These are not rhetorical questions. They are very real questions with answers that have very real consequences for our lives. And I'm not posing these questions from up in the clouds.
Do you feel confused? Listless? Overwhelmed? Have you ever found yourself scrolling through news feeds and flicking mindlessly through social media posts with a strange mixture of outrage, dread, and boredom? Is your disgust at the thought of going online consistently overwhelmed by your compulsion to pick up your fondleslab?
Don't worry. You're not alone. More and more people are finding it harder and harder to put their devices down even though it leaves them feeling restless, angry or empty. As a result, some are seeking ways to disconnect and unplug from the 24/7 siren song of never-ending news feeds, instant messaging and social media distractions, whether by ditching their smartphone in favor of a "dumb" phone or taking device-free holidays.
Yes, we all succumb to information overload, and yes, we all need a break from the online maelstrom every now and then.
But what if this state of information overload—the malaise we experience when we find ourselves paralyzed by a ceaseless stream of noise and nonsense—is not a mere byproduct of this vaunted "Information Age" but the actual point of it? Has it ever occurred to you that these devices have been weaponized against us? Or that the confusion and exhaustion we feel after spending an hour mindlessly scrolling on our smartphone is the effect that this weaponized technology has on our psyche?
And, more to the point, what can we do to protect ourselves from these daggers of digital distraction?
First, let's examine the problem.
Suppose you start your day by checking your friends' social media profiles. The stream of dream vacation pictures and posts about happy relationships and fun parties leaves you feeling miserable as you head out the door for work.
Later that morning you take a break from your desk job (entering information on a computer, of course) to check the news. Clickbait nonsense battles with atrocity porn for your attention in the news feed. You finally find something interesting and informative only to scroll down to the comment section and find it populated by trolls bent on starting flame wars and disinformation operatives deploying every trick in the book to derail thoughtful conversation.
Closing the browser window you get back to work only to find an angry email from your boss in your inbox reminding you that your latest report was due yesterday and several messages from your coworkers asking for your help with their own projects.
Running to the one place you know you can get away from it all—the washroom—you lock the stall door . . . only to feel a buzzing in your pocket. You got a new message on Facebook! You pull your phone out of your pocket and start the whole process over again.
The worst part is that you know that this constant flow of information is making you miserable, but you can't help yourself. It's harder and harder to leave the phone at home when you go out to the store or turn the TV off when you're eating dinner. You've become a slave to the technology that once promised to free you.
Now this may not be a description of your average day, but we all know people to whom this description applies. And if you use electronic devices on a daily basis, it's getting harder and harder to deny that you've experienced the strange mixture of compulsion and depression that those devices bring.
This is not even controversial at this point. We hardly need a scientific study to tell us that social media is making us dumb, angry and addicted, but in case you missed it here's a scientific study telling us that social media is making us dumb, angry and addicted. As you might expect, people who compare their mundane, humdrum existence to the idealized lives that people present online—fun parties, great food, perfect vacations, happy families—are more likely to develop depressive symptoms.
But it's important to note that this state of affairs has not come about by accident. This technology has been weaponized against you. This is not conspiracy theory or conjecture; as I pointed out in my podcast on The Weaponization of Social Media, many of the founders of the social media giants don't even use social media themselves and they actively keep it away from their children. If you haven't seen it yet, watch Facebook co-founder Sean Parker admitting that they designed their product to keep you addicted by exploiting vulnerabilities in human psychology. When you realize that all aspects of our online experience—from the placement of red notification badges and the buzzing of our phones to the invention of the never-ending scroll feed and the slight delay between the loading of a Twitter profile and the revelation of the number of new notifications—have been precisely fine-tuned to keep you clicking indefinitely, you can at least appreciate that it is not merely a matter of weak will that has led you to this spot.
It is also important to realize that this is not merely a ploy to earn more advertising revenue for the big internet companies. It does do that, of course, but this addiction to (and, ultimately, enslavement to) the very source of our unhappiness if part of a much more insidious agenda. We are being groomed by the hucksters and charlatans of our era to accept the coming integration of man and machine. Or, worse yet, to embrace it.
Never mind that the Borg-like vision of the future propounded by these transhumanists is a nightmare beyond comprehension. Never mind that free will will be rendered meaningless in a world where we are nudged by devices along pre-determined paths. Never mind that privacy will be unthinkable when our every thought will be monitored and analyzed in real time. Never mind that dissent will be impossible when our ability to access the networks upon which our lives are built can be turned off at the flip of the switch. We'll be able to surf the internet in our head! Where do I sign up?
If you think information overload is bad now, wait until you're interacting with avatars of your friends in augmented reality while listening to music that only you can hear and ordering your Alexa to adjust the thermostat and order you a pizza for dinner.
So what do we do about this?
If this were just another clickbait listicle designed to give you some trite pieces of warm and fuzzy advice and keep you coming back for more, this is the point where I'd give you a few bullet points about setting a screen time limit on your phone or practicing mindful browsing (searching for something specific instead of scrolling and clicking aimlessly). These things are all well and good, as far as they go . . . but they don't go far enough, do they?
Because if we really face up to the fact that these devices have been weaponized against us, and that they are leading us into a transhuman future, then we arrive pretty quickly at a conclusion that might put you into a cold sweat: Every time you pick up your device, every time you check that news feed, every time you scroll through your social media notifications, you are putting a loaded gun to your head.
Or, even worse, you are ingesting a little bit of poison. One or two doses won't hurt. A thousand doses might make you sick, but you can probably handle it. The fatal dose might be the millionth. And if the poison is sweet enough, then, like any addict, you'll convince yourself that it's OK to keep taking it; after all, we'll be able to quit before we get to that millionth hit.
But what's the alternative? Giving up on this tech altogether? Is that even possible?
These are not rhetorical questions. They are very real questions with answers that have very real consequences for our lives. And I'm not posing these questions from up in the clouds. I make my living online. My life right now revolves around this information overload and these devices that I'm writing about. Will I know where to draw that line in the sand and stop using the tech before it becomes an implantable brain chip?
Feel free to tell me that I'm being overly dramatic and that there's nothing to worry about here. But the next time you feel yourself reaching for your phone in a moment of silence or scrolling aimlessly through a news feed with a gnawing sense of emptiness in the pit of your stomach, take a moment to reflect on that sensation. And then see if you can put the phone down.