We Are The Solution.
Never before have a handful of tech designers had such control over the way billions of us think, act, and live our lives.
The quote above is from a documentary called, “The Social Dilemma.” I recently watched this film as I was scrolling robotically through Netflix, as per my routine after school. I generally find nothing that grabs my attention.
Personally, the 1 hr and 34 min I spent watching this film were far more productive compared to the countless shows I binge-watched. As Indiewire put it, it was “Perhaps the single most lucid, succinct, and profoundly terrifying analysis of social media ever created for mass consumption.”
The documentary in summary highlights the significance of each individual’s data. Data is now the most valuable resource in the world, having surpassed the value of oil. Many often mistake their data to be an insignificant component of social platforms. However, this component allows tech designers to influence around two billion people’s thoughts and actions, hooking them to their screens by collecting personal data to generate specific notifications and advertisements. The unethical operations of major tech companies are often disregarded, but its consequences are drastic; the decline in both mental and physical health, degrading oneself and others, and political disinformation are only some of the negative effects. These consequences are purposely created through distinct algorithms that determine what users see when they log on, allowing them to consume filtered information to drive engagement on social platforms.
The documentary interviewed various individuals who were or are of high standing in the most powerful tech companies. These individuals were involved in the creating of technological inventions and innovations like Gmail, the Facebook “Like” button, or the forming of these company’s business models. Tristan Harris, an American Computer Scientist, former design ethicist at Google, and co-founder of the Center for Humane Technology was one among the many who were interviewed in this documentary. He was also involved in the making of Gmail.
In his time at Google, he realized that Gmail was addictive and that his colleagues and himself were not considering the negative effects of such a tool while building it. He realized the responsibility that he and the other fifty designers had, as they were now going to be influencing around two billion people’s thoughts and actions through the generating of notifications, advertisements, and other such features. This addictive nature of such a tool was something he deemed must be managed and solved, and so he created a presentation highlighting why tech companies had a moral obligation to fix what they create. His presentation went viral and soon, every employee of Google wanted to hear what he had to say. This resulted in his realization of a fundamental problem developing in tech companies: the unethical use of such tools to collect users’ data to keep them hooked to their screens in order to profit.
People often fail to realize that “the technology that connects us also controls us…manipulates us…polarizes us…distracts us…monetizes us…divides us.”
To solve a problem that has almost the entire human population hooked onto it, we would have to address and realize the consequences of such an issue. This includes the spreading of fake news, decline in both mental and physical health, degradation of view of self and others, and political disinformation.
Tim Kendall, the former executive of Facebook, president of Pinterest, and CEO of Moment highlights that “all of us at Facebook just had total admiration For Google and what Google had built which was this incredibly useful service that did, as far as we could tell, lots of goodness for the world, and they built this parallel money machine.”
Oftentimes we don’t ask ourselves, what do companies like Google, Instagram, Tik Tok, and Facebook profit off of?
They profit off of businesses that pay to advertise their products on their platform. In return, we remain engaged on social media to purchase the products advertised. This is comparable to companies sponsoring influencers to advertise their products. Essentially, we become the product, or what social media sells to such companies and powerful individuals.
We saw this in the Cambridge Analytica data scandal: Facebook’s selling of data to Donald J. Trump for political advertising during the election of 2018. Since inflammatory content produces the most engagement, Facebook uses “Echo Chambers” to push right-leaning users to groups that lack left-leaning individuals. The distribution of information becomes filtered or biased, with right-leaning individuals solely consuming conservative political content and left-leaning individuals consuming solely democratic content, deepening the political divide in our society. Much of today’s issues of inequality, inequity, or injustice come from disinformation, division, and technological manipulation through carefully designed algorithms. In responding to this issue, we can work towards a better society that strives to find unity in diversity.
So how do we change such an intricate system? Luckily, we have more power in our hands than we realize. Here are some things you can do to be a part of the solution:
- Turn Off Notifications: Companies use the color red intentionally for notifications, as it is a trigger color. It instantly calls for our attention but we can reclaim our time by turning our notifications off. Manage your screen time as well, and track your social media usage in order to regain self-control.
- Remove Toxic Apps: Apps that profit off of “addiction, distraction, outrage, polarization, and misinformation” are considered “toxic,” and removing them can help you take control of your time and the information you receive. Here are some alternative apps recommended by Tristan Harris:
Remove Facebook → Message friends with Signal
Remove TikTok → Send video messages by direct text or with Marco Polo
Remove Snapchat → Get creative in Text instead
Remove Instagram → Use VSCO for photography
- Download Helpful Tools: In a world filled with fast-moving technology, and data, one’s peace of mind is often disturbed. Although the issue of technology cannot be solved with technology, here are some helpful tools:
Get more sleep and remove blue light → Flux
Track your screen time & change habits → Moment
Reduce distractions → News Feed Eradicator
Stay focused on your goals → Flipd
Practice mindfulness → Insight Timer
- “Eliminate Outrage from Your Diet”: Be mindful of what you agree and disagree with, and think before you post or comment. “We vote with our clicks. Don’t support sites that pollute our cultural environment with vitriol via clickbait and outrage.”
Unfollow outrage-chasing voices on Twitter → Use iUnfollow to clean up your Following. Start fresh and intentionally choose the voices you expose yourself to
Unfollow outrage driven Facebook Groups → Check your Groups > Settings > Following
Remove sharply polarized media outlets from your news feed → Both MSNBC & FOXNews
- Follow Voices You Disagree With: Social media delivers to us the content we agree with in order to keep us online for longer, “eroding our ability to engage with people who don’t share our views. To solve problems from poverty to racism to climate change, we have to come together and expose ourselves to different perspectives.” Here’s a helpful tool to expose yourself to different perspectives:
Check news sites whose perspectives you disagree with → AllSides gives readers a cross-partisan view of world events covered by the media, and sustains itself on a consciously created hybrid revenue model to avoid bias and clickbait incentives
- Be Compassionate: The more engagement, the more profit for social media. Nothing creates engagement like hate and anger, so let’s fight back with kindness!
Pause → Remember there’s a real person behind the screen: Don’t be so quick to unfollow or publicly argue with someone who posts something you disagree with
Be compassionate → Try a private message to ask why they feel that way, with genuine curiosity and a desire to understand
- Set Boundaries: When I wake up, the first thing I check is my phone, just like many of us around the world. “We use our phones and news feeds from the moment we wake up, to falling asleep, and even in the bathroom.”
Clear your morning & evenings → Set clear bounded blocks of time without technology
Device-free dinners → Play a game where the first person to check their device does the dishes
Create a shared charging station at home → Charge your family’s phones away from bedrooms overnight
Buy a separate alarm clock → Wake up without getting sucked into your phone first thing in the morning
- Fully Disconnect 1 Day Per Week: This one might just be the most difficult task but once a week, refrain from checking your social media accounts. “Disconnecting can be a powerful way to reconnect with yourself and your loved ones. It’s not only good for you — collectively we can reduce time spent on social media platforms by 15%, impacting bottom lines.”
Pick a date and let your friends and family know you’ll be offline → Or better yet, invite them to join you
- Focus On The Positive: We’ve heard this everywhere, “Focus on the positive,” “negativity can be contagious”, etc. “If you receive 99 positive comments on a post and 1 negative comment, which do you focus on? Our survival-biased brains tend to focus on the negative, even after we turn away from our tech.”
Take screenshots of the positive messages you receive to store in a folder on your phone → Let the rest go. Tech warps how our brains receive feedback, and we can fight back by remembering the positive
- Support Local Journalism: When it comes to social media, we are the products, not the other way around. “Don’t force your local newspaper to play social media’s clickbait game. Support your local newspaper directly by paying for a subscription so that we can remain the customer, not the product. Democracy doesn’t work without healthy journalism.”
Find your local newspapers and support them → USNPL directory
Upgrade your membership on platforms that provide meaningful content
These are just a few things that you can do every day to contribute to solving this global concern. If there’s anything the data scandal has taught us, it’s that everyone’s actions matter and control the course of the issue itself. We are the solution, we just have to realize it.