06/06/2020

Ottoboni-Computer

We Fix IT!

Can our minds be hijacked?

Almost three years ago when I was volunteering at a cafe in a Buddhist meditation center, I read this article from The Guardian for the first time and it really hit me. Today, I read it again and I would like to share here some thoughts and quotes about it.

Image credit: Pexels (Free Pexels license)

The article focuses on various interviews with Google, Twitter and Facebook workers who were the designers who created different innovative features such as the “like” button in FB or the “pull-to-refresh” mechanisms to feed the new posts on Instagram or tweets in Twitter. Why these same people who created these features for social apps and helped to make technology more addictive are disconnecting themselves from the internet? Would you like to hear some of their arguments?

“I’ve restricted the use of social media and other addictive technologies. I’m most concerned about the psychological effects on people who, research shows, touch, swipe or tap their phone 2,617 times a day!” Justin Rosenstein

There is growing concern that as well as addicting users, technology is contributing toward so-called “continuous partial attention”, severely limiting people’s ability to focus, and possibly lowering IQ. One study showed that the mere presence of smartphones damages cognitive capacity even when the device is turned off!

“The technologies we use have turned into compulsions, if not full-fledged addictions: it’s the impulse to check a message notification. It’s the pull to visit YouTube, Facebook, or Twitter for just a few minutes, only to find yourself still tapping and scrolling an hour later. None of this is an accident, it is all just as their designers intended.” Nir Eyal

But are we in control? If the people who built these technologies are taking such radical steps to wean themselves free, can the rest of us reasonably be expected to exercise our free will?

“All of us are jacked into this system. All of our minds can be hijacked. Our choices are not as free as we think they are. A handful of people, working at a handful of technology companies, through their choices will steer what a billion people are thinking today.” Tristan Harris

Think about how LinkedIn exploits the need for social reciprocity to widen its network; how YouTube and Netflix autoplay videos and next episodes, depriving users of a choice about whether or not they want to keep watching… I bet you can think of more examples of this type. It seems that the techniques these companies use are not always generic: they can be algorithmically tailored to each person.

“I have blocked certain websites, turned off push notifications, restricted my use of the Telegram app to message only with my wife and two close friends, and tried to wean myself off Twitter. I charge my phone in the kitchen, plugging it in at 7pm and not touching it until the next morning.” Loren Brichter

How these technologies can affect the brain?

I’m no expert on addiction, but I have picked up enough in my medical training to know that technologies can affect the same neurological pathways as and drug use. These are the same circuits that make people seek out food, comfort, heat, sex. All of it is reward-based behavior that activates the brain’s dopamine pathways. I sometimes find myself clicking on the red icons beside my apps “to make them go away”, but is conflicted about the ethics of exploiting people’s psychological vulnerabilities.” Chris Marcellino

To what extent our lives orbit around our phones?

“Eighty-seven percent of people wake up and go to sleep with their smartphones.” James Williams

So far, I’ve been taking my own measures to avoid phone-addiction:

  • I turned down all app notifications except phone calls and SMS.
  • I use a regular alarm clock and not my phone’s.
  • I disconnect mobile data and internet when I don’t use the phone.
  • I restrict the use of my phone to 3-5 times a day to use Calm and Gym apps for my morning routine, chat in Whatsapp, post and see Instagram, Wallet to update my personal economics, and no more than that.
  • I forced the stop of Whatsapp, Instagram and Messenger apps, so when I’m on the Internet I don’t receive any messages or info unless I’m in the app.
  • I downloaded the Twilight app to screens shade my phone when it’s dark.
  • I try not to look at my phone before going to sleep.

And you? What do you do?

Article written by Irene Vigué-Guix, PhD student in TIC working on ongoing brain oscillations and behaviour modulation, with an undergraduate degree in Biomedical Engineering and a Masters in Brain and Cognition. Original publication appears here.