The past twenty years have seen humanity embark upon a technological revolution, one that has changed our behaviours and interactions.
The way we communicate with colleagues, friends and family has changed.
The way we navigate the world around us has changed.
The way we access information and learn has changed.
Fast internet, smartphones, social media and intelligent algorithms have coalesced to help us connect in ways unimaginable to someone living in the 1950s. This perfect storm of sorts has brought immense benefit to our lives, but it has brought immense pain too, whether we realise it or not.
Technology has evolved exponentially. The average number of transistors on a microchip in 2000 was just 21 million. Today, AMD’s Epyc microchip boasts 39 billion transistors - almost two thousand times more computing power than just two decades ago.
But as far as our biology is concerned, we’re very much still stuck in the stone age, driven by innate fight, fornicate, flee or freeze mechanisms.
We seek social validation. We’re driven by fear, hope and guilt. We’re ultimately motivated to survive and reproduce - just like our fellow animals. And this primitive biological programming is something that big tech companies know all too much about.
As Napster co-founder and former Facebook President, Sean Parker, put it, Facebook is exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology. But it’s not just Facebook.
The hit Netflix documentary, The Social Dilemma, shone a light on how big tech companies use the data we feed them to keep us glued to our phones and feeds in order to monetize our attention. As the documentary noted, we’re not users of these platforms - we are the product.
And what’s the easiest way to keep us glued to our screens? Content that appeals to our negativity bias, and content that validates our existing ideas and beliefs. This has increasingly left a growing proportion of humanity with a dour world outlook, whilst feeling increasingly hateful and polarized.
Not only that, but as we fight a nagging desire to always be reaching for our phones, our ability to simply sit still, be present, and focus on one thing for an extended period of time - something essentially to doing great creative work and contributing something of value to the world - is being diminished.
The average person is spending over three hours a day - equivalent to over six weeks a year - staring at their smartphone. Most of this time is attributable to social media consumption, and typically doesn’t amount to what you might call a rich experience. People touch their phones 2,617 times a day, and unlock their home screen a further 79 times a day.
Extended shallow experiences, like staring at our phones (or binging Netflix for that matter) leave us feeling passive, with low alertness and low energy.
But we’re addicted. Each time we check our feeds we bask in a tiny release of dopamine and the anticipation of new comments or likes. As former design ethicist at Google, Tristan Harris, puts it, we’re walking around with slot machines in our pockets constantly tempting us to take another spin.
This prompted Salesforce’s Marc Benioff to suggest that Facebook should be regulated like cigarettes. But he should really have said that any tech company or platform that prioritizes monetizing its user’s attention above all else should be regulated like cigarettes.
And all of this is to say nothing of the growing tendency of social media platforms to discriminately censor certain types of content and personalities and not others, ultimately infringing upon freedom of speech, and shaping global discourse, beliefs, and behaviours in their own likeness.
This, despite Mark Zuckerberg’s bold proclamation back in January of 2020 that the company was starting the decade by rolling out new features designed to give people more control over how they are tracked by the company across the internet.
But now, as the results of our twenty year technological experiment are starting to become evident - depression, polarization, distractibility, political turmoil - a number of trailblazers are pushing back to help deliver a more human online experience.
Instant messaging app, Signal, co-founded by Moxie Marlinspike, offers an alternative to Whatsapp. It offers strong encryption, and won’t track you to feed an advertising engine or tailor your social media feeds. Essentially, your text chats (and your Signal phone calls) stay private, and can be automatically deleted after a set period of time.
After the WhatsApp announcement, Signal was downloaded 7 million times in the five days to January 10 (a 4,200% increase over the previous week), and soared to the top of the App Store charts. Interestingly, the company raised US$50 million back in 2018 from Whatsapp co-founder Brian Acton, who famously tweeted #deletefacebook around the same time because of Facebook’s plans to monetize Whatsapp, after its US$19 billion acquisition of the platform in 2014.
Signal even got the newly minted world’s richest man, Elon Musk, to tweet ‘Use Signal’ (something that inadvertently saw the market value of an unrelated company, Signal Advance, soar from US$55 million to over US$6 billion).
But it’s not just Signal.
Search engine DuckDuckGo does not collect or share personal information like Google does.
Podcaster, and former MIT AI researcher, Lex Fridman, wants to use AI to improve social media, whilst fellow podcaster and author, Jordan Peterson, has launched an invite-only anti-censorship social media platform called Thinkspot which is still in its infancy.
A number of browser plugins are available to block YouTube’s recommended videos and comments sections.
And lastly, Tim Berners Lee - inventor of the world wide web, has launched a project at MIT called Solid, which essentially aims to radically change the way web applications work today, resulting in true data ownership and improved privacy.
The equation is simple. The less data we feed tech platforms:
Yes, it’s true that getting human beings to change the way they do things is difficult - especially when it means bringing entire groups of friends along for the ride, as is the case with instant messaging apps like Whatsapp. However, it is almost essential to our freedoms - both our rights to freedom of speech, and our rights to privacy, but most importantly, our rights to our freedom of mind - something that the addictive nature of today’s platforms invading our mental real estate with their tailored content infringe upon.
Transformative change can take time, but like any avalanche, it starts with a single snowflake - a one degree course correction today can result in a significant change in destination.
You can do your bit to raise awareness and make that one degree change today.
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It’s time to stop being the product.