It Must Be Dorito’s Fault I’m a Bag of Suet in a Pair of Overstuffed Skinny Jeans
I smoked cigarettes for just over 20 years. I now smoke pipe tobacco instead. In addition to it smelling better and encouraging the nostalgic grins of perfect strangers, the tobacco is far better. As much as I often argued that I wasn’t addicted, rather I just liked to smoke, the effects on my lungs are exactly the same.
So, in the debate over whether we are addicted to our smartphones or social media, it makes no difference if we are addicted, manipulated, or just weak-willed, the results are still exactly the same: a compromised democracy, the highest teen suicide rate in recorded history, a dwindling attention span and a slow disconnect from humanity in favor of the humanity as represented on a glass screen.
I notice this compulsion. I know that, for the most part, social media raises my stress level (I grant you, I have significantly lower stress than most because I am not a terribly anxious person to begin with, I keep myself busy, and I have so few fucks left to give I’m almost laconic), and yet I keep coming back to Faceborg and Twitter at least three times every hour. You know, just to see if the world ended or if Trump birthed an alien out of his piggy chest.
While I might argue that I’m certainly not addicted to my iPhone/iPad/iMac, the fact that I spend a huge amount of my waking world time engaging them should at least merit some serious interrogation.
But first, a parallel.
From The Extraordinary Science of Addictive Junk Food
NYT, February 20, 2013
"More than half of American adults were now considered overweight, with nearly one-quarter of the adult population — 40 million people — clinically defined as obese. Among children, the rates had more than doubled since 1980, and the number of kids considered obese had shot past 12 million. (This was still only 1999; the nation’s obesity rates would climb much higher.) Food manufacturers were now being blamed for the problem from all sides — academia, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the American Heart Association and the American Cancer Society. The secretary of agriculture, over whom the industry had long held sway, had recently called obesity a 'national epidemic.'"
And from The Great Awakening
"And part of what is keeping us from full realization about the impact of technology on our humanity is that we’re too busy with our heads down using that technology. The numbers are staggering:
• By June, Facebook had 2 billion users. And Americans alone spent 56 billion minutes on the site each month.
• YouTube’s 1.5 billion logged-in users average more than an hour a day on YouTube on mobile alone.
• Every minute 300 million hours of video are uploaded and each day 5 billion videos are watched.
• By September, Instagram had 800 million users, up 100 million since April.
• There are now 2.6 billion smartphone users worldwide — a number expected to climb to 6.1 billion by 2020.
• The top ten users of smartphones touch their phones an average of 5,427 times each day. The rest of us clock in at 2,617 touches per day.
• Between midnight and 5 a.m. 87 percent of participants in a study checked their phones at least once.
• Over 70 percent of Americans sleep next to or with their phone.
And all that time spent in the presence of such powerful devices is having a profound effect on us. Our phones are with us almost all the time, and in most of our social interactions, yet we know there’s something wrong with that. In a Pew study, 89 percent of phone owners said they’d used their phones in their last social gathering, but 82 percent felt that when they did this it damaged the interaction.
And it’s also affecting our relationships. In a study of people in romantic relationships, 70 percent said that cell phones interfered with their interactions with their partners.
The parallel between snack foods and high tech in the mobile computing era is creepy. Both are technologies designed to be convenient as well as rewarding in the most superficial way. We also can’t seem to stop ourselves from constantly snacking — both for a food-like thing and an information/social-like thing.
I substitute a couple of days a week for charter schools. From 6th grade through the end of high school, every single one of them have strict rules (laxly enforced) against two things: smartphones and snack foods in class. An average day consists of 15 percent instruction, 15 percent class management, and 60 percent taking away smartphones and bags of Cheetos. The sight of so many kids immersed in chowing down on nutritionless junk and texting, Snapchatting and taking selfies makes me wonder what universe I’m living in. These alien creatures living the scholastic life are so different from my own experience.
None of this is by accident.
Again, from The Extraordinary Science of Addictive Junk Food
"General Mills had overtaken not just the cereal aisle but other sections of the grocery store. The company’s Yoplait brand had transformed traditional unsweetened breakfast yogurt into a veritable dessert. It now had twice as much sugar per serving as General Mills’ marshmallow cereal Lucky Charms. And yet, because of yogurt’s well-tended image as a wholesome snack, sales of Yoplait were soaring, with annual revenue topping $500 million. Emboldened by the success, the company’s development wing pushed even harder, inventing a Yoplait variation that came in a squeezable tube — perfect for kids. They called it Go-Gurt and rolled it out nationally in the weeks before the C.E.O. meeting. (By year’s end, it would hit $100 million in sales.)"
From The Great Awakening
"Tristan Harris is a former Google design ethicist who founded the group Time Well Spent to raise awareness about how, as the site puts it, 'our society is being hijacked by technology.' As Harris points out, our addiction to our devices is by design. In the attention economy behind those friendly, inviting icons we love so much is an incredible amount of increasingly sophisticated science. 'The best way to get people’s attention is to know how someone’s mind works,' says Harris. The behavioral scientists, neuroscientists and computer scientists on the other side of our screens know we like the feeling of control. But they also want us to cede control of our attention. And so we’re given the illusion of control. 'By shaping the menus we pick from, technology hijacks the way we perceive our choices and replaces them with new ones,' writes Harris. 'But the closer we pay attention to the options we’re given, the more we’ll notice when they don’t actually align with our true needs.'"
The feeling one gets from likes and retweets is subtle but insidious. It feels good. It feels like people are paying attention to you, that they may care what you think. It feels so good that, as all things motivated by reward, your behavior begins to shift. It’s human nature.
If you write a tweet that all of sudden has 50 responses, you will naturally start to find ways to repeat that as that attention equals success online. More eyeballs means more importance. Given that some asshole with a YouTube channel can make genuine money from videos of pranking his kids, the rewards for getting that attention can become tangible.
I catch myself, as Co-editor of Literate Ape, behaving this way. We always want good, solid, interesting writing from our contributors but the intangible reward goes to those pieces that get more reads in the analytics. Does that mean these pieces have more merit than others? No. Not in the least.
In fact, it is often the poetry and fiction that gets left behind in the analytics scales of shares and comments that I start to bristle at the more popular pieces. Even my own.
It is, however, a digital magazine, so relying on the computing devices people carry in their back pockets is sort of the baked in business model.
The pervasiveness of digital devices and the ensuing onslaught of online media that promises a social experience but is, in fact, the polar opposite of meaningful social interaction, is riddled with the salt, sugar and fat that our psyches crave.
We want to believe that our fixation on hot dog memorabilia is shared by others. We want to believe that behind every police shooting or mass murder there is a conspiracy afoot. We want our existing bias’s to be confirmed no matter how asinine they are.
We want to be able to get six pack abs in seven minutes a day, a pill that will eliminate our sadness, and be told that we aren’t responsible for our choices or the consequences of those choices.
We also expect those companies that make massive profits feeding us this diet of empty information to be responsible for curtailing our intact while still providing it.
After all, whose fault is it that we are chronically obese but the companies that make the fake food we eat?
"The prevailing attitude among the company’s food managers — through the 1990s, at least, before obesity became a more pressing concern — was one of supply and demand. “People could point to these things and say, 'They’ve got too much sugar, they’ve got too much salt,'Bible said. 'Well, that’s what the consumer wants, and we’re not putting a gun to their head to eat it. That’s what they want. If we give them less, they’ll buy less, and the competitor will get our market. So you’re sort of trapped.'"
“Well, that’s what the consumer wants.”
It is what we want. We also want no culpability in the consequences of getting what we want.
So we blame McDonald's for making us fat and Faceborg for making us stupid. We blame tobacco companies for our smoking habits and Russian hackers for our gelatinous monstrosity who sits in the Oval Office. We are a fat, stupid nation and we finally have the perfect avatar representing us to the world:
But instead of deleting those social media apps from our phone or choosing to eat a fucking apple rather than a bag of corn chips, we expect those who profit most from our obsessions to own the consequences and be better global citizens. Like hoping the oil companies will invest in green energy or that those McDonald's salads won't have as many calories as a Big Mac (they do).
Don’t hold your breath, fatty.