75. The Social Dilemma and a solution

Uncategorized Oct 11, 2020

The Social Dilemma is a popular documentary on Netflix that dives into the dangers of social networking. 

I have read numerous posts on my own Facebook feed suggesting I watch it as well as having multiple clients discuss the film at our monthly check ins. 

I have not watched it yet. I don't plan to. I am familiar with the territory and have been practicing a philosophy I learned in a book to prevent me from spiraling into hours of harmful app addiction. 

That book is called Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport. In it he outlines the startling behavior behind many of the most popular apps populating our smart phones. 

He describes an interview with Tristan Harris, a big tech whistleblower who sounded the alarm after his time spent working for Facebook. 

Tristan concludes that our smart phones are like slot machines and that they are similar to gambling and big tobacco in that they are engineered to be addictive because the companies at their helm profit wildly from our attention. 

The attention economy has emerged as the newest, most destructive threat to our well being. Bill Maher is quoted in saying it is more dangerous than smoking: "Big tobacco was just after our lungs, big tech is after our souls." 

All of this began when the smart phone revolution started in 2007. This was when the Apple iPhone was released. Interestingly, the iPhone was never intended to be a multi purpose computing device that provided hyper connectivity in our pocket. It was meant to combine two devices: an iPod for music and media play and a cell phone for connecting to friends and loved ones. 

What it has evolved into has spiraled out of control and what lead Harris to follow the example of Jeffrey Wigand - a former big tobacco employee who blew the whistle and confirmed what many people already expected: that the companies selling cigarettes deliberately engineered them to be more addictive. 

"We added new technologies to the periphery of our experience for minor reasons, then woke up one morning to discover they had colonized our lives" Newport wrote.

The attention economy was created and as of this writing the average American spends upwards of 5 hours per day on their device with half of that coming from social media use. The average person checks their phone 63 times per day. This is a mere 13 years after the smartphone revolution transformed our lives as we moved away from Blackberrys and phones full of buttons to the smooth flowing touch screens of today. 

New technologies increasingly dictate how we behave and feel and they somehow coerce us into using them more than we think is healthy. This is typically at the expense of other activities we know are more valuable such as resting, exercising, eating, and socializing. Cue the reason this post exists on a fitness and nutrition website. 

In his book Newport explains two mechanisms that big tech companies use to create our additive tendencies.

1. Intermittent positive reinforcement

2. The drive for social approval

Intermittent positive reinforcement is the reason Tristan Harris concluded an interview with Anderson Cooper by holding up his smart phone and saying "This thing is a slot machine." As the name implies and you are likely to have experienced, the apps that command our attention drip likes and notifications into our lap intermittently and unexpectedly. Much like the pull and result of a slot machine lever. This creates a dopamine release that when left unchecked can lead to addictive tendencies. 

The drive for social approval is an ancient one. By installing like buttons the social apps fuel the feedback we feel when we are liked by our close acquaintances. The difference being we now no longer have to be in their presence, it can be done from afar and behind a screen. By playing on this primal need we feel like we need to constantly reply to messages immediately as they come in or maintain a certain number of likes or engagements to prove our social worth. 

In combination these two feedback loops have been exploited by engineers to make the apps we use foster behavior addictions. 

Thankfully Newport lays out a strategy to break these addictions and take back your sense of autonomy. 

First he suggests a digital detox. This is just like it sounds. He wants you to get rid of all your digital use for a period of time to reset the hormonal pathways they influence.

Once you have completed a detox he suggests adding apps back to your life in a very specific way: that of an essentialist. Our clients at Pillar know this philosophy well as we use it with our fitness and nutrition. He is suggesting we apply it to our digital use too. He suggests adding tech back in with the criteria that it be used to do a job and once that job is done know that additional use is not beneficial. Also known as essentialism, or finding your minimum effective dose. 

Newport uses the analog of a farmer selecting tools to get jobs done on his farm. Famers don't rush to the tool store to pick up the newest shiny object simply because it is new or their neighbors are using it. They evaluate the tools they use extensively before they start using them. If a tool does a job better and more efficiently than what they were using before it may be warranted to adopt the new technology. However this is not where the analysis stops. They have to consider many tertiary effects like the upkeep of their tools, time investment, maintenance costs, and effect on their soil and crops for future harvesting. In all there may be up to a dozen questions that must be carefully answered before a new technology is added to a farmers arsenal. This is far cry from most of us decide to adopt new apps - which are the tech name for tools. 

I love this strategy and have used it effectively myself to maintain only one social media app which connects me to my clients, friends, and loved ones and provides me opportunity to market my business. It also allows communication that was previously done through email. In that regard I have cut down on email use to near zero levels. This is a far cry from being tied to my inbox the way I have witnessed so many of my colleagues and clients are. 

Furthermore I have refused to adopt popular new channels like Twitter and Instagram. Twitter was an easy choice to skip: they limit your posts to 150 characters. This encourages sensationalist and overly simplified writing that is just like clickbait or bad news reporting. Fitness and nutrition are nuanced topics that can not be easily communicated in such few words.

Instagram is another that I considered and experimented with but ultimately moved away from. It promotes communication via overly stylized photos. I prefer to read things myself and my clients have expressed similar tastes. Communicating via a photo insults intelligence and promotes a look at me environment. It is easy to see the effect it has had on fitness: it inflates expectations and has made cell phones an integral part of most people's exercise programs by way of documenting everything they do. What was once a valuable tool for evaluating form has turned into a distraction fest where people literally only do things 'for the gram.' In other words, for the attention they get from posting. 

I have read Cal's book a few times and plan to return to it often as more and more apps clamor for my attention. I am delighted to have completely missed the wagon on things like SnapChat and Tik Tok. I attribute this to applying the philosophy of Digital Minimalism. 

If you watched the Social Dilemma and were concerned you need to read the book and practice what it says. 



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