My friend Rebekah and I were recently talking about strange and seemingly absurd art pieces. She told me about several, but the one that stuck with me the most is one by Sun Yuan and Peng Yu in the Guggenheim Museum called Can’t Help Myself. Essentially, it is a robot arm that continually scrapes away a dark liquid that resembles blood. The liquid, however, is contained in such a way that it can never really be fully scraped away. It perpetually scrapes the blood away over and over again. Hence the title Can’t Help Myself. You can find videos online of the robot arm in action doing its thing. Here is a YouTube clip that is sufficient.
What intrigued me the most was a well-phrased line commenting on the art piece by Rebekah. She said, “It’s literally programmed for futility.” What an intriguing idea. At fist my heart felt sad for this artificial intelligence piece: poor thing, what a sad existence. Then I immediately thought of something else. A horrific question arose in my mind from some conversations I’ve been having with other friends and as I am continuing to reflect on the excellent book Digital Minimalism. See my review of it here. The question that horrified me was this: “are we being programmed for futility by the big tech companies?”
Think about the endless hours people are spending looking at their cellphones, especially at social media like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, and TikTok. Like the art piece they feel like they “can’t help themselves.” At the least, I have felt that way before in relation to my smart phone. I’ve seen a saying floating around that I think captures the dangers of this upsurge in the attention economy. The phrase is “scrolling is the new smoking.” Many have feared that the addictive nature of our cellphones and the companies that are making them that way are comparable in very concrete ways to the big tobacco companies who urged the good of smoking while also making them as addictive as possible. Someone is getting rich off of this. Our lives are being stolen out from under us as our anxiety and attention spans are brought to frightening levels of functionality.
Don’t get me wrong. Smart phones are a wonderful invention that allow us to do things we never would have done before. I just worry that they are taking over our lives without our full conscious consent. Did we know the full terms and conditions before Facebook and related companies started using attention engineers to take up as much of our time as possible so they can make money selling our attention to advertisers? I know I didn’t. Dave Ramsey says to young married couples, “It’s not that I don’t want you to have a house. It’s that I don’t want a house to have you.” Ramsey is referring to the tendency to pressure young married couples into buying a home even when they can’t really afford to buy one. I would say something similar, but about technology, “It’s not that I don’t want you to have a smartphone. It’s that I don’t want a smart phone to have you.” I don’t want a smartphone to make you dumb. I want you to be smarter than your smart phone.
For me personally, I don’t want to be living a life that is programmed by the big tech companies for futility. I want my life to be nurtured for vitality not programmed for futility. I have recently adopted these practices in relation to my smart phone in order to better be the one in control in my relationship with technology:
- I use the grayscale shade for my phone. In other words, I just made it so that everything on my smartphone is in black and white unless I intentionally turn off this feature for some reason. I personally use an iPhone. It very easy to turn this setting on and give it a try. If you’re interested go to settings -> accessibility -> Displays & Text Size -> Color Filters -> turn on the color filter feature and select “grayscale” for the specific color filter. For me, this practice is an important reminder: phones are boring. I don’t want to be seduced by bright colors on a digital screen instead of seeing the bright colors of real life all around me. People are interesting. Phones are boring. This practice is a reminder for me that phones are less interesting than people.
- I keep my phone on “Do Not Disturb” mode at all times. This filters out most calls and texts from interrupting me while working, socializing, or anything else. By playing with the settings I am able to prioritize calls and texts from my wife and parents so that their calls and texts always go through instantly. For everyone else, I will check my phone in between the other things I do with my day and I have found that even the important things are not so urgent that they were worth interrupting me while I was working or talking or doing basically anything else. You can also program it so that some calls are allowed while you need them and then you can delete them later. For example, our truck was in the auto shop recently. I had my phone programmed so that when the shop called to give me an update it would not sent them to voicemail. After we got the truck back. I took the shop off the override list so that their calls would not longer be put through while on Do Not Disturb. Also there is a feature on iPhone that allows someone to get ahold of you if completely necessary. For example, if someone calls once and gets voicemail and then immediately calls back it will put them through. That way, if something is truly urgent they will probably call twice and now people are able to get ahold of me when there is a real emergency.
- I leave my phone in the glove box of my car when going into meet someone or taking care of business of some kind. I have found my conversations over coffee and meals have been much more meaningful this way.
- I deleted social media off my phone and email. I still have a Facebook account, but I only use it on my desktop computer. I still use email all the time, but I only use it on my desktop computer. Guess what? My anxiety has reduced tremendously and I have not been fired, missed out on anything important, or been negatively affected in any way. I’m happier than I’ve ever been. The slight inconvenience of having to open my desktop computer to check email or get on Facebook makes it abundantly clear that most of the time I have previously spent with these activities was a needless waste of time.
- I do not google much. I used to have a bad habit of googling everything that came to mind while talking with people or watching television. The problem with this is somethings are just not worth knowing for any practical purpose. I do not need to know what else that actor has stared in. We do not need to know what the 3 largest cities in the world are. We do not need to know the FBI’s most wanted listed currently. Most of us have become “date junkies” going quickly to scroll through google links and get a quick hit of dopamine for knowing random mostly useless facts.
Maybe these suggestions will help you too. If you have your own practices you’ve found helpful please share them in comments below. Do not be programmed for futility. Nurture yourself to thrive as a human.