Growing up I was lucky to have a family who prioritized and was financially able to provide homemade, healthy meals. We wouldn’t eat prosciutto wrapped figs with goat cheese, but we would eat well-cooked meats, vegetables, and salads. All substance, no filler. Some Fridays, my family would order take-out as a treat. There was a little mom-and-pop joint called Darlings Pizza which was a family favorite.
As a kid I started to notice eating healthy meals prepared from individual ingredients was not common amongst my friends. Some of my friends would eat Tater Tots and Mac ‘n Cheese for dinner. Or Costco meatballs on rice and gravy. The food some of my friends ate on a nightly basis mirrored what I, a shy 15 year-old who had memorized his ICQ number, would cook for himself when home alone. Many factors play into what a family can eat on a nightly dinner. Not everyone had the same privileges as I.
Fast forward to in the early 2000s. Places like White Castle and McDonalds are huge businesses. They’re some of the first restaurants to use the assembly-line system. They’re optimizing for profit margins and low costs. A similar transition is happening at grocery stores across the country. Pre-made food is taking over kitchen shelves. All filler, no substance.
Big food companies spend billions of dollars per year researching, iterating, and perfecting their advertising campaigns. They A|B test their products to make sure they’re as attractive as possible. They increase the sugar content to make food addictive. Recent studies have shown that sugar is more addictive than crack. In part, due to these efforts, over 34% of America’s population is obese. Big food companies have engineered ways to trade nutrients, the purpose of food, for emotional satisfaction.
The internet was created as a way for computers (and thus, humans) to share information efficiently over long distances. In the early days we didn’t have much bandwidth or processing power so websites were plain text with no flourish. All substance, no filler.
As processing and internet speeds have increased we’re able to send new formats of content: audio, live video, or beaming wrench blueprints to a spaceship. Now, with the increased speed there’s more room to send other things along too, but are we sending more substance?
Some applications we’ve built follow a similar history to that of fast food. They were, and sometimes still are, built to optimize the quickest satisfaction with the the least amount effort. Like sugar-rich foods they wedge out a space in our subconscious and automatically popup when we’re feeling alone, sad, or bored. They form habits that bring little value to the person who’s hooked.
And here’s where I struggle: Is the optimization of communication actually a reduction in its value? Or, is communicating in lighter forms actually increasing our connection? Modern communication is more frequent and spread thinner across many channels. Our apps are like eating candy as you find it and skipping the hearty meal at the end of the day. Our phones can’t become obese, can our brains?
In our busy world, do we value a single person taking the time to write us a thank you card, or do we value multiple light-weight digital acknowledgements? Does it matter?
For a long time I didn’t have a Facebook account. I didn’t like that party invites were being sent via events rather than personal invitations. Facebook invites felt cheap and non-personable, because they were. I told myself if someone was hosting a party, I’d rather them take the time to call, or send me a text. Looking back, my perspective was incredibly selfish. Why would I wish the person more work just to invite me? Am I worth that much? Who am I to demand they circumvent efficiencies on my behalf?
To this day, I still struggle with the other world we’re building. The one that is only as thick as the latest mobile phone. Sometimes I catch myself staring at my phone reading tweets or looking at instagram, and realize that they don’t exist in any other form. They don’t actually exist. I look behind my phone hoping to see the world that it’s opened a window to, only to be disappointed that there’s nothing else there. I once read that twitter followers won’t be there to help when you need to move. I think about that statement often.
I’m torn: Are we making digital junk food, or are we creating the most connected world we could hope for? Is it bad that our attention spans are getting shorter or did we have long attention spans out of necessity and not enjoyment? I don’t and will never understand if this is the best way to live as I don’t know anything else. Even if I move to a remote part of the world and disconnect, I’ve spent half my life working on digital products. I’m in too deep.
I just want you to stop and think about your habits as you reach for your phone first thing in the morning. Just like big food companies spending billions of dollars per year researching, iterating, and perfecting their advertising campaigns. So are the folks making the apps you use everyday. They A|B test their products to make sure they’re as attractive as possible. They’ve engineered ways to trade effort for emotional satisfaction.
Are you consuming junk or nutrients? How do you know?
Think of all the extra time you’ll be able to spend with your friends if there was only an app to help you out.