Manuel Bruscas, Qustodio head of product, reflects on the early days of the internet and where we are today – way beyond a healthy, balanced relationship with technology.
Something that stands out about the early days of the internet is that we were not “always-on”. I could only enjoy the internet at certain hours and in certain places (usually on campus). I had to connect and then disconnect. It might sound naïve, but this act of disconnecting was a blessing that, among other things, allowed me to reflect on what I had just done online. I’d often ask myself, “Did I really just write that?” It was like going to a disco or a concert at night. I’d have some fun or get crazy for a few hours and the day after, I’d say to myself, “That wasn’t the real me”.
Time marched on and my university days were over. I took my first job and was given my first mobile phone (make that two). I started using the internet as a working tool that increased my productivity (sic). More and more of my time was spent on screens. I had a Palm, then a BlackBerry, and finally an iPhone. I had access to (almost) all information and services when and where I wanted. However, this superpower came with a price: little by little it became harder and harder to disconnect.
Today, I will be the first to admit that I'm addicted to screens. My phone has become my shadow and it is preventing me from enjoying quality time with my wife and daughter, the rest of my family, and my friends. My alone time and any chance for a bit of healthy boredom have been undermined too. Perhaps worst of all, I have lost my ability to daydream and be creative due to constant interruptions from my phone. I have lost focus.
And I am not alone. Unfortunately, digital addiction and distraction are affecting just about everyone. Several researchers and authors claim human attention is at stake. In fact, according to a writer I greatly admire, Yuval Noah Harari, "We, human beings, are being hacked.” On those same lines, Tristan Harris, a former Google employee and co-founder at the Center for Humane Technology, recently stated, “Desperate for clicks and views, tech platforms look for any way to bring people back by making use of human instincts. It works.”
An increasing number of papers and articles warn us now almost daily that the abuse of technology and screen time could negatively affect human beings. Some of these conclusions are not fully validated yet as it is still too early to be 100% certain, and some research claims the opposite. However, it is hard to ignore how vulnerable we are to these technologies. And our kids maybe even more so. As Matthew MacDonald recently wrote, "If smartphones are a great big unknown, why are we so casual about introducing them to our kids? Unfortunately, history offers no control group and all the decisions we make today might have an impact we are unable to reverse.
With all this in mind, I recently attended “Digital Wellness Festival Europe”, Europe’s First Digital Wellbeing Event. It was a fantastic congress with speakers from several disciplines: business, philosophy, ethics, government, etc. For two days, we reflected on technology, (digital) wellbeing and even free will and happiness. These were the major takeaways from my point of view:
- Technology is disrupting our ability to pay attention and connect to real people and the real world. Technology and particularly mobile phones are now controlling us (not the other way around). Let’s face it, algorithms and AI can manipulate us.
- We all live in the attention economy and the FAANG companies (Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix, and Google) are competing for a share of the cake (your time) because your time equals their money. This disturbing quote attributed to Reed Hastings, CEO of Netflix, sums up that fact: “We’re competing with sleep, on the margin… it’s a very large pool of time.”
- The sad truth is a lot of really smart people are getting paid really high salaries to sell us advertising or hook us in to digital products and keep us connected to screens.
- We still lack evidence on the impact of technology. For instance, screen time is not necessarily wrong and technology can clearly help us in many ways when used correctly. The key question is what happens when it replaces interactions with things in the real world?
- Technology should exist to make our lives better. We need a balanced relationship with it. And Digital Wellbeing should be the internet’s ethical North Star, not a luxury good.
- Technology is a means to an end, not the end. It is not inevitable or irreplaceable.
- We shouldn’t let a handful of digital companies such as Amazon, Google, Facebook, and Apple be both players and referees in the Digital Wellbeing space. Independent third parties are a must. It just doesn’t make sense to trust companies that make money by keeping us connected to help us disconnect. It’s hard not to see the irony in Apple CEO Tim Cook’s recommendation that people disable notifications, one of the most iconic features of smartphones. In other words, we pay several hundred dollars for an expensive iPhone which turns us into addicts… and the solution is to turn off some of its value. The truth can be seen in this statement that most people would agree with: “I know I should be disabling notifications and keeping my phone out of my bedroom and yet I still don’t.”
- Free (advertising-based) models have flaws and there are tons of them competing for our attention. "Hacking" us is the key to their survival.
Whether you call it digital wellbeing, or wisdom, or common sense, I strongly believe we have gone way beyond a healthy, balanced relationship with technology. The FAANG companies and ad-based companies hold too much weight on the scale. We are being hacked. We are losing control. This is one of the main challenges we are facing as human beings today.
It’s time to give people back their time and attention. It’s time for the attention rebellion.