During my last semester at university, I took a course titled “Data, Social Media, and Free Speech”. Our professor made it very clear to us in the beginning of the course itself that we were absolutely not allowed to use our smartphones or laptops throughout the one-and-a-half hours of class time. Yet, to his dismay, he frequently caught students sneaking a peek at their phones, almost as if they couldn’t help but look at those tiny screens, much like drug addicts have absolutely no control over their drug habits.
Recent research shows that on an average, we tap, swipe, type and click on our phones about 2,617 times a day, and the heaviest users touch their phones a whopping 5,427 times a day. Per year, that translates to nearly 1 million touches on an average, and for the less restrained, almost 2 million. This poses the question: When and how did we become so dependent on technology? What is it about social media that makes us keep coming back for more?
The answer lies in what can be identified as the attention economy (aka the attention industry), an economy which monopolises our attention. Our addiction is a direct result of the intention of tech companies such as Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat, who build ‘sticky’ products that people can’t stop using, and therefore become profitable.
Think about it. Likes on Facebook or Instagram make you feel better about yourself, urging you to post and update more content in order to gain repeated social validation. Snapchat’s ‘Snapstreaks’ feature was designed to ensure you open and use the app at least once a day, encouraging near-constant communication amongst users, due to the fear of missing out on a ‘snapstreak’. LinkedIn exploits a need for social reciprocity to widen its user base, masquerading as a formal communications network. And even YouTube and Netflix autoplay videos and next episodes, depriving users of a choice on whether or not they want to keep watching, hence creating a generation of ‘binge-watchers’, hooked to their screens, watching an entire season of a TV show in just one day.
But believe it or not, the race to commodify human attention has been on for quite some time now, and possibly emerged during the first World War. As Tim Wu, describes in his book “The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads”, back in 1914 when Britain could only mobilise 7,00,000 men to fight the war – as compared to Germany’s 4.5 million – the British Government embarked on a journey to recruit young men to its army with the use of a systematic propaganda. It printed around 50 million big, colourful, eye grabbing posters and plastered them almost everywhere, held rallies and parades, and screened patriotic films on huge film projectors all over the country. The result? Millions of men, convinced by the government’s persuasion and their ‘new-found’ patriotism, marched towards their deaths in what we call the First World War today.
Wu thinks that’s the moment we realised the true power of capturing human attention and hence emerged the “attention merchants”, an industry hell-bent on doing anything and everything to harness the power of human attention. His book tells us the story of the extraordinarily successful attempts by advertisers to occupy more and more of our attention over the past 100 years, drawing our attention to the technologies and platforms that have made it possible for the media to penetrate into our daily lives on such an extreme level over the years. Consequently, it’s no surprise that technologies of our generation such as the smartphone and the internet are using the same approach as the British Propaganda, capturing our attention with new gimmicks every day, making sure we’re hooked to our devices till the last minute in order to generate almost unimaginable profit margins for tech companies.
Interestingly, Justin Rosenstein, a software programmer, has banned himself from using Snapchat and Instagram, restricted his Facebook usage and as a more radical step, made his assistant set up parental controls on his iPhone to prevent him from installing any apps. He is particularly aware of the allure of the concept of “likes”, and the psychology behind it, which he describes as “bright dings of pseudo-pleasure which can be as hollow as they are seductive”. After all, Rosenstein was the Facebook engineer who created the ‘Like’ button in the first place.
It seems that even tech giants quickly realised the danger that looms over our heads, as most of them have since then made conscious efforts to curb their social media/gadget usage. Mark Zuckerberg has a team of moderators and employees who control his Facebook feed for him. The most senior executives from Twitter barely ever tweet themselves, one having only sent out four tweets since he joined. Apple’s co-founder and CEO Steve Jobs used to limit how much technology his kids used at home, a practice which even the current CEO Tim Cook follows with his nephew. But what can we do to keep our own usage in check?
To start with, we too should make conscious efforts to limit our internet/smartphone usage. Obviously, it’s easier said than done; the whole concept of addiction has the underlying principle of impulses built into it. So, if you think you’re addicted to your smartphone, or just simply want to reduce its usage, here are some tips you could try to curb that addiction:
These tech companies aren’t going to give up their endless efforts to make sure you stay addicted to their products, but that doesn’t mean you should remain stuck in the vicious cycle of your addiction. Be smart, recognise the problem, and give yourself a chance at a tech-free life, ridding yourself of the stress and anxiety produced by the constant use of these technologies.