hours into video games and I worry about what it’s doing to his already anxious adolescent brain. Then I think about the two gang shootings in his neighborhood last week, and I am less worried about him not getting the sunshine and fresh air childhood that was important to me, because I’d prefer if he wasn’t roaming those streets.

Franklin Foer states in his article How Silicon Valley is erasing your individuality “privacy won’t survive the present trajectory of technology – and with the sense of being perpetually watched, humans will behave more cautiously, less subversively” (Foer, 2017). While I agree with Foer that when it comes to our willingness to surrender our individuality in exchange for the promise of next-day delivery and all-consuming distraction our “blitheness can no longer be sustained,” I do not see a populace who is ready to lay down and die at the feet of the techno-gods (or anyone else for that matter.) I see a nation on the brink of another cultural attitude shift, this time away from the ‘greed is good, do whatever you need to get ahead’ mentality of the 1980s – 2000s. The pendulum is swinging back, through outrage at the state of our world, to a place of wanting to take care of one another, to stand up for one another, to protect those who need protection.

Just as social media has been a breeding ground for the spread of misinformation and racism, it is also a platform for difficult conversations to take place, a place to share the stories that those living in the more insulated, homogenous sects of our society need to hear, a place to organize like-minded individuals to stand up in the face of tyranny. And if you don’t think video games can ever translate into anything “IRL” go ask those 40 year old dads in Portland and Seattle where they learned how to make home-made riot gear and use leaf blowers to fend off tear gas attacks at the BLM protests… I bet more than a few of them played some Call of Duty in their day.


Original Photo by Mason Trinca/NYT.

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