Addiction by design: Don't let tech products run your life
Many of the people who created the social-media monster are turning it off. For example, the guy who invented Facebook's Like button -- which was originally named the Awesome button -- has installed parental controls on his smart phone to prevent him from downloading any apps, including Facebook.
Back in 2009, Justin Rosenstein coded the prototype for what would become Facebook's Like button. Now Rosenstein works for an office-productivity service in San Francisco, and as the Guardian's Paul Lewis writes in an October 6, 2017, article, he restricts his own access to Facebook's "bright dings of pseudo-pleasure." A growing number of tech-industry veterans are voicing their concern about the ill effects of "continuous partial attention," which has been blamed for declining IQ scores, among other ills.
Lewis reports on a recent conference dedicated to teaching companies how to make their products addictive. The conference organizer, Nir Eyal, promised attendees they would learn "how to manipulate people into habitual use of their products."
The compulsion to check your phone incessantly is part of the product's design. Addiction is the marketing strategy. Kinda like tobacco. And heroin.
Former Google employee Tristan Harris has become an outspoken critic of the tech industry, according to Lewis. Harris states that "[o]ur choices are not as free as we think they are." Lewis quotes Harris as stating that "billions of people have little choice over whether they use these now ubiquitous technologies, and are largely unaware of the invisible ways in which a small number of people in Silicon Valley are shaping their lives."
Depriving users of their freedom of choice
LinkedIn thrives by exploiting "a need for social reciprocity to widen its network," according to Lewis. Autoplay videos and next episodes on YouTube and Neflix deprive users of their ability to choose whether to keep watching. Snapchat's Snapstreaks feature has the service's (mostly) teenage users in "near-constant communication." Advertisers want to hit you with their message when you're feeling down, bored, or are otherwise vulnerable and "in need of approval."
Roger McNamee, a venture capitalist who profited from investments in Google and Facebook, has now turned against the advertising model that has made the two companies unimaginably rich. McNamee believes the people who run Google and Facebook are "good people, whose well-intentioned strategies have led to horrific unintended consequences." He says the only solution is for the companies to abandon their current privacy-invasive advertising models.
James Williams is another former Googler who now warns of the evil that the company is doing by selling private information about the public to advertisers. The Guardian's Lewis quotes Williams as stating that "[t]he dynamics of the attention economy are structurally set up to undermine the human will.... If politics is an expression of our human will, on individual and collective levels, then the attention economy is directly undermining the assumptions that democracy rests on.”
Putting technology in its place: Servant rather than served
Regaining control over the tech products and services we touch every day takes a concerted effort. In an October 13, 2017, article on NBCNews.com, Ariana Huffington says now is the time for us to "re-calibrate our relationship [with] technology." With the rise of artificial intelligence, we need to hit the reset button sooner rather than later -- when maybe there is no reset button.
There's no need to disable all of your phone and internet connections to combat your addiction to technology. The Houston Chronicle's Josh Spector writes in an October 15, 2017, article that you simply devise a set of rules that let you "limit the negative (and amplify the positive)." Here's an abbreviated version of Spector's 10 rules for happy smart phone use:
At least two ad-industry experts believe there's a future for online advertising. The only requirement is for advertisers to stop tracking us. Sure, that's gonna happen real soon. Yet Don Marti's October 13, 2017, blog post and Samuel Scott's October 17, 2017, article on the Drum reach that conclusion independently, though they approach the problem of failing ad tech from different angles.
Marti is an advocate of open source software who works for Mozilla, the people behind the Firefox browser. He claims people -- including himself -- like ads that are neither targeted at them nor annoying. Marti advocates for "tracking protection" to be built into online ad networks, though he admits there's no incentive for advertisers to do so at present because right now they can grab all of our personal information without asking for permission.
Scott takes a different route to the same end point, claiming the problem is that online ads follow the direct marketing approach rather than the brand advertising that is common in most media. To Scott, brand advertising is "creative and memorable... subtle and not too annoying." It's also expensive, especially when compared to direct marketing, which is not only cheap but also irksome to consumers.
Direct marketing is also easy to track, which advertisers love. Now ad tracking has gotten seriously spooky, as explained by Wired's Andy Greenberg in an October 18, 2017, story. Greenberg reports that researchers at the University of Washington were able to "exploit mobile advertising networks" to identify a single person's location with "disturbing precision." For only $1000, the researchers were able to use the ad network to scrape all the details from a person's phone: apps installed, contact addresses, email, you name it.
According to Scott, the growing awareness among consumers of the dangers of online surveillance will turn the advertising tide away from a direct-marketing model and toward more brand advertising -- minus the tracking. I'll believe it when I see it. Until then, I'll keep using ad-blocking browser extensions, which I wrote about, along with other internet security precautions, in the October 4, 2017, Weekly.
Can your use of social media destroy your right to a fair trial? That's a question Cathryn Evans attempts to answer in an October 18, 2017, article on RightsInfo. Evans examines the issue from the perspective of British law, but the impact of social media use by jurors on defendants is affecting trials in the U.S. and elsewhere. As a June 12, 2017, article in the New Jersey Law Journal concludes, there is a surprising lack of guidance from courts on what constitutes appropriate use of social media by lawyers, court officials, jurors, and potential jurors.
Once again, the legal industry demonstrates its inability to keep pace with technology.
Capitalism on the rocks? Another thing I'll believe when I see it is the demise of capitalism. Yet pundits continue to predict the economic system's imminent demise. One such is Phil Rockstroh, who writes in an October 16, 2017, article on Common Dreams that the current epidemic of anxiety -- particularly among teenagers -- is the result of capitalism, which "on both an individual and collective basis, drives individuals into madness." Rockstroh concludes that "[w]e either struggle and strive, by and any and all means, to end the system—or it will end us."
Another indication of the impending death of capitalism -- at least in its current form -- comes from another Common Dreams article by Paul Buchheit that was published on October 16, 2017. Buchheit points out the inaccuracies of the current model for setting the poverty threshold, which was conceived in the 1960s when food was a much larger share of family budgets. The current model devalues housing, healthcare, and college tuition, all of which have increased in price at rates far greater than the cost of food.
Buchheit cites a Princeton study that found 94 percent of the jobs created in the past decade are temporary or contract-based rather than "traditional full-time positions." Three-quarters of Americans live paycheck-to-paycheck. Only one-third of Americans contribute to a 401K retireent plan, and the amount for the "median working-age couple" is $5000.
The Congressional Research Service reports that if you apply the methodology developed in the early 1960s to current economic conditions, the poverty threshold would be three times higher than its current level. Thus the poverty line would reach or exceed the median U.S. household income, which was $59,039 in 2017. In other words, our existing economic system has left half the country living in poverty.
If misery loves company, it's got plenty in the U.S.
Misery is not the note I want to leave you with this Weekly. The emotion I'm going for is gratitude. We spent much of last week evacuated as the firestorms raged throughout our Northern California community. We're safe, our family is safe, and our home is safe, but our hearts are broken. Just down the street, not 200 yards from our front door, our neighborhood has been devastated.
Picking up the pieces -- literally and figuratively -- will take years. Our neighbors are already coming together to start the recovery. My wife and I are grateful to the many neighbors who stayed behind to beat back the conflagration and save our homes. And a special gigantic thank you to the fire crews from near and far that came to our community's aid.
We grieve the fire's victims, we offer solace to those who lost their homes and possessions, and we start the long process of putting our home town back together again.