The very probability that you will fall upon this article, read it, reflect upon it, and then finally share it, or even choose not to, is already a miracle. No, it’s not because somebody’s actually reading Bath Time; it’s because this article and its very existence, as opposed to the majority of actions within 21st-century dystopia, was crafted as a result of majority-human actions. It was pitched to an editor as an opportunity, it was advertised to a number of contributors as an option, and I decided to write it. Or did I?
A few weeks ago, Netflix users discovered The Social Dilemma, created and written by Jeff Orlowski. This documentary explores both technology’s ubiquity and impact on our lives; the ethico-moral limits of technology, whilst investigating the strategies employed by erudite scientists to distract us, seduce us and monopolise our attention for the longest possible time.
Dedicating one hour and thirty-four minutes to dive into the world of social media addiction, ‘snapchat dysmorphia’, disinformation, surveillance capitalism and the crisis of democracy is a feat in itself. Will you be able to watch the whole film without spending half of it scrolling on your phone? Do we even have time to confront ourselves with what we already implicitly know? Can we still truly grasp all the mechanisms put in place to capture the movements of our thoughts and motives of our own behaviours? Yes AND no – what a nuance.
As Jaron Lanier puts it, ‘it’s the gradual, slight imperceptible change in your own behaviour and perception that is the product’. In other words, tech companies, data engineers and marketing analysts are not ‘happy bakers’ offering you delicious ‘cookies’ for your own pleasure, but rather theirs – they’re Willy Wonka (infer what you will from that). A great part of a tech firm’s revenue model, or at least growth model, gravitates around our data – those numerical cookies which deliver where you are, how you feel, whom you text, what you eat etc..
Whilst there’s not necessarily a way to fight this Orwellian deviance, there’s certainly ways to become aware, and therefore, mitigate against the effects of big-tech’s (mis-)use of data.
It starts by looking at your screen time – observing which application you spend the most time on, wondering if it is worth it, if it is too time-consuming for you or whether you would like to do something else instead are big steps towards taking back control in our lives. Knowing that certain specific strategies, colours or sounds are used to captivate us for long hours online is also particularly important in order to become aware and less susceptible to addiction to our digital devices. Our phones and the apps they host have become the new smart and sophisticated numerical teddy bear with whom we eat, sleep, talk, laugh and cry. The services our phones provide are psychologically reassuring, as they allow us to move faster, further and longer, to stay connected to the world and supposedly to others. We are dependent, and like saying goodbye to Teddy, what follows the start of a digital detox is usually a world of pain, or at least a violent relapse.
Exposure to social media remains an omnipresent source of anxiety that must be openly acknowledged. This constant social need to expose our accomplishments, the slightest movement, our food, our body, our condition, our location, our smile, our summer, our routine can be overwhelming for ourselves and for others. Sharing every detail of our private lives for likes has become the most prevalent way through which we derive our sense of belonging. This affects our mental health, self-image, relationship with food, exercise and others. You already know this. Try detoxing, I dare you.
Choosing to become truly aware is the very first step to resolving the social dilemma. We won’t be able to get out of it and this is not necessarily bad news. Technology has wonders to offer and one must live ‘with the times’, as they say. Become actively aware and committed to not be the collateral victim of manmade algorithms. Active awareness is not about suppressing screens and denying all the exceptional opportunities that technology creates, it is about choosing to demystify and dehumanise an object whose creators want it to be as rapid and cool as us. Once there’s that critical mass of aware social media users, we then turn to the polls – we pursue actual anti-trust dialogue and we start to form a meaningful regulation on big-tech, not just an equitable tax receipt.