With our technological world exponentially growing by the day it is easy to get lost and confused with all the lights and sounds and pop ups and windows and random warning messages on our phones. They become more and more a part of our daily lives and we begin to quickly forget a time before any of this existed. We used to spend 20 seconds on our phones at any one time, then that grew to 2 minutes, then 20 minutes. Now we spend hours upon hours in front of a digital screen. This isn't free time that we're inventing folks. We are just displacing other events in our lives. But we don't see it that way, because we've gradually begun forgetting what it is that we enjoy doing. Or we're so distracted that we don't have the time to find out what it is that we enjoy doing. Or even worse, we tell ourselves that what we really love doing in life, is spending time on our phones. And so we continue downloading and clicking and watching at a phenomenal rate.
Two decades ago I would spend every non-school waking moment outdoors in parks with friends and family. At night my father would take us to the park to watch soccer games on the field. Weekends came and we went hiking or we went to visit our grandmother bearing the same usual pie that we forced down with cheap coffee. We got lost going places without GPS, but we asked each other for directions. We played board games, we cooked, we taught our parents about thewonders of Mario. It sounds corny, but if you think back, we actually did all of those things. And by the time bedtime came, we were exhausted but filled with new experiences. Filled with some form of purposeful action, if only purposeful just for the moment.
Now we wake up, check our phones, drive to work, check our emails, stare at computers, drive home and do the same, in between spending hours taking multiple photos and choosing just one. And we're more stressed and separated than ever before and we can't figure out why. And we do this non-stop for years and years in order to maintain, not increase, our financial well being and maintain, not improve, our social status. But everyone is doing it for the most part. So if we don't do it, then we're lost. We won't know where to go. Left or right, up or down. So we download the apps that our friends tell us to download. We train ourselves in how to use them. And we follow along forgetting our old non connected selves in the process.
Is all of this hurting our society, our future society, or is this the inevitable path that a technically advanced society must take?
Sean Parker, of Facebook and Napster fame, recently spoke out about the effects that social media sites such as Instagram and Facebook could potentially have on our society, our children, and ourselves. He was blunt about the issue, and did not hold punches. And what he said can best be summarized as follows:
- Tech companies exploit human psychology
- They purposely exploit them
- The effects are unknown
- There's very little substance in the content
Words with more meaning coming from someone at his stature. But none of this is brand new information. Advertising companies have known this for decades. The songs that you can't get out of your head. The color patterns that immediately represent a recognized brand. All some form of psychological hack to coerce you to do or purchase something. Showing people photo after photo and realizing that they really like this and can do it for hours isn't as advanced or evil as one might think.
Can software be harmful?
We all know that one guy who has spent thousands of hours playing some form of video game in their life. They don't move, talk, eat, they just play their game. This isn't wrong in it of itself. We all enjoy video games because that's what they are for. They are designed with bells and whistles and reward systems that produce dopamine. Recently while revising the classic that is Final Fantasy 8, I realized the entire process is so intricately designed for this pleasure reward system we have. Everything from the experience point counter going up rapidly to the victory song after each and every battle. And because the human body can produce said Dopamine, then it must mean that feeling "good" is a part of being human. So don't stop playing video games, if you enjoy them.
Play the same video game twice however, and you'll be bored to death. You won't feel the same as with the first run through, and that's because you've lost the novelty of the entire thing. The human mind likes new experiences. New foods are exciting, new places to visit, new movies, etc. They even make our days feel longer. Do any of these a few times and they begin to lose their luster, like with any drug.
The biggest websites and apps on the Earth currently have figured out this novelty problem. They constantly serve, not produce, new and varied content every second of every day. It's like an eternal video game, except you don't get to be a player and you don't get a story. Maybe it's like watching many FMV sequences for different games and out of order all day long.
Again, not harmful in it of itself. However, mass injecting dopamine into a society or group of hundreds of millions can have wide varying results. And because we're all (everyone) new to this current technological experiment in our lives, we can't possibly predict anything about the effects. You'd need a few generations exposed to it perhaps to get a somewhat decent picture of what will happen. If current signs of the time are any indication however, maybe we won't have to wait that long for the signs to begin to show.
It's possible that this over-saturation of feeling good leaves us feeling bored and restless in our day to day offline lives however. There's no possible way that your every day individual can compete with what he is seeing online. The pictures of food, the vacations, the wealthy entrepreneurs. Your mind can only reel at all of this. Then when we put our phones down, and we come back to our reality, we feel low. The entire day, we are this sine wave of emotions and chemicals. So while having 100 million people look at 100 million photos is a great thing. Having even 1% of those people become so dependent that they become depressed is indeed harmful to the society as a whole.
Who's to blame?
Unfortunately, it's hard to say whether any one person or company is to blame in anything. The goal of any company is to scale up and to grow their market, simply put. There are many fantastic apps in the app store that would work, if only they had users. Recently I found an application that would help neighbors locate their lost pets. But the application only had a few hundred downloads. A community of 200 will not change the way that lost pets are found unfortunately. But a society of 2 million could definitely begin to make an impact. So growth is a good thing.
but you need substance
And this is the fine line that I spoke of earlier. Growing a company is a great feat. It's difficult and filled with challenges and you invent technology along the way to make it happen. In the end you get to employ thousands of people and partake in charitable events and people love your application. So what's the harm? That comes down to a personal choice from ourselves as engineers and business owners. Are we building technology to grow and scale and change the way things work, or are we building technology to help people live happier and freer lives. And that's where the dilemma seems to be. The former, for obvious reasons, scales much faster and produces much higher finance. The latter will lead us into a much more positive place with technology that is in line with those ideals but it will take some time.
But can we blame companies for wanting to make their product reach more markets faster and more efficiently? Again, that's tough to say. Maybe this is an experiment where only time will tell. The platforms themselves aren't the actual problem. It's the people behind the platform of course. The people that can't put the phone down. That must take photos of every food item. That was 7 hours of random videos daily. These people had a life before YouTube and Facebook. They just can't quite remember what it was.
It isn't harmful, but it is our future
In a few closing words. It isn't that exploiting human psychological tendencies is harmful, though it might be morally wrong, but it's more like this is the groundwork that we are setting for our next 50 years. A billion hours spent looking at photos, is a billion hours that could have been spent building something else. We carve out this road we call life each and every day. We either go straight, or we diverge left or right every now and then. But if we keep going left, over and over chasing the carrot as it were, then we'll just be stuck in an infinite loop of no possibilities. And that could definitely be considered harmful to our society as a whole.