Controlling our technology, not being controlled: An upgrade to the human operating system

The other day, Darrell Etherington published an article on TechCrunch asking half jokingly, half seriously for less convenience in regards to products and services that one can order instantly “on demand”. His concern: “The problem with the shift to an on-demand economy is that it’s not a fair fight; our meager human brains don’t stand a chance when faced with the promise of such instant plenty”.

The fear of becoming slave to technology

His argumentation is part of a bigger narrative which can be witnessed, read and heard everywhere: It says that humans are becoming slaves to technology and are not capable of resisting the temptations and urges that arise with the digital economy.

One a basic level, the idea that humans struggle with adjusting to the new realities seems to ring true. Humans are capable of long term thinking and strategic actions, but there is a part in us which is often commonly (and name-wise maybe not to scientifically correct) referred to as “Reptilian Brain”. The Reptilian Brain wants instant gratification, it constantly looks for immediate rewards and short-term gains (sometimes at the expense of long-term goals), and it uses emotions instead of rational thinking. The consequence is that we are not always as much in control of our actions as we think we are. This is easy to witness every time we indulge in ice cream or cake instead of going to the gym as we initially intended to do.

Always in control?

For centuries this condition of the brain has been exploited in various ways. The advertising industry is built on the “hackability” of the brain, with all its subtle and manipulative messages targeted at short-term interests and impulse-based decision making. With the Internet and digital technology, the possibilities to trick the human brain and exploit its flaws are sheer infinite. Digital technology, in its various shapes and with the smartphone as the key device right now, is constantly with us, knows us better than our parents or partners know us, and receives an immense amount of our attention. Every company in the world theoretically could try to gain a share of that attention and push us to certain kind of behaviour intended to make purchases. Many do. There are books that teach app developers how to create products that are habit-forming.

So does this mean that our destiny is the one illustrated in the movie “Idiocracy”, which depicts a society in which consumerism and technology have reversed evolution and created a society of dumb and lazy idiots? Hopefully not. Even if don’t know exactly what will happen, I am optimistic.

Awareness is the beginning of the solution

Because there is actually a rather easy way to increase our control, to stay (comparatively) autonomous in our decision making and to turn technology into a tool, instead of becoming slave to it: Creating awareness of what is happening.

In meditation, awareness means observing one’s thoughts and letting them go. Yeah, this sounds extremely obvious, and yet, this is something most people need to learn. Meditation possibly is the best way to do that.

Once awareness has been internalized, the capability to observe one’s thoughts, impulses, actions and emotions can be used to better understand our relation to the digital world, to our devices and apps.

If this sounds a bit vague or even esoteric, then have a look at this list of concrete situations. I am sure that most of you who read this can relate to at least a couple of these occurrences. If not, you might be a superhuman.

  • We pull out our Smartphone and automatically open Facebook, Instagram,  Twitter, Snapchat. All. The. Time.
  • We keep looking on our Smartphone despite sitting at the dinner table with good company.
  • We keep checking every 15 minutes whether our witty status update or amazing video did receive more likes.
  • We share content that obviously was created with a clickbait philosophy in mind, and we click on these links when shared by others even if we expect to be disappointed about the content.
  • When we do not like the content of a Facebook update or tweet, we press “hide” or unfollow this person, risking that our feed in the future will become more narrow.
  • We keep seeing this particular ad for a product on a multiple website or apps. Eventually we end up buying it.
  • We are participating in an online discussion that gets intense, hateful and angry. Yet we cannot stop arguing.
  • A single tweet or blog post can make us so outraged that we feel the immediate urge to strongly express our disagreement. But if we resist, we might not feel the same pressure anymore 60 minutes later.
  • We engage in lengthy online debates trying to convince someone else of our point of view, despite that this never had worked before, and despite that it really does not matter whether one additional person thinks like us.
  • We share all these tiny bits from our everyday life, no matter how trivial they are and who might get to see this content in the future. We might even undertake certain kind of activities with the primary goal of being able to share it on social media.
  • One negative online review of a product can impact us heavily even if if there are multiple positive ones.
  • Sometimes when reading news, we get the impression that things in the world are only getting worse, even though many today have a living standard that was unheard of 30 years ago.
  • Other people’s life on social media always looks much better than ours and it makes us feel bad.
  • Too often we do not manage to get the tasks done that we planned to, instead we procrastinate.
  • Self quantification tools help us to stay motivated to exercise.
  • We never finish a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) due to lack of motivation.
  • We are following breaking news on Twitter or elsewhere, knowing that one day later spending 2 minutes on a summary of the events would provide us with all the information we need.
  • We do not manage to fund our dream vacation trip. But we spend an extraordinary amount of money on on-demand delivery services (such food delivery or individual transportation) or on virtual goods in gaming apps.

These situations have in common that they mostly happen automatically and have turned into somewhat of a habit or reflex. Someone else has managed to trigger a certain kind of behavior in us – sometimes aligned with our own intentions (like using a fitness tracker to get into a better shape), sometimes against our own intention but somehow unnoticed.

Effort is necessary

This is why awareness is important. We might not be able to control the initial reaction of our brain to external stimulations. But we can observe it and make a conscious decision not to act on our impulses. That requires self-discipline, willpower and won’t always work. But it still gets us back in charge, at least to some extend. We could make a decision to put back the smartphone when having a drink with a friend. We could force ourselves not to check back on a particularly heated online discussion. We could share our content with the awareness that we deliberately give up control of it, which impacts our sharing patterns.

All this is hard work, especially as long as it has not become a habit yet. But in my opinion, this is the kind of effort that we need to invest if we want to make sure not to become those victims of modern technology that many techno sceptics are worried about.

The human evolution is way too slow to keep up with the pace of the technological evolution. So for now, we are stuck with the Reptilian Brain that is responsible for our inner conflict between long-term and short-term interests, and that creates those flaws in our behavior which can be taken advantage of by others. But with awareness, at least we are able to notice when we are thinking or acting less smartly than we believe we should. Or when technology consumes our mind without our deliberate consent. It’s a good start and the kind of operating system upgrade that we are capable of.

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