Are we using tech or is tech using us?
A view from Dan Machen

Are we using tech or is tech using us?

Tech is an asset that doesn't have to shackle us to a screen 24/7, Dan Machen said at Brand Exchange this morning.

Buzz.

We’ve all felt it. The constant dread or delight – depending on how you look at it – the "phantom vibration". It’s taken longer than five minutes for your significant other to reply, for that order confirmation to come through. Maybe something awful happened. Maybe someone’s died. Or worse – your phone’s died.

Quite simply, we’ve never been this plugged into technology. You’ll probably find yourself on Facebook instead of hugging your better half or your kids first thing in the morning. You hop onto Google to find a nice restaurant and end up watching a sneezing panda, spending fifty minutes down a fibre-optic rabbit hole you had no intention of diving down.

It’s not your fault, though. Well, it kind of is, sort of. You’ve been hypnotised by Silicon Valley. You’re like a trained puppy, smartphones and apps having a Pavlovian effect on your more-than-capable mind that should know better, but just doesn’t.

When you use a phone, tablet or laptop, it activates your striatum and you focus on doing not remembering. We quickly reach cognitive overload. We’re not multi-tasking – we’re task-switching. You get your little dollop of dopamine when you flick your screen on and "accomplish" something, so devices are now acting as our own personalised reward systems.

Value should be ascribed to tech that actually helps us do things better. Like it was supposed to when we first picked up that flint.

But we’re just being left cold. We check the phone because we’re habituated to it. It’s become such a norm; the idea of not checking is enough to, well, make you check your phone again. We’re not achieving anything. We’re constantly in the present participle… just doing.

And that’s part of what a lot of venture capitalists in Silicon Valley don’t acknowledge, most likely because they’re busy being venture capitalists in Silicon Valley. Attention is the important commodity for them – they measure success by how much of your life they can command (or squander, depending on your point of view).

But there’s a different way of looking at things. Value should be ascribed to tech that actually helps us do things better. Like it was supposed to when we first picked up that flint.

And now there’s this nascent movement beginning in Silicon Valley, where a few notable individuals are looking up and thinking, "Wait... this probably isn’t what tech was supposed to do."

Tristan Harris is in the vanguard of this movement. An ex-Google man who left the internet giant to found a non-profit organisation, Tristan’s been called the "closest thing Silicon Valley has to a conscience" by The Atlantic magazine and continues to advocate spending our time with technology wisely.

Because we can’t go back. We can’t just give up on technology. The point of Tristan’s organisation, Time Well Spent, is to show us that tech is an asset that doesn’t have to shackle us to a screen 24/7. We need to use tech instead of letting it use us.

Many of his ideas are simple and that’s the crux of it – the balance between tech and your, y’know, actual human life really isn’t that hard.

Stop bingeing. Know your limits. Yes, Netflix is basically Flash Gordon in app form, dangling the "up in 15 seconds" button from a cliff edge, keeping us in suspense, tantalising our intrigue and demanding we submit. Just leave it. Get some sleep instead and wake up refreshed.

Your notifications are red for a reason. Red is danger. Red is love. Red gets your attention. So don’t let it. Just get rid of the app. Kill it. Use your phone’s greyscale setting to make it less addictive. When you want to check Facebook, boot it up in your browser like you used to. Or take the app off your home page. That way, you’re in control. You do it on your own terms. Feels good, right?

You will feel better for doing this stuff, too. And not just in a uni-graduate-on-their-gap-year-eschewing-tech-and-finding-themself kind of way, but in a manner that’s actually beneficial to your health.

It turns out 87% of us touch our phones between midnight and 5am. Why? It’s bedtime. Go to sleep.

You don’t need your phone for an alarm clock – that’s what an alarm clock’s for. That’s literally its sole function. Go get one.

Or just use Amazon Echo. It gives you that tangible connectivity you crave without being slave to a screen. So no, you don’t need to check your phone to set your alarm. Use Amazon’s charming Alexa assistant (or something of that ilk), filling you with a smug satisfaction that you’ve used tech without an unwelcome screen disrupting your sleep cycle. Sorted.

We’re hooked on interactivity. Just look on your morning commute – heads down, thumbs up, ready to plunge into another meme. Dystopian, isn’t it? The problem starts and ends with humanity. When you get an app like Apple Moment or BreakFree for Android, you can see how much of your life you’re losing to your screen – my shameful personal record is six weeks per year.

It’s behavioural design. This stuff has been manufactured to stick. Don’t let it. You can do better. Don’t be one of the 43% who walk into something while glued to a phone. Take the noise off, cut the vibration and let Silicon Valley know that you’re not just a revenue stream. You’re a human being and you demand to be treated as such. 

We need a Jerry Maguire moment for marketing. HeyHuman’s approach to simplification is brain-friendly creative practice. It’s time we all ask this question – both personally and professionally – what can we do to promote digital mindfulness? Ultimately, are we using tech or is tech using us?

Dan Machen is director of innovation at HeyHuman.

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