For the past ten years, we’ve seen an unprecedented growth in tech use. Tech has permeated many areas of our lives and we seem to be cheering for more tech integration, readily consuming new tech products without asking important questions. A lot of good has come out of the development of technology, which is making our lives much easier in these years. Many of us are able to afford a smartphone, a device more powerful than the laptops most of us carry, that allows us to perform a multitude of tasks. But before grabbing our smartphones, how often are we mindful of why we do so? And why is that happening? Not once, not twice, but most of the time. The technology that was said to make us connected and free seems to have enslaved us. We appear to be bonded to it in ways that we didn’t consent to.
As Nepal is under lockdown because of the coronavirus, tech use has surged and the problems with today’s tech products have come to the fore. There’s been news on Nepali media advising people to curb tech use while calling out the social and human costs of tech indulgence. As people have stayed indoors, they’re turning to their devices to pass their time. In a recent conversation, a friend complained that members of his family are practically in “self isolation” because of their new tech habits. My own urge to be online has forced me to use a minimalist lockscreen since mid-lockdown.
While the lockdown is new, tech dependence is not. The evolution of social media platforms in the mid-2000s emerged as the major source of global tech addiction. The advent of social media moved an essential facet of human life online. People got accustomed to socializing via the internet, interacting, and attending to notifications and nudges on their smartphones. Slowly, such behaviours spread across cultures and changed societies. In the early 2010s, I couldn’t foresee where tech was headed with the introduction of newer platforms and products, despite seeing troubling patterns as a software developer. Some of my colleagues designed applications that had in their foundation the requirement to lure users in and keep them hooked. Others were founding digital marketing startups that leveraged tools to serve ads to those users. There was a lack of concern for the human aspect of users. Globally, most computing programs have one ethics course, if any, which is hardly enough to teach students the ethical issues concerning real-world human-technology interactions. Technology in the real world changes quickly, and that is difficult to replicate in university curricula.
The design elements on the frontend of a software, the part that users see, use elements, colours, and text that are visually appealing to the user. Today’s tech companies want users to spend more time on their platforms in order to show them advertisements. For example, the colour red is used for notification alerts on Facebook. From the view of an artist, red is a colour of intensity that attracts attention. Facebook uses it to garner users’ attention while hinting to their subconscious minds that those notifications are important, making them visit Facebook’s website often. This allows Facebook to show user ads from their partners. As another example, the current logo of Instagram is designed to command a hypnotic gaze when users look at their phones; it competes for attention with other apps on the homescreen even before they’re on it. The infinite scroll, a feature that updates the Facebook news feed without needing refreshing, for example, keeps us hooked on social media for unhealthy periods of time. YouTube has a default-enabled autoplay feature that works in a similar fashion. There are countless such examples that could be listed here.
The backlash against social media has been gaining steam in recent years, with high-profile cases like the Cambridge Analytica scandal putting the malpractices at tech companies on the spotlight. Politicians and governments in the US and Europe are challenging the freedom with which tech companies operate and ensuring safer environments for citizens. The Center for Humane Technology (CHT) is a Silicon Valley non-profit started by insiders involved in founding tech giants like Facebook. Led by Tristan Harris–the man who invented the “Like” button that features in various social media platforms today–the company is a growing voice in the US, with lawmakers, CEOs, and politicians supporting their cause. The company is pitching a “humane agenda” for tech. Harris says big-tech companies like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Google have designed products that make a profit when people are constantly on them. Their products want us to keep scrolling, clicking, and watching in order for them to make money. The result is an attention economy that benefits from extracting our attention but ignores our well-being.
As users, we must understand that human sensitivities are no match for the current attention-extracting tech business models. The technologies that we use daily are reducing our attention spans, addicting us, and polarizing our communities. Studies show that internet gaming is a major source of addiction among players. There’ve been several cases of Instagram influencers and YouTuber content creators quitting the medium, citing the dangerous effects of social media on their mental health. In a recent study on the consensus on global warming, it was found that more people agree than disagree. But when we go online, the amount of negativity towards global warming would have us believe otherwise.
Nepal’s scenario and the way forward
The Nepal Telecommunications Authority says one in two people in Nepal use the internet. A large percentage of Nepali youths are on social media, and they prefer the medium for sharing their thoughts, opinions, and lives. Once on social media, the fear of missing out (FOMO) hampers people trying to quit. More worryingly, Nepali children are using phones before reaching the age where they understand the complexity of the products and their design. I’ve had several conversations with parents about their kids’ tech habits and the solutions they could try. A survey done in Chitwan showed that 90 percent of youths who own a smartphone were addicted to it. Adoption of tech is relatively new in Nepal, and its hazards are little known. There is some awareness of technology’s impacts on mental health, but advisories have not been disseminated widely to make a visible impact. While big-tech companies have been introducing digital well-being tools in the last few years to help people monitor their usage, privacy, and online activity, change will be achieved slowly, and effects won’t be known until later. Meanwhile, it’s necessary to practice ways to reduce use and develop better tech habits. But what can we do as users?
At the basic level, it’s important to acknowledge that all tech is trade. The presumed free platforms are not free. When we are online, we are trading our time, our attention, our privacy, and our well-being. When we reach for our devices, we could ask ourselves if the convenience gained is worth the sacrifice. We can also think of non-tech ways of doing a task, e.g. meditating without an app or journaling in a notebook. Personally, I’ve found journaling about my tech habits to be a useful exercise. Besides, making my screen black-and-white or dim in the evening has improved my sleep. Android version 9 and later come with inbuilt digital well-being tools with such features.
As parents, we can ask if our tech use is making our children feel good and also limit their tech use at home. Including children in the rule-making process can encourage trust and ensure obedience. Setting aside time for real-world play and replacing online gaming with a skill-learning course are some other options. As educators, we can choose to have a strict ‘No tech in the classroom’ policy. We could also discuss these issues in the classroom and encourage students to engage in more face-to-face interactions. As users, we can decide that all screen time is not equal. With our time, we could either be on an app scrolling endlessly or checking the number of likes on our posts or learning something to use for our own personal projects. Asking questions such as the following can challenge our impulses: Why am I reaching for my device? Is this technology improving my life? Am I taking ownership of my mindless actions when I’m online? Moreover, being aware of our body sensations–for example, observing our breath–can make us more mindful of the relationship we have with our devices.
For those interested in a more rigorous approach, noticing how content and design elements elicit a certain response can help identify developing emotions. Likewise, a list of our goals for the tech products we consume can be a part of a targeted detox plan. At the end of a week, we could ask if we were able to balance our online and offline activities and make changes to our routine. At home, creating screen-free zones or time periods can limit our usage. Often, choosing to call instead of text helps us connect better with our friends. Finally, picking the right audience for our content and curating our online friends can guarantee our safety online.
All of these actions arise from a place of doubt for the intention of the products we use, which allows us to be mindful of our rights, our human needs, and our values. This helps in forming collective opinions about our technologies that could impel companies to design products that are in sync with our nature.
The Nepal chapter of Center for Humane Technology is advocating for a nation where tech supports our shared well-being. For more information and helpful resources, visit https://sites.google.com/view/cht-nepal