Who is to blame for smartphone addiction?

It says a lot about our society that science fiction depicting a dystopian future caused by our own technology is an entire genre in and of itself. Technology causing harm is an old narrative. In more ways than one, it is a narrative that has already happened. We live in an increasingly sophisticated technological world; Jame Somers wrote an article in which an expert posits that the problem is, increasingly, that we are building systems beyond our capacity to manage. That partly explains things like Facebook selling ad space to Nazis, Google spreading fake news after the Las Vegas shooting, or national 911 outages. More specifically, the problem is that spotting design flaws is much harder in digital systems than in mechanical ones. To borrow a quote from that article,

“ The software did exactly what it was told to do. In fact it did it perfectly. The reason it failed is that it was told to do the wrong thing. Software failures are failures of understanding, and of imagination.”

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The anime movie “Blame!” is on Netflix. If you have time to watch it, that will make two people who've seen it. The movie is long and bleak, but I really enjoyed the story. The basic premise is that, thousands of years in the future, humans lose something called the “Net Terminal Gene”, which gave us the ability to control technology. The world, now one vast unrelenting automated city, keeps on building itself in seemingly random patterns; but now, to the logic of the machines, being human is a crime. Humans are surviving in isolated pockets, pushed to the very edge of extinction by our own technology. One such group, the Electro-Fishers, forage for edible sludge by day and light campfires each night to comfort themselves, a reminder of their past. The protagonist, Killy, armed with a powerful weapon called the Gravitational Beam Emitter, enlists the help of the Electro-Fishers, and together they attempt to create an artificial version of the Net Terminal Gene.

It is a compelling version of the old “tech gone rogue” tale; one that involves considerable thought into what a future society integrated with technology might look like. Visually, I found myself wishing to catch just one glimpse of sky or earth; the world had grown past the dimensions of a Dyson Sphere, all the way out to Jupiter. The humans were trapped in gray, endless levels; the promise of regaining control of the city seemed like a pipe dream to them.

As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, fiction reveals truth that reality obscures. That is certainly the case here. We humans have already lost the ability to fully control our technology. It is much closer to the truth, for the average person, to say our technology controls us. We spend an average of three to five hours a day staring at a tiny screen instead of engaging with our physical surroundings. Higher phone addiction is strongly correlated with lower well-being; our generation is more depressed, experiences higher anxiety, and more house-bound than any generation before us. I am still analyzing the data from my study on smartphone addiction, life satisfaction, and flow; but one statistically significant result I do have is this: people who reported being on their phone were less likely to indicate "flow", the positive state of energized focus, full immersion, and intrinsic enjoyment of an activity. 

Do we have ourselves to blame? After all, smartphones were adopted voluntarily by us. No one forced us to have them. That’s what I thought at first. On closer examination, it is clear the companies that make the people designing the technology are setting an impressive array of psychological traps that make it very difficult, if not impossible, to fully control our use. Smartphone addiction is driven by incessant “checking” behavior; most college students check their phones every five minutes without receiving a notification. Many of us have experienced the infamous “phantom notification”- we feel our phone vibrate, check it, but nothing. In fact, my iPhone currently will vibrate at seemingly random times. Perhaps it is because I received an email that didn’t make it into my “focused” folder. (If that’s the case, it defeats the point of having a “focused” folder to reduce distractions.) All of this creates what is known as a random reward schedule, extremely effective at hijacking our brain’s curiosity systems, causing us to check our phones more and more frequently. We are trained to look for some new piece of information that will trigger the cascade of neurochemicals we have come to expect.

The lack of care for your well-being is a design flaw, in the estimation of former Google product philosopher Tristan Harris. Harris created a non-profit called Time Well Spent, to find ways to make digital products less toxic and controlling. His work was a revelation for me, shedding light on who is truly to blame for our current issues with managing technology: the people who designed them. A half-dozen companies control more or less the whole of the Internet. Some instances of their monopoly power, such as Google preventing a father from blocking Youtube on his son’s device, strike us as more egregious than others. The problem is the mere fact they have this much power over our lives, little to no public oversight, and a strong motive to generate profit in a market economy.

Silicon Valley has been designing technology to steal an ever-increasing bandwidth of your attention for a reason; a reason in the shape of a capital S with vertical slashes through it. Eyes on screens translate to advertising dollars, which is why they spend so much effort collecting their precious marketing data. This in turn allows them to target ads just for you, which in turn requires you to be looking at your phone screen. It is a vicious cycle. Just like the Electro-Fishers, we find ourselves trapped in increasing isolation, constantly encountering obstacles to a life of peace and happiness generated by algorithms no one really has control over. Kafka, who wrote about lives governed by impenetrable and indecipherable systems, anticipated the Age of Algorithm better than he ever could have hoped. We can still see the sky, but we are looking up less and less.

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No one solution is enough to solve this problem. SwitchKick is designed to be a start. It is a platform to put power back in our hands using a powerful combination of psychological tools of its own. Unlike any other app on the market, SwitchKick puts people together, instead of leaving us facing the traps of technology on our own. Overcoming addiction requires more than just willpower; it requires forming new habits and behavior. Anyone who has attempted to form a new habit knows that it is incredibly hard; one of the best ways to do so, is together with friends. SwitchKick pods function as a combination of social support, social learning, and competition; you gain points and level up by overcoming addictive behavior. Gamifying health behavior like this is nothing new, even in smartphone apps, but inexplicably, no one has applied it to the most obvious application, smartphone addiction itself. Levels and points mean nothing without others to compare ourselves to; that’s why the groups are so important. In Korea, when this concept was tested, the people in social support groups were more ambitious, and reduced both their smartphone use and their addictive scores more than the loners.

Like the remaining humans in Blame!, we need to work together to reckon with the problems technology causes. Unlike them, we still live in a world with limitless possibility. We can decide the shape of our future, and it doesn't need to involve endless shades of gray. Our future is as bright as we collectively decide to make it.