How to Tell if You’ve Been Hijacked by Technology (and what to do about it)

Did you know that we look at our phones on an average of 1,500 times per week? Or that the amount of time it takes for a teenager doing his/her homework to reach for a technological device is down from six minutes (just few years ago), to virtually seconds?

According to research from digital anthropologist Brian Solis, technology has not only hijacked our minds, but society. In a recent talk given at SXSW, Brian explains through a personal story how we have arrived at this moment of technological reckoning. I really enjoyed this talk, and in fact I listened to it twice! You can watch it here:

Brian’s sentiments relate to a trend I’ve been noticing lately whereby marketing experts—and former tech apologists—are now standing up for the need to take personal responsibility for our own technological choices.

I first noticed this change occurring when Tristan Harris, a former Google design ethicist, hit the mainstream in early 2017 with a barrage of interviews about why our relationship with social media and technology must change. His thinking echoed many of the pieces I had been reading at the time, including the seminal “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?,” “Google, democracy and the truth about internet search,” “How Smartphones are Killing Conversation,” and “‘Our minds can be hijacked’: the tech insiders who fear a smartphone dystopia.”

Perhaps the most noticeable evidence of this trend is the fact that Facebook’s stock recently tanked by more than 20 percent due to slowing growth in July. While the stock has largely recovered, this movement illustrates the gap forming between a disillusioned user base and growth-hungry investors.

Brian better explains the problem:  Social media sites like Facebook require that our attention is maintained at all costs. Because these companies are public, until value is no longer measured by minutes of attention held, this problem will likely continue. Because it’s profitable, there are naturally people out there who are working to exploit your attention span and cognitive biases so that you see certain information and react to it in certain ways. By design, the goal of the system is to ultimately grab, hold, and direct your attention. But at what cost?

The Downside of a Technological Hijacking

Brian explains that a technological hijacking can be characterized by the following aspects:

  • It’s harder to disconnect
  • Increased levels of stress and anxiety
  • Less sleep
  • Lowered self-esteem (whether we know it or not)
  • Reduced empathy, because of our inability to get deep
  • Diminished thinking
  • Reduced inputs

Like an insect caught in a spider’s web, human interaction with the world-wide web appears to have a hold on us. And the latest research indicates that our future relationship with tech will only become more entangled. For example, have you ever thought about what happens when …

  1. … not just your identity, but your face and words are recreated online with the intent of damaging your reputation or hijacking your identity?
  2. … facial recognition technology is used to predict crimes that haven’t even happened, and the wrong people are targeted?
  3. … governments utilize insights from technology to create social scores for their citizens, as is the case currently in China?

Or, more philosophically:

  1. What kind of people do we become when we depend on technology for companionship?
  2. Who do our children become when they spend their free time watching videos of other kids playing with toys instead of actually playing with other kids? (There was actually just a great TEDx talk about this.)
  3. What happens when teenagers pin their developing identities and understanding of self-worth to social media interactions?
  4. How does our collective behavior change when we place our value on the wrong things?
  5. What happens once you realize you’ve been led into a particular style of thinking by design, and your find yourself living in a fabricated reality?

The Upshot

Before going too far down the rabbit hole, Brian Does propose a solution. In the video he summarizes with the following statement:

Somebody has to take control, and I think that’s going to have to be you and me … at least for now. Not just how we use technology, but others around us. We have a voice, and we have networks in which we can bring people around to inspire meaningful change.

So let’s get to it! Here are some of the things you can do to mitigate the effects of this “hostage” situation:

  1. Download an app like Moment or RealizD to find out how much time you’re actually spending on your technological device, and then set usage limits (you can set limits for family screen time too).
  2. Be purposeful with your time online: engage the newly rolled out time limit tools on Facebook and Instagram.
  3. Understand what cognitive biases are and how they are being exploited. Check out this infographic providing an overview of the basic cognitive biases.
  4. Become well-versed in common fallacies and better understand poor logic. Here is a website that offers a “critical thinking poster” and “critical thinking card deck.”
  5. Learn how to structure an actual argument so that you can better identify poor arguments. Check out the Aspen Institute’s “Better Arguments Project.”
  6. Become well versed in media literacy and it’s opposite, disinformation. Check out organizations working to bridge the divide like National Association for Media Literacy Education and Media Literacy Now, among others.
  7. Follow people online who are thinking, researching, writing, and teaching about these issues. A good starting point is to follow @briansolis on Twitter.
  8. Set time aside plenty of time for thinking and reflecting offline. Schedule regular time for activities offline.

These are just a few suggestions for taking back control of your relationship with tech. What else would you suggest?

(Thumbnail image source)

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