The Uncertain Future of Screens and Humans

Our screens have been turned against us. What happens now?

Phone photo by Photo by Tim Bennett on Unsplash. The weird, tripped-out photoshopping is my doing.

Being born in ’99, I can still somewhat remember a world where the Internet was just becoming mainstream, at least in Romania. Computers were big, clunky, with monstrous flickering screens that would make you feel like your eyes are bleeding after staring at them for long enough. Floppy disks were still a thing, and CD drives were so noisy that you could hear them from 2 floors in either direction.

I’ve been using computers in one form or another for the vast majority of my life. When I was 5 I spent hours learning English while playing “Dragon in a Wagon”, at 10 I started playing World of Warcraft, at 13 I “learned programming” by copy-pasting code from Youtube tutorials of Dark Basic. I went from Pentium 3 PCs to Celeron and i7 laptops. From Windows 95 to Linux (Ubuntu) to macOS.

Throughout the years more and more of my life started to happen in the digital. Now I usually write on my MacBook, read on my Kindle, take notes on my iPad, while my iPhone is always next to me to fulfil my internet browsing urges and entertain my Medium addiction.

But recently my faith in screens has been diminishing. I’ve started writing in a notebook. I am taking notes on paper. I have even contemplated buying real, physical books, even though I consider the Kindle to be my best acquisition ever, considering value for money.

All of these because I find that our screens have started to facilitate an impatient, superficial, impulsive, reactionary life.

This hasn’t always been the case, but times have changed. We have grown accustomed to pulling our phones out, opening Instagram, refreshing in hope of a notification, and then locking them again. Everything happens in microseconds. We want our answers served by Google Knowledge Graph instantly, even if it’s from an obscure web page. We are tired of researching. We don’t want to read books on subjects. It takes too long and we’re busy people. We appropriate the first opinion that pops in front of us and sounds good enough. We hold it to death afterwards. We are tired of thinking.

I loved the way Jordan Peterson described thinking in 12 Rules for Life. He says that in order to really think, one must have an internal conversation on a topic from at least two different points of view. Only such can one reach a conclusion based on a conscious cognitive effort to find the truth, not an effort to consolidate a pre-existing opinion based on a flimsy personal creed. Thinking is hard. Thinking takes time, honesty and energy.

But there is always an effortless, shorter way now. I remember reading when I was little for hours and hours. My mom would come into my room at 2–3AM and confiscate my book. Now an ad suggests me to try this app that ALL CEOs use to absorb the content of an entire book in minutes instead of hours. I’m struggling to focus on my reading through a storm of notifications and triggers everywhere around me, even if not mine.

We don’t have time to really think anymore, to argue with ourselves in order to discover who we truly are.

In the entire history of the human race we have never been too good at challenging our irrationally rooted opinions. Humanity started to accept its ignorance only when science really started to emerge, and it has proven to be a true revolution in the way we think. No longer did we take for granted what we read in ancient Scriptures and incomplete maps filled with fantasies.

Accepting ignorance is the first step to acquiring knowledge. It is important that we look in the mirror and realise that we don’t know a lot of things, so we can listen to what others think and do our research with an open mind.

We fight over our political opinions without listening to reason or with any regard for the complexity of an argument, which leads to disastrous tears in the society’s fabric itself. Instead of conversation, we have started to scream in echo-chambers like Facebook. But at least in a room with echo, the sound dies down. In Facebook’s universe, the echo is amplified again and again and again. The loudness shuts down anyone with a different opinion that enters. That is dangerous. Very dangerous. Having your opinion validated by an algorithm, no matter what it may be, is a slippery slope that leads nowhere good.

A divided society is good for no-one except power-grabbers. Unstable and fractured communities make easy targets for manipulation. Just look at the 2016 American elections, which will probably be a long-standing example of where divisive politics can lead to in an era of big data and Big Tech.

We need patience in order to compose ourselves and start to think critically. We need to learn how to listen to different opinions and weigh them before outright rejecting any foreign thought. But one problem is that we’ve learned everything happens and should happen instantly, even opinion forming. I have a friend that works for a company which is proud that their website is served in under 80ms. There’s no chance of us managing to have healthier community-wide conversations if the first thing we see on the feed and looks attractive to us, becomes the absolute truth, the lighthouse of our beliefs.

Until recently, there was little incentive for Big Tech to help with facilitating discussion, complex thought, and research. They want to keep you on the platform. Money makes the Earth go around, at least in the modern capitalist world, and for most of Big Tech, your eyeballs are money.

Server photo from Pixabay

Wars in data centres

We live in an attention economy. Your time is someone else’s money. Big Tech wants your eyeballs, and with the advent of easily accessible machine learning and data mining frameworks, even “Small Tech” can easily start converting your attention to Benjamins. What I am describing below is not by far limited to the social media giants.

Before you see an ad on Facebook, in less than half a second an entire war takes place.

Fans start spinning in Facebook’s data centre, and a bot announces the start of an auction. Thousand of advertiser bots are notified that a potential client has to be served an ad, and they should bid to have their ad displayed.

Robots scramble frantically to offer the best price. Thousands of offers pour in, the battle is in full effect. Facebook takes into account how likely you are to interact with any given ad, the offered price, and other non-public factors in order to decide the winner. The massacre finishes in less than a blink of an eye. A few microseconds later, when the dust settles, a victor emerges. Coca-Cola has won the bidding. They paid 0.0097$ to be on your screen.

These are not really the bots we’re talking about. They’re more like hundreds of thousands of lines of code. Designed by Freepik

Facebook makes approximatively $26 for every American using their service. They have an obvious incentive to keep you on the platform. They feed you with likes and reactions, they remind you of moments with friends and show you news you agree with. Look, a friend tagged you in a meme. Just open the app, just look at the ad.

Facebook also wants to know more about you. The more they know, the easier it becomes for them to match you with relevant advertisements. The problem is that relevant advertisements means ads that are likely to catch your attention. These are not necessarily the most relevant, but the most viral, clickbaity ones, or the ones that confirm your pre-existing biases. They can even be used by malevolent groups to sway your opinion, as shown by the 2016 election.

Digital advertisers have mastered the art of going viral. Look at all the “free rings, just pay shipping” and the cool gadgets that appear in your Facebook ads. The videos have been optimised to sell you gimmicky stuff that you don’t need. We have become hoarders, the perfect subjects of the worst of capitalism, buying and buying, so profits can grow, and the pie that represents the economy can expand. The problem is that a lot of us don’t get any of the bigger pie, but that’s a story for another time and another, more researched, me (or for umair haque).

Don’t get me wrong, this is not an anti-capitalist essay. This is an essay against the hoarding of attention and mental space from the Big Tech. It’s an essay about how technology seems to be paving a road to meaninglessness if we don’t start to change our relationship with it.

Our brain is easily tricked by bots. Data mining algorithms have become so powerful that they allow corporations to know you better than your mom does. Than you do. Michal Kosinski, David Stillwell, and Thore Graepel show that your ethnicity, political inclination, and sexuality can all be guessed with high accuracy (>80%) from your like history.

But likes are just one indication of your personality, Facebook looks at a myriad other data points, such as location history, your friends, who you hang out with, what sites you visit outside Facebook, what you post and many others. They can infer a lot more than your political inclination and your sexuality from that data. Facebook doesn’t listen to your conversation, but it is so good at extracting information from your data that it seems like they do.

Social media companies know what makes your brain release dopamine, so they do exactly that. Facebook can feed you exactly the content you long for, so you’ll want to see more, and more ads will have their inverted image projected on your retina.

The war for your time

Your time is limited. There are only so many ads you can see in a day. There is a fierce battle going on for your precious seconds.

The studies regarding the frequency of phone checking among different groups of people vary in results. Most of them are surveys, and the numbers vary from 38 times per day to more than 150, so take the results with a grain of salt.

Good news is that iOS 12 has a new feature called “Screen Time”, where you can see how long you spend on your phone if you have the beta on your phone. Today I had 3 hours of screen-time and picked my phone up once every 12 minutes. It was a “light use” day, I even have notifications disabled for most of my apps (excluding Uber, Uber Eats and other utilities). There is a good chance that you have similar or higher phone usage.

With iOS 12, you’ll soon be able to see how much time you spend on your phone. If you’re on Android, there’s even a way now, using RescueTime and Google announced its Digital Wellbeing beta program for Pixel owners.

We are flooded with information. Notifications are flickering all around us, trying to get us to open that app one more time. Look at the red circle in the corner. Come on, press the rounded square. Answer that message, check that tag, swipe right, swipe left, play one more game, read one more short news article.

The world around us screams “SPEEEEEEED” while riding a motorcycle at 200mph with a 50-stared capitalist eagle on its shoulder, passing advert after advert.

It doesn’t stop. We wake up in the middle of the night and check our phone. We post something on Instagram and check our like-count every 2 minutes. We’re out with friends and just casually glance at our screen, maybe even fire off a few texts while we’re at it. If you get too involved, it can feel like the consequence of not checking your phone is losing contact with reality. So ironic.

You get a notification that Joe Doe and 123 other liked your photo. Dopamine floods your brain, only to disappear a few moments later. You want more.

I found disconnected things to be a breath of fresh air. There are no notifications on my notebook. The paper in front of me doesn’t suddenly remind me it’s someone’s birthday when I’m working.

The problem is that there has been already a lot of damage inflicted upon our attention spans. I found myself not having the patience to read through a book I thoroughly enjoyed. My friends have expressed similar feelings. Some of my conversation partners refresh Facebook at the smallest hint of an awkward pause in a discussion. I stand tall over my phone with my neck bent together with another 10 people doing the same thing in the line at the grocery store. It seems we are alone and unfocused together.

It is becoming harder and harder to live a meaningful, intentional life. As Anthony Ongaro puts it, we’re twitching, looking for our phones. Take a day and note every time you picked up your phone for no reason whatsoever. You’ll probably be unpleasantly surprised.

Tell someone from a couple of decades ago that we have virtually all the information in the world at our fingertips on a small device and they won’t believe you. Tell them that instead of using that device to explore that vast sea of knowledge, we share memes, and they’ll think that’s the apocalypse, the world gone decadent.

I find myself touching pen to paper instead of stylus to glass more and more often.

What can we do?

Deleting all social media apps from my phone, along with Youtube, has been a great decision for my wellbeing. I am now spending approximatively 2 hours less per day looking at my ever-present screen, and I invest about 1.5 hours in Medium instead of Youtube, finding different ideas and discovering viewpoints other than mine. That’s 3.5 hours per day put to better use than before, almost a part-time job.

There was also an impressive and unexpected relief in turning off most notifications. I can now put my phone away, and not care that I am missing something. There are no bright colours popping on my screen while writing, no sounds to be heard in the other room when working, no vibrations in my pocket when I’m meeting someone for coffee. Looking back, it’s almost like free meditation.

I think that giving yourself some time for reading and thinking every day is a good way of regaining your patience and becoming a better judge of yourself. Look at yourself, search inside your soul and try to figure out what you really stand for, why do you do what you do. Why are you working for this particular company, why are you together with your current partner? Ask yourself hard question, even better, answer them in writing. You should be ruthless in your answers.

Our time is precious, our lives are rather short compared to our possibilities. Ask yourself if feeling bad while scrolling on Instagram is a good use of your time. It may be, but you have to go deep down in your being to find out. Live with intention and you might find happiness, but don’t put your faith in this random article you found on the Internet. It might just be another sound in your echo-chamber. Think for yourself, distil the ideas and discover what you find right and what you think is wrong.

I think that going forward, humanity faces a great challenge. Technology has been the driving force of human growth in the past century and can make us gods. But we need to learn how to have a healthy relationship with it, or otherwise we might shoot ourselves in the foot with a cannon.

We have generations of small kids that go to sleep with a tablet. I’ve seen lots of parents calming their children by putting a screen in front of their eyes. It’s just easier. At the local playground, there are numerous times you’ll see kids bonding by watching videos on Youtube for hours.

Social ability in kindergarten is a strong predictor of success in children. By giving kids tablets and phones instead of going with them to the playground we do them no favours. Kids love screens. As adults, we have some degree of self-discipline, but kids don’t. Parental control of device use will be one of the most important themes in digital wellbeing going forward. How much screen time is too much? When should children get their first smartphone? How do you ensure the kids can communicate with others that are stuck to their screens? Will children without phones be excluded from social circles? These are all questions that need an answer if we want to grow healthy, daring, socially apt humans that can push humanity forward.

Kids are just one part of the equation. Us, adults, have to start dealing with our devices and use them responsibly and with intention. They can be a great aid in our life, and make it so much better. They can also make us miserable. It’s our duty to step back and look at our behaviour with a critical view. A miserable person does no good to the community. It is also our duty to call out Big Tech companies and request that they take Digital Wellbeing seriously. It is great to see Google and Apple implementing time management tools in their OS, while Facebook vows to become less of an echo-chamber and encourage community bonding and local news. Hopefully, we’ll see better days.

In the end, we are the most impressive species to ever walk on this planet. Our brains can adapt to unknown circumstances with incredible ease. We touched the Moon and built spacecrafts that went out of our solar system. The transistors on the chips we build are only 10 nanometers long, and our computers are powerful enough to aid us in curing diseases. It is up to us to keep using technology in order to better ourselves, for it can make us gods.