Optimizing Your Misery
Is your smartphone making you stupid? There’s an app for that
Every three months, Mark Zuckerberg gets on a conference call with his investors to brag about how much of the world’s mental bandwidth his company is monopolizing. It’s an alarming amount. The average Facebook user spends 40 minutes a day liking, commenting, sharing and friending, mostly on mobile phones. Multiplied across Facebook’s user base of 1.3 billion people, that’s more than 850 million person-hours every day. The typical user of Instagram, which Facebook also owns, spends another 21 minutes bestowing tiny red hearts on other people’s vacation photos. If you’re one of the 280 million people who use both services, you probably burn a full hour of each day “connecting” with friends or strangers through the window of a three-by-five-inch pane of glass.
Then there’s Twitter, YouTube, Candy Crush, Snapchat, Clash of Clans, Tinder and Vine. There’s plain old email and text messaging and Google Maps and podcasts. If there’s a category of your life that can’t currently be conducted, expedited or simulated on a smartphone, you can be reasonably certain there’s a team of well-funded Stanford dropouts in a converted Silicon Valley warehouse prototyping it right now. The quantity of financial and intellectual capital pouring into the development of sticky smartphone apps makes the Manhattan Project look like a science-fair project. The frivolity of many of these apps belies their technical sophistication: The algorithm that underlies Facebook’s News Feed crunches over 100,000 variables before deciding whether to show you your coworker’s baby photos or that fake skydiving elephant video first.
Thanks to the efforts of all these lavishly compensated geniuses, fiddling with our phones has been elevated from a bad habit to a lifestyle. The average American spends about 3 hours a day fussing with a mobile phone, making it our third-most time-consuming activity after sleep and work. Those figures swell to grotesque proportions in younger cohorts. One recent survey of college students found them on their phones eight to ten hours a day; text messaging alone consumed more than three hours.
The health effects of this mass shift in behavior are only just coming into focus. Heavy phone use has been shown to cause neck and shoulder pain, eye strain, headaches and repetitive stress injuries to the thumb and wrist. Texting while driving is a major contributor to traffic deaths and hospitals report rising numbers of accidents from texting while walking. Chronic stress and sleep problems are contributing factors in a wide range of maladies, from heart disease to weakened immune systems; round-the-clock smartphone use has been linked to both. Then there’s the effect on productivity. By encouraging us to multitask and fragmenting our already perilously divided attention, our apps tax our finite cognitive resources. One study showed receiving a notification for an unread email while working decreases effective IQ by 10 points. The phones get smarter; we get dumber.
Compulsive sensation-seeking despite mounting self-harm: That’s pretty much the definition of addiction. Yet this generation of tech company leaders sees themselves not as drug dealers or junk-food peddlers but as saviors. In idealistic Silicon Valley, “making the world a better place” is a cliche no one’s ever embarrassed to recycle. Nobody talks in terms of profit, only about “serving the needs of the user.” Sometimes it gets absurd: Asked why he wears a plain gray t-shirt every day, Zuckerberg once said it was so he’ll be free to “make as few decisions as possible about anything except how to best serve this community.”
Imagine if the CEO of a supermarket chain revealed that his customers were spending hours in his stores every week, emerging sick and dazed — and then claimed he was merely “serving the community.” Wouldn’t someone respond by suggesting that, just maybe, his stores needed a redesign?
The big difference, of course, is that grocery stores want something straightforward from you: your money. App makers want it too, but they mostly aren’t bold enough to ask for it; instead, they rely on selling your time to advertisers. It’s a two-party transaction, and anything bad that happens to the third party — ie. you, the user — is what economists call an externality, a consequence they have no incentive to worry about. Where there’s a runaway phenomenon that everyone deplores but no one knows how to stop — global warming, antibiotic overuse, 24-hour cable news — there’s usually an externality to blame.
The good news is this is the sort of problem that contains the seeds of its own solution. The number of apps vying for your time is a ski-jump curve; the number of minutes in a day is a flat line. Very soon, we will reach Peak Attention. Just as $4-a-gallon gas created a market for Priuses and Teslas, Peak Attention will create the conditions for new companies that use your time efficiently to thrive. It’s already happening. Some of these startups, like Checky and Moment, exist explicitly to help their users break free of the screen-addiction feedback loop; others are simply run by people who know that optimizing for time spent above any other metric yields lousy products and empty experiences. “The problem with time is it’s not actually measuring value,” Twitter co-founder Evan Williams recently wrote. “It’s measuring cost as a proxy for value.”
In fact, as Williams notes, the most successful tech enterprise of the last 20 years arose from just this kind of thinking. Back before it was an omnipresent colossus that wanted to own every part of our lives, Google was just another startup looking for a way into them. Larry Page and Sergey Brin faced a catch-22 in presenting search results: the faster they got a user to the right answer, the sooner that user jumped to another site. Rather than run from the paradox, Page and Brin embraced it, believing users would be smart enough to return to a service that treated their time as valuable. Google has had its share of misfires over the years, but its search tool is the rare tech product that shows no sign of going obsolete.
Anyone want to start the next Google?
Reprinted, with minor edits, from the June 2015 issue of Playboy. The figures quoted here are from that period.
In the time since this article came out, I’ve read several excellent pieces raising some of these issues. I particularly recommend this one by Michael Schulson, published in Aeon.