I’m worried that my phone is working against me. I suspect that it is not fundamentally on my side. I spent a lot of money to get it. I spent money to buy it a case to keep it safe.I keep it charged and I keep it cool. I try to give it the things that it wants and yet I’ve begun to see that our relationship is not reciprocal. I don’t think it takes care of me the way I take care of it.
I’ve come to see my phone, not as a phone but as a peephole. It is a portal through which thousands of people are looking at me and how I behave. What’s more is that I think they are getting the wrong impression about me. They have designed my phone, the apps I use, the web pages I visit, they have designed all of these to grab and hold my attention. They want my attention so that they can have my clicks, my likes and my shares; and eventually, hope against hope, some of my money. I am not the only one. They are doing this to you too. They are doing this to all of us.
Many good things have come from my phone and my activity on it. However there are some fundamental flaws in how this system is organized.The thing that is most shared is just that. It may not be true. The most popular things, the most clicked things, they are not necessarily the best things for me.
My phone doesn’t know who I want to be. It doesn’t know my dreams nor my aspirations. In fact there is no way to tell my phone what those things are and to have it reshape everything it tells me and shows me towards those ends. It’s a smart phone. I’ve seen it do math and it’s amazing. But it is not smart enough to help me in this way. My news feed on Facebook is cultivated towards outrage. I don’t want this, but there it is. An algorithm realized that it could get more clicks with stories about outrage. It doesn’t matter if the news I’m reading is true or not. It doesn’t matter if the news outlet is left or right leaning, reliable or not. All that matters is that I am outraged, that we are outraged. Outrage means clicks. Nobody wants this. If you ask, people will tell you that they don’t want this. But nobody acts this way. Despite what we all think. Despite what we all say. We are betrayed by our clicks.
There is an app called Moment that measures one’s activity on their phone. Moment collected data from its users about how they felt about the time they spent on their phones. People regretted most the time they spent on Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and WeChat. One is tempted to say that the fault here is with the user. You don’t have to use it that much. You can delete the app. What’s wrong with you? Why are you wasting your time? All good questions and certainly not without merit. Except there is one wrinkle in that logic: At each of those companies there is a legion of engineers who are working day and night to find tricks, traps, and backdoors into the human psyche to persuade you, to entice you to stay on their site for just a bit longer. You don’t have the control you think you do. You don’t have the control that you are demanding of others. All the numbers show this to be true. Despite what we believe. Despite what we say. We are betrayed by our time spent on these sites. Are you reading this on your phone? Look up. Is anyone around you on their phone? For these companies this regret is a measure of success.
I cannot set my Facebook newsfeed, or my Netflix suggestions, or my YouTube suggestions to a setting that maximizes mindfulness or compassion. I cannot get my phone, and the apps on it to stop the outrage I see (of which there is no shortage) and give me philosophy. I can pepper my feeds with philosophy, literature and compassion. But these things are not the default mode of those sites and those apps. The default mode is for my attention, for clicks, for shares all to satisfy those who advertise in those places. The apps are built for what advertisers want. They are not built for what I personally want. By hook or by crook, by cat video, cooking time-lapse, or outrage, we will keep you here.
I’ve taken steps to pull my phone closer to being on my side. I’ve gone through deliberately shutting off almost all notifications. Only my friends can reach me. I’ve moved nearly everything off my home screen onto another page. But my phone is still a peephole and my feeds are still filled with outrage. The people working to make this happen, they may be doing it for big, beautiful reasons. Openness, communication…but they are spending their time measuring the time we spend on their sites. Until this changes, until we make them change this, I will be suspicious of my phone. I have no choice now, but to treat my phone as if it is not on my side.