We’ve Become Digital Addicts: It’s Time to Take Control of Technology and Not Let Tech Control Us

7 Layers of T-shirts to #Hashtag 7 Chapters of My SXSW Presentation

Breaking Digital Facades: It’s Time to Take Tech Back,” that was the title of my presentation at SXSW. Instead of using the stage as a promotional platform, I wanted to raise awareness around something that we’re all in some way grappling with…addiction to social media and digital devices and the resulting affects on our psyche, intellect and behavior as a result.

For those who have followed my work over the years, this stance may come as a surprise. As a geek apologist who helped drive the rise of Web 2.0, social media, apps, etc., I was a hopeless optimist, dedicating my work to guiding organizations, governments, institutions and individuals how to use these technologies for good. But somewhere along the way, we fell astray.

Over time, novices, opportunists, spammers, scammers and eventually, villains and everything in between, found ways to poison the social streams of humanity. But they weren’t the only antagonists in this unfolding saga. Even our protagonists, Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs, Ev Williams, Jack Dorsey, Evan Spiegal, et al., played an intentional or unintentional role in exposing human vulnerabilities as users (literally) succumbed to the seduction of these powerful devices and apps.

With social media comes great responsibility.

As an aspiring digital anthropologist, I’ve since studied the effects of these technologies on society and humanity and I wanted to share the results of those findings at SXSW. In short, we have unwittingly become the problem we were trying to solve. Now, we’re at a digital and human crossroads and we have a choice to make.

While it’s easy to get caught up in the bombastic waves of #deletefacebook, Cambridge Analytica, the U.S. Election, Brexit, Russia, etc., there’s another side to the story we haven’t really let sink in.

The story of us.

We became the product. We willfully gave our lives and our inner selves to devices, social networks, and apps. Those activities were recorded as data, which was then sold to advertisers in the name of more personalized marketing. In return, we were compensated with Likes, followers, praise, engagement, and…dopamine…a whole bunch of it.

Did you know we check our phones about 1,500x per week, which adds up to about 177 minutes a day? In some my research, that can be on the low end. Try installing the Moments app to see for yourself.

Ignorance is bliss, until it’s not.

As in anything, we can’t move forward until we assume some responsibility for our role in all of this.

After studying technology’s evolution, the effects on business and society are undeniable — we fell to the dark side. But it’s not all our fault. Yes, we freely give ourselves online, at least what we wanted others to see. We gaveaway our data, location, our friendships and relationships, our expressions, what we love, what we do, all in exchange for access, audience, connections and validation

By design, social media and personal devices were meant to seduce us. They were designed to give us a platform and feedback loop that is virtuous. Developers knowingly used many design techniques that are tied to addiction. It’s not only robbing us of time that could go toward more productive experiences, we’re investing in facades that negatively impact individuality, relationships, and self-esteem.

Tristan Harris, a prominent designer in Silicon Valley believes that “technology is hijacking our minds and society.” He would know because he was part of the movement that created these monsters. Now, he’s dedicating his work to design ethics. As such, he founded the Center for Humane Technology with the goal of “reversing the digital attention crisis and realigning technology with humanity’s best interests.”

But, there’s more to the story than addiction. Our vulnerabilities are being used against us.

The same design and psychological techniques that lure users to technology are being applied to news and information/misinformation on the right, middle and left. And of course, there are the bots and fake news propagators who’ve figured out how to weaponize social media’s backdoors to exploit our fears, our secrets and passion points.

It has to stop. There’s no good that can come from any of this if we continue on the same path. This crossroads at which we stand represents an opportunity for us to take back control.

As individuals, as brands, as media, we have a choice in how we communicate, what we consume and how we steer value-added experiences that resurrect our idealism and swing the pendulum back from the dark side.

Before, I left to Austin for SXSW, I spent time with Tonya Hall at ZDNet to offer a preview of the presentation and share my inspiration for shifting direction this way. It would mean a lot if you would give it a view.

Since this interview was recorded, SXSW has also published an audio recording of the “Digital Facades” presentation online. I’m working on getting the video and would love for you to see it. I wore 7 layers of custom t-shirts (see artwork above), with each representing a #hashtag theme for 7 chapters of the presentation.

It was a humble and personal anthology of how the disrupters became “the devils” and the opportunities we now have to resurrect our idealism.

Please join me in the effort. I plan on dedicating more and more time to this subject. I’d also love to hear your stories and thoughts.

Brian Solis is principal analyst and futurist at Altimeter, the digital analyst group at Prophet. He’s also a world-renowned keynote speaker and 7x best-selling author. His latest book, X: Where Business Meets Design, explores the future of brand and customer engagement through experience design. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn. Invite him to speak at your next event.

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