Screen time for most of us has increased significantly in the past year. This is obviously a direct consequence of the pandemic, a practical solution to an unprecedented public health emergency. The shift to remote work also brought unexpected benefits by challenging many stale business orthodoxies. Talking to an airline pilot recently, I realized that on-the-hour Northeast corridor shuttle flights are unlikely to ever return. Gone are the days (and the carbon footprint) of a sales rep flying from Boston to New York and back for one meeting. Many companies are also seriously evaluating innovative ideas that previously seemed implausible, such as fully remote work or 4-day work weeks, giving workers more flexibility and choice.
But the pandemic has also accelerated darker trends in technology and society. 6 months before COVID-19 hit, we explored how the loss of a consensus on basic facts could lead to an Age of Insanity. After a year of lockdowns, misinformation, and fear, it’s worth revisiting the state of the relationship between our screens and our psyches.
One obvious truth was reaffirmed: Screens are not a substitute for real-life sociality. Biologically and psychologically, we are not designed for a life lived indoors, cut off from socializing with other human beings. In 2020, alienation and social atomization increased, as did domestic abuse and deaths of despair. Some kids thrived with remote learning, but many of those who had no choice in the matter experienced loss of motivation, depression, and loss of social skills. The wealth gap increased, and all of these negative outcomes hit historically marginalized people hardest of all.
Despite all this, tech companies enjoyed record profits and stock valuations, and now their CEOs are blasting themselves into low-earth orbit for fun. While making billionaires out to be cartoon villains is tempting, it somewhat misses the point. Particularly when it comes to social media executives, these 21st-Century robber barons are essentially middlemen, constantly iterating new ways to sell your time and attention to 3rd parties. They are merely figureheads within a massive data ecosystem that is constantly engaged in ‘attention arbitrage’; tracking the flicks of our fingers and eyeballs to generate data it can then churn into something profitable. Social media addiction has been engineered by algorithms. Doomscrolling is not an accidental phenomenon.
As the average person becomes more aware of the underlying economics at work, the tech companies have realized they can no longer ignore privacy concerns. Some are even trying to turn it into a competitive advantage over their rivals. Left out of the press releases however, is that from an engineering standpoint, even seemingly-robust security features like keeping all personal data on the user’s device has two practical effects: 1) doing an end-run around basically all existing regulations and 2) Allowing for even more efficient ad targeting and behavior manipulation. Listening to a podcast conversation between two digital ad gurus, I was struck by how the common notion of ‘privacy’ does not even enter their mental model. A user’s personal info is just a column on a spreadsheet, one they disregard during the real work of figuring out how to monetize your fears and desires.
There is likely no top-down solution to the social and psychological baggage our screens carry. Legislative remedies are usually flawed, temporary speedbumps to large companies. More practically, technology is embedded in our lives because it is incredibly useful. It allows us to access knowledge easily, connect with people and causes we care about, and be productive from just about anywhere. When set to the right purposes, our tech ecosystem can be a force multiplier positive change in the world. The key here is that information streams are only valuable when they are engaged consciously. Budget your spending in the attention economy. Decide ahead of time what you want to spend your time on, and why. Even better if you can pair your technology use with actual human interaction.
Most importantly, given the siren song of our screens, we must also bring a high level of intentionality to the basic human activities we used to take for granted. Time in nature, social interactions, and exposure to situations that challenge and stimulate us are things we must actively make time for. and develop deliberate practices for engagement. The Taylor Group’s work has always recognized the potential for authentic human conversations to drive personal development, which in turn build a healthier society and planet. Putting our attention on other living, breathing people and things rather than our screens takes intention, but we believe it’s worth the effort.