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Pay more attention to how you use your phone

(Collegian File Photo)

In theory, the smartphone is a godsend. It provides us with a resource that, throughout most of human history, has been completely unattainable: instantaneous connection. Yet, much like the potato chip, which provides us with excessive portions of the salt and fat that we have been hardwired to crave, the smartphone’s greatest attribute is also its greatest flaw. Because, now that smartphones are ubiquitous, we are living in a futuristic world in which, contrary to Mick Jagger’s prophetic wisdom, we can always get what we want. But when we get what we want, we don’t get what we need and we end up wanting even more.

The makers of our smartphones understand this fundamental insatiability, as do the men (and women) turning the proverbial dials at Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter, Instagram and all of the other companies that have come to define our lives. These companies are businesses and their customers are not us, they are their advertisers. The more time we spend exposed to their advertisements, the more prosperous they become. In other words, these companies’ most valuable commodity is our time.

The average person checks their phone 150 times per day. This is because these devices and the applications on them are specifically designed to be addictive. Not only are they designed to be addictive, but to specifically target certain demographics. “Everyone innately responds to social approval,” says design ethicist Tristan Harris. “But some demographics (teenagers) are more vulnerable to it than others. That’s why it’s so important to recognize how powerful designers are when they exploit this vulnerability.”

If you’re interested in the mechanics of how these companies use behavioral psychology to manipulate us, the organization Time Well Spent (founded by the aforementioned Tristan Harris), is as good a place as any to start.  But, intuitively, you are probably already aware of the fact that your phone is addictive. The moments you spend refreshing your Facebook newsfeed or scrolling through photographs on Instagram rarely seem to enhance the quality of your life; your decision to check your notifications is not always an assiduous one.

You are probably also aware of another fact: The smartphone has become so deeply ingrained in our lives that questioning its status seems nonsensical. The paradox inherent in this is that, to advocate for change in social media, you have to be engaged with social media; whatever problems you may have with the medium, your life is defined by it already. Mine certainly is. When this article is published, I will check my phone constantly to see what response it garners. I, while critical of the technology, am as much a part of the problem as anyone else.

I am 20 years old, which means that my peer group occupies a peculiar niche in the technological renaissance. We are the only group who grew up both with and without smartphones. While many of our formative years were defined by smartphones, we can recall a time when the technology wasn’t omnipresent. We have the perspective that younger teenagers don’t have, but we understand the appeal of apps like Snapchat in ways that even older millennials never will. Because we bridge this generational divide, we have a unique perspective and a moral obligation to advocate for technologies that enhance the quality of our lives.

There are many issues with social media worth worrying about, but most of them have little impact on our day to day lives. The way we spend our time, though, does. How we live on a day-to-day, moment-to-moment basis impacts the way we address all issues, personal or global. Because of this, we need to start thinking more about the way we spend our time and advocating for technology that allows us to use it in ways we truly want.

Technology is not inherently bad, but it is inherently powerful. Smartphones and social media have changed the world and will continue to, but in order for them to change the world for the better, we need to consider their effects. So, we need to ask ourselves a variety of questions. Are we using these technologies to strengthen our social connections, or to feel momentarily connected when we know, in our hearts, that we feel alone? Are we using these technologies to expand our ideas about the world, or to have the ideas that we already believe reinforced? Are we using these technologies to communicate our experiences, or to supply ourselves with the fleeting moments of social validation?

When we don’t pay attention to the way our technology affects us, we are merely business for large companies. And when we are business for them, they quite literally control our time. But when we resist, we have the power to change the world – and not the sort of power that hitting a share button gives us, but the sort of power that conscientious consumership, citizenry and advocacy can have in a democracy; the type of power that designing our technology to suit our deepest needs and improve our lives will give us.

So, put down your phone. Or, even better, pick it up. And starting paying attention to the way it works.

Jonah Dratfield is a Collegian columnist and can be reached at jdratfield@umass.edu.

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