Starset Society

TSS OPINION: How the fight for our attention has become the fight for our freedom

by Karma Lei Angelo

Shackles

Every Sunday, my iPhone flashes a notification, a proud declaration of how much average time I spent on it that week. I do everything from researching topics, asking Safari questions, and answering messages to streaming TV shows on a popular app, popping some random music up on Pandora, or playing games and browsing social media. 

I checked my screen time for yesterday. I first picked up the phone at 3:48am and opened it a total of 89 times in a 24-hour period. That includes clicking on social media apps a total of 25 times, my text messages 12 times, and emails 5 times. There were 2 phone calls, 3 pictures taken (down from typical dozens I normally take), and still even more clicks and applications opened than that. I had 68 notifications from Facebook Messenger, 23 text notifications, 16 on Facebook, and another dozen or so from other locations. No sooner had I exited the Facebook app than I started playing Whack-A-Mole with other notification badges before yet another one of those red little bastards popped back up on Facebook–this time to show me a comment to my comment that I already saw on my computer…an hour earlier.   

Yesterday, I spent a total of 9 hours and 27 minutes using my phone. And that was down 25% from the previous week. 

In addition, I also multitask on my laptop. I tutor online through Google Chrome, provide clients with projects they request through Adobe or CAD-based products, do more research for novels I write, help my kids with school projects, watch YouTube tutorials, and browse Facebook in my spare time.

I’m not alone in this digital plugin. While the rest of my family is not nearly as reliant and dependent on their technology to work as I am, they still spend their fair share stuck to screens. My kids use their computers and chromebooks for remote learning. They also play online games in their rooms right before bed. They each have their own devices and spend a certain chunk of time going down a YouTube rabbit hole or chatting with friends on a Discord server, Snapchat, or Messenger. Not to mention, my daughter’s favorite time-waster is browsing memes on Instagram. 

I also take care of an autistic boy the same age as my son and he spends time on Disney Plus, Netflix, or his Nintendo Switch when he’s not doing remote work on his chromebook. His mom has set up parental controls on his phone, so he’s not always on that, but he steals as much time as he can to be plugged in elsewhere. 

Let’s not forget my husband. His favorite pastime? Spending hours scrolling through Facebook, sharing dumb dad jokes and weird memes. When he gets home from work, he’ll sometimes stream a TV show through a game console hooked up to the TV in the living room. And, while watching TV, eating dinner, or lying in bed, he’s distracting himself with daily humor or the latest politically-driven article on Facebook.

Believe it or not, we aren’t shackled to technology like other households. We don’t own any smart TVs, we have very few Internet of Things sprinkled in the house, and we don’t use any Alexa-ish or Ring-type devices. We don’t have the latest gaming systems and we still watch movies on DVDs. Even our cars don’t have bluetooth capabilities nor modern CPUs that can transmit data back to manufacturers. 

Let’s go back and look at my screen time. All that data–the clicks, the badges, the time spent in each app–was from what my phone provided.  Now, imagine the amount of data collected:

  • How much time did I spend scrolling through Facebook? 
  • How many nanoseconds did my eyes rest on a specific ad? 
  • Which friend’s post did I like that particular day? 
  • What topics did I click on under “News” or category I searched under “Marketplace”? And how much time did I spend reading specific topics or browsing certain categories?
  • What video did I watch on YouTube after an ad kicked in? 
  • What did I search for on Google from my computer and how does that affect the ads that now pop up on my phone’s internet browser? 

Just how much data is harvested and collected each hour? 

Multiply that amount by all the devices used in the house. And multiply that number by all the people who are out there in the world doing the same exact thing I’m doing. The amount of data collected could very well translate to a googol-byte, or ten to the one hundred power, of data or more. After all, that’s where the name “Google” derived from. Seems appropriate, no?

Now ask yourself: What happens to all that data? How is it used for us? How is it used against us?

If you haven’t watched Netflix’s documentary The Social Dilemma, I highly recommend taking 1 hour and 34 minutes of your time to do so. Not only does the movie provide profound quotes such as Arthur C. Clarke’s “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” it provides a solidly disturbing look into big technology and how social media, in particular, has altered human behavior.  The film even has its own website with its stated dilemma:

Never before have a handful of tech designers had such control over the way billions of us think, act, and live our lives. 

It’s not to say that digital technologies–more specifically, social media giants–are innately evil. That’s not how they started out. They made it easier to connect with people, build relationships, find like-minded hobbyists, and discover long-lost relatives. Social media sleuths used the platforms to stop murderers such as Canada’s infamous Luka Magnotta from Netflix’s Don’t F**K With Cats documentary fame. They created communities and allowed students to stay connected with friends, especially in a post-pandemic world. And social media has branched into various sub-networks with places to shop online, share digital media, discuss topics, rate books, save recipes, find dates, and provide business opportunities for entrepreneurs. There has been a lot of good come out of being so connected. 

However, on the flip side of the same coin, tech giants have studied and exploited our online experiences. They run capitalistic platforms where every click is worth fractions of pennies to the dollar. The more clicks, the more money made. They control what we see, how long we see, what things we see. We are digital puppets pulled along computer-coded strings. And our puppet masters are controlled by monetary masters themselves: the stockholders. It’s always about the money and how much they can profit. Keep up the clicking, keep us engaged and chained to notification badges as it lines their pockets. 

That’s the ultimate cost to us: our attention is being sold to the highest bidder. 

Did we put the noose on ourselves? Are we responsible for our own social media suicide? Afterall, we impatiently click on “okay” to terms and conditions of an innocent-seeming app without care to the consequences. In turn, we hand over our permission to have our data siphoned from our phones. Ad experiences are catered and coddled to us, increasing impulse buys in the form of cutesy entertainment and the latest sparkly product that catches our eyes. So yes, we allowed these Big Brother surveillance methods into our newsfeeds and phones, providing the rickety platform we stand on before we commit digital suicide. 

How did these tech giants do it? They discovered that the best business models to increase their profits were all based on how better to evolve the artificial intelligence and algorithms behind each click. The AI predicts, learns, and modifies the algorithms which, in turn, control everything we see on Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, Instagram, and every other major app or website out there. AIs were programmed and are controlled by the tech few, and now AIs program and control us by getting us to stare at the pale blue screen instead of getting us to think of our pale blue dot. If we’ve ever come close to a Terminator-esque world, we’re currently in it. 

And the rope tightens. Tech giants have successfully grabbed and kept our attention as social media algorithms hijack our minds. Instead of showing us a wide variety of topics, the computer code narrows and fine-tunes searches, showing us the same things over and over.  For example, click on an article about a flat-earth conspiracy, now Facebook is showing you conspiracy groups, ads about “wokeness”, and “friends you might know” who share similar interests about flat-earth theories. “Echo chambers” begin to resonate across our screens and through this repetition we begin to believe what we perceive as the truth in these similar articles, videos, and discussions. Even my smartest friends with IQs way higher than mine have fallen prey to these echo chambers. 

Now that these corporations know they have our attention, it’s a game of how they can make even more money off of us. Instead of seeing an ad every 10 posts on your news feed, it shrunk to every 6, and now it’s every 3 or 4 posts. Ads take 5, 15, or 30 seconds away from us each time and we let them. Multiply each ad by dozens per day and millions of people, and now that becomes extreme and easy profit. 

All of this only cost us our time and attention, right? 

Mental mutilation.

There is something far more sinister at play than the mounting and annoying ads which bombard us. 

We no longer think freely and abstractly, able to have a civil conversation in person. We re-act with emotional frenzy and mob mentality instead of thinking clearly and logically. We have begun to think in binary and absolutes: “It must be this way and only this way because that way is wrong.” or “If you are a [insert political affiliation here] and vote for [insert candidate’s name here], then unfriend me now because you are wrong and no sane person can vote like that.” 

This year has provided us with many more examples of these absolutes: COVID-19 hoaxes, the presidential election, fake news, racial injustices, climate change deniers. We may no longer be able to see the clear divide between what’s true and false, but what’s false sometimes shines brighter than what’s true and will spread much, much faster. We are led, then shoved, down rabbit hole labyrinths unable to resurface without our brains jumbled and altered. 

This uncertainty feeds anxiety and depression and is another reason mental health of the masses has taken a nosedive. In an effort to feel more inclusive and give us more meaning and purpose, the opposite has been achieved. Hospitalizations for suicide attempts and self-harm injuries for young girls have dramatically increased since 2010. Social media has become a silent drug and a digital addiction that makes our children vulnerable to cyberbullying, internet trolls, and online pressure to have the most likes, the cutest filters. Their brains have developed differently than other generations. 

When you have the ability to control what 2 billion people think, you have the ability to cause societies to collapse. Cancel culture becomes a thing. Uprisings happen. Nations become more polarized at an exponential rate. Civil wars begin. 

We have become a society of doom. We thrive on de-struction instead of con-struction, exacerbated by the media and headlines that catch our eye. Ratings rule and chaos controls. We’ve become nations divided, full of civil unrest, misinformation, and anxiety. We now live in a world which is simultaneously dystopian and utopian.

If we continue down this path, we could soon see a former United States, fractured into a handful or dozens of smaller countries. “United we stand, divided we fall” has never meant more than it does now as algorithms lead us by our leashes to polarized directions. We are tearing ourselves apart from the inside out. The next war won’t be started with the turn of a key or a call from a red phone. It won’t be a missile launched from an underground bunker somewhere. It will be the algorithms which guide us and the bytes of data which control us. The next war will be started from a sequence of clicks and taps. 

Broken chains.

Short of a massive communications failure, the technological connection we have now is not going away. Nor should it. For all the sobering and somber discussion, Big Tech and social platforms are strategic tools and useful weapons. There just needs to be solid balance and mediation. We need the pendulums to return from the far polarized ends they are in, back into the happy median that brings us back together. 

Regulating Big Tech is necessary. Legislators in the United States are looking into privacy laws, much like Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). Lawmakers have spent years working on things such as:

  • The legal implications on regulating Big Tech, including how to tackle misinformation, data privacy, and antitrust issues;
  • Updating/revising Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 which protects freedom of expression and innovation, including fake, illegal, and harmful information; and
  • Hitting Big Tech with antitrust violations and forcing them to end anti-competitive behaviors, such as the lawsuit by the FTC against Facebook.

The New Freedom.

What can we, as consumers and tech users, do in the meantime? How can we take back our attention? I don’t think there’s a simple answer here. 

For me, I still need Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter for my author connections. I need Amazon, Goodreads (owned by the Zon), and Audible (also owned by the Zon) for my business. I still need Google for my research, email, and tutoring. And, of course, Apple has me because of my iPhone. So, there’s no removing myself from some of these monsters.

However, after watching The Social Dilemma and seeing my own screen time statistics, I’ve started taking steps to unplug myself from the Matrix as much as I can. I bailed on Snapchat. I deactivated my What’s App. I’m rarely on Discord or Reddit. I’ve pulled back on my Instagram and Twitter activity. I moved many of my social media apps into a single folder and turned off all notifications that weren’t for business or family. 

I also had a long talk with both my teenagers about their usage, showing them their own screen time statistics. My daughter has taken up painting and other non-digital activities. My son is working on his VEX robot and learning to program. And I make time each day to talk to them, face to face, about their day, their school, their mental health. It’s not perfect nor is it where I wish they would be with their digital obsessions, but it’s better than it was. And that’s a start.  

If I could recommend anything, I’d say once you’re done reading this, shut off your phone or close your laptop. Turn off the notifications and all the devices. Take similar steps as I’ve done, small ones if you need to. Don’t give the Big Tech AIs more data to create your digital bindings. See and experience the world in freedom, instead of their shackled pixelation. 

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