“The largest supercomputers in the world are inside of two companies — Google and Facebook — and we’re pointing them at people’s brains, at children.” –Tristan Harris, Center for Humane Technology
Our culture’s dominant behavioral addiction has caught the attention of two types of experts: psychologists and engineers. The psychologists have been represented in book format by, among others, Sherry Turkle (Reclaiming Conversation, 2016); Adam Alter (Irresistible, 2017); and Jean Twenge (iGen, 2017). The engineering camp has been slower off the mark and full of surprises — not the least being a backlash against addictive devices and services by some of the very guys who invented them.
Here’s a word from the turncoat technologists and four other parties determined to make your life a better place to be.
Eating their young. The Center for Humane Technology is a big deal for several reasons. First, it’s the brainchild of a group of Silicon Valley A-list technologists from the big firms being blamed for creating the addiction epidemic in the first place. They include the inventor of Facebook’s “like” button and a number of other engineers and VCs who played key roles at Apple and Google. Tristan Harris, former Design Ethicist at Google, is the director.
- Second, they have serious funding, incuding $7 million from advocacy group Common Sense Media, plus another $50 million in air-time from the likes of Comcast and DirecTV.
- Third, the group is mounting a huge outreach campaign — The Truth About Tech — that will be rolled out to 55,000 public schools to raise consciousness among educators, parents and students.
- Fourth, they’re going to Washington to lobby for legislation that aims to curtail the power of the biggest tech companies.
One man campaigner. Cal Newport is a computer science prof at Georgetown rather than a Valley dude. In addition to his research interests in algorithms (the formulas that promote our addictive attachments), Newport writes the Study Hacks Blog. Its stated aim is to explore “how to perform productive, valuable, and meaningful work in an increasingly distracted digital age.”
Early this year, he issued a challenge to his readers. They were to spend a 30-day period cutting back their “digital interactions” — not giving up their phones or online activities they deemed to be important to their work or lives. Some 2,000 readers agreed to try out the experiment. Newport and his subjects continue to exchange messages about their successes and failures.
Photo Leonhard Hilzensauer
The pretend phone for real phone addicts. Schillinger’s device for soothing the empty spaces in your anxious brain is a slab of high quality plastic in which stone beads are embedded. If you close your eyes and start to stroke the fake phone, you won’t miss the stream of pings and memes quite as much as you might if left empty-handed.
The inventor describes the slab as a “prosthesis” — think artifical limb for a missing leg. Watching people walk around clutching their phones tightly even when not in use often reminds me of the worry beads and worry stones in use since long before digital. But this version will cost you a little more — €185, getting on for C$300.
The pouch that swallowed my phone. It’s a pouch called “Yondr.” Creator Graham Dugoni had the inspiration back in 2012 and founded the company two years later. The key to the Yondr solution is it’s for use in closed events or spaces — concerts, schools and the like. The folks offering the entertainment or education in question have a captive audience and can make use of the pouches a condition of entry. Participants put their phones in one of the pouches, which are sealed using a proprietary lock. They’re kept safely to one side, then returned to their rightful owners when the gig is over.
Dugoni is concerned about more than mere nuisance value. He doesn’t want people cutting loose at concerts getting video-recorded in compromising postures, then posted to YouTube for all to see. He’s also developed a following among concert promoters and entertainers — like Dave Chappelle — who don’t want the audience recording concerts and making illicit use of show content.
Putting the dope in dopamine. Catherine Price has just published what may be the first book-length plan to cure mainstream phone addicts of their affliction: How to Break Up with Your Phone: The 30-Day Plan to Take Back Your Life. I haven’t acquired a copy yet, but the Look Inside on Amazon shows one half of the book is devoted to making the case for why your phone is a terrible thing (The Wake-Up). The latter half (The Breakup) spells out the 30-day program for getting your life back.
Like Dugoni, Price is very upbeat about how initial reluctance turns into happy customers. As she told Vox, “When people do the 24-hour trial separation, it can be scary at first, then extremely relaxing.” Dugoni cites the experience at one California school that found locking phones away all day caused grades to go up and discipline problems to plummet.
That’s what I keep finding after more than four years of “confiscating” phones in my classes. Everyone freaks out — then almost everyone raves about their new-found powers of concentration and better grades. But this too is a captive audience. And taking the message of success and fulfillment out of the classroom to the wider world isn’t going to be easy.