The Problem

We can’t get back into the wilderness, the eremos in Greek, a place of solitude and stillness, because our attentions are being held captive by incredibly powerful forces on the web.

When I started researching what I noticed as a severe problem I experienced, an inability to focus inside the digital realm, I found the issue to be wide spread.

Conversely, it’s what wasn’t happening to a key set of people I know who did not have social media accounts that I realized there really is a problem at hand with focus on particular subjects, not just current events.

Friends of mine who were absent from social media were just as informed on current topics as I was. 

The same friends not on social media also never told me about how anxious they were.

On the flip side, friends of mine instant messaging me all day long or scrolling and posting on social media were anxious and fearful in particular ways. Their anxiety was at the least completely different in nature from those not on social media at all.

Historically speaking over the past decade, when I got stuck on a problem at work, off to one of three news sites I went. I even noticed I’d get the impulse to hit refresh every five minutes at times. I was treating news like…..

Social media, which was a tremendous source of philosophical debate and outrage (more so outrage, but a slowly growing outrage). Yes the cat pictures reside there too. And eventually memes. But the stirring of anger to prove some point right to my ‘audience’ seemed to slip its way into my behavior. Especially after refreshing the news page to find something worthy of debate, off to a platform to see what people were posting as a response to the latest breaking news. 

I could go on in examples. As the connection method of the Internet allowed for mere exchange of propositions, as under developed or well articulated as they might have been, I was rapidly losing out on looking someone in the eye and exchanging information we so desperately needed to hash out in person.

If I feel my attention was hijacked, it’s because it was. My attention was even falsely painted as being intellectually stimulated because of some latest blog article I may have read, or enlightening tweet.

In an article published in April of 2018 titled “An Apology For The Internet From the Architects Who Built It,” a number of prominent employees of digital tech companies more than willingly confess what is at stake. And it is nothing short of the hijacking of human psychology.

The platform of social media in particular is intentionally built to be addictive. It’s not a matter of stating if it’s addicting. This is more than well documented at this point. Here are a few takes from the article.

Sandy Parakilas, a former Facebook employee, said

“…one of the core things going on is that they have incentives to get people to use their service as much as they possibly can, so that has driven them to create a product that is built to be addictive. Facebook is a fundamentally addictive product that is designed to capture as much of your attention as possible without any regard for the consequences. Tech addiction has a negative impact on your health and on your children’s health.”

Emphasis added

And there are indeed particular incentives. Of course one of the most powerful and traditional incentives seen throughout history, monetary gain. 

By having free platforms paid for by advertisers, the longer users stay on the particular site, the more advertisers are willing to pay. 

And nothing captures attention more than outrage.

Roger McNamee, tech venture capitalist, states

“If you parse what Unilever said about Facebook when they threatened to pull their ads, their message was “Guys, your platform’s too good. You’re basically harming our customers. Because you’re manipulating what they think. And more importantly, you’re manipulating what they feel. You’re causing so much outrage that they become addicted to outrage.” The dopamine you get from outrage is just so addictive.” 

Emphasis added

The advertisers of course know because they were seeing the results financially. More eyeballs glued to the scrolling sites meant more return on their investments. The negative ad or piece of news phrased in negative phraseology delivers more clicks and keeps people focused longer.

This type of monetary windfall by means of capturing people’s attention led to methods maximizing the capturing and pinning down a user’s attention. The red notification bar, the pull down to refresh feature, and the randomness of the algorithm after you’ve pulled down to refresh the news feed, are all features taken from gambling psychology. All methods to give people a ‘win’ in the moment, and then, to keep them refreshing in anticipation of something even more outrageous than the previous seemingly random article to grace their screen.

Then there is this statement from the first president of Facebook, Sean Parker:

“It’s a social-validation feedback loop … exactly the kind of thing that a hacker like myself would come up with, because you’re exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology. The inventors, creators — it’s me, it’s Mark [Zuckerberg], it’s Kevin Systrom on Instagram, it’s all of these people — understood this consciously. And we did it anyway.”

To be clear, I am piecing together the problem we are having collectively by not being able to be still in our thoughts, the inability to get deep work done as Cal Newport would say, and especially the reason anxiety is just shooting off the charts over the past decade, is because of the intentional design to hijack human psychology via digital social media platforms.

I know I am emphasizing social media here, but those are what help carry the fuel into burning ourselves, which then spill over into frantic instant messaging between people. 

In computer scientist Cal Newport’s book Digital Minimalism, he talks about a conversation he had with the head of a mental health department at a university.

“She told me that everyone seemed to suddenly be suffering from anxiety or anxiety related disorders. When I asked her what she thought caused the change, she answered without hesitation that it probably had something to do with smartphones. The sudden rise in anxiety-related problems coincided with the first incoming classes of students that were raised on smartphones and social media. She noticed that these new students were constantly and frantically processing and sending messages. It seemed clear that the persistent communication was somehow messing with the student’s brain chemistry. (p 105)” 

Emphasis added

Even the allure of instant messaging is having a detrimental effect, one I’ll highlight in additional pieces. 

We’ll return to the wilderness. We can get there.

But here I will point to The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry by John Mark Comer. He calls out from Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World a dystopian future Aldous envisioned consisting “not of dictatorship but of distraction, where sex, entertainment, and busyness tear apart the fabric of society (p 40).”

As our attention spans plummet (going from 12 seconds in 2000 down to 8 seconds), the environment we live in continues to ring noisier with a lack of substance.

I hope to recover my attention, because it is possible.

There is much to regain.

Just as the architects of the addictive algorithms have done all this with intentionality, it is going to take intentionality to gain back our attention to what matters most.

Published by David Mieksztyn

I am a writer passing along what I've learned.

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