None of the information in the Netflix Documentary The Social Dilemma was necessarily new to me, but Jeff Orlowski’s brilliant visual storytelling and damning round-up of whistleblowers made it no less shocking.
Only ten years ago, we commiserated with the Winklevoss twins, played by Armie Hammer in The Social Network. But after this 2020 portrayal of Zuckerberg, captaining the ship that will sink humanity – the Winklevosses come off as enviable.
They have been spared the hot seat, unlike Zuckerberg’s other tech bros such as former Google Design Ethicist Tristan Harris, co-inventor of Facebook’s “Like” button Justin Rosenstein, and former director of monetization at Facebook Tim Kendall. Yet these manipulative design architects turned saints have appeared in the documentary to sound the alarm.
I’m paraphrasing here, but the general consensus is akin to:
We’ve created a problem that was unexpected despite using the best minds in the world and a business model designed to scale… But anyway, who knew the (not all surprising) consequences of using people’s unconscious vices against them would become so incredibly massive, that all of humanity is now screwed?
While it wasn’t enough of a rallying cry to stop me unconsciously reaching for my phone mid-viewing, it has had the intended effect of inspiring collective agency in our one-sided battle with technology. Raising the global awareness of Netflix viewers to the sinister truth that:
- Our psychology is being used against us – not by accident, by design.
- Our commodity is products first, humans second, since we have offered enough data to companies who use it to predict our thoughts, actions and buying habits… Better than we could predict it ourselves.
- Our role in society exists to propel rumour, outrage, and misinformation, despite the consequences of our well-being and democracies crumbling.
Alleviated briefly by the irony, that the viewing platform Netflix trades in the same data-mining of its users as Facebook.
But just because the delivery system isn’t perfect, doesn’t mean you can’t bend it to your will. You can reclaim tech for your enjoyment – using it instead of it using you.
Make it work with you, not against you
Here are ways to actively change your phone and web habits. It’s unrealistic to go cold turkey, but you can refigure your devices to your benefit:
- Disable all notifications, except from people:
Our phones are designed to call on us. To lure us back, time and again with notifications that heighten our anxiety. Ditch all notifications except messaging apps, or flick on ‘do not disturb’, and pre-select only your favourite contacts to pierce the barrier.
- Swap to Greyscale:
Greyscale renders your phone from an exciting pleasurable casino of colours to a soulless, boring brick. Silicon Valley executives don’t let their children use any screens at all (read between those lines), but turning your phone onto Greyscale – which removes most of the joy from screens – is a good place to start.
- Remove social media apps:
You knew this was coming. You can also set timed app limits if you’re not that brave. Take a long hard look at who you follow and purge all non-essentials. Go into your Facebook ad settings and remove your tagged interests, too.
- Voice or audio notes over text:
A lot faster, direct, and doesn’t require any visual attention. Hold down the record button for a few seconds then swipe up to lock the audio in place. You’re welcome.
- Out of sight, out of mind:
The further away your phone is from you, the less it can hear you, and the more time you give yourself to question your need to scroll. Also, get it the hell out of your bedroom, especially in the evenings.
Here are more ways to identify the triggers and hack back your phone.
Website blockers and app blockers
Freedom, Cold Turkey, Focus, and Self-Control block you from accessing pre-set websites from your phone and computer when you really need to get shit done. Self-Control is the most hardcore – nothing you do can turn it off until your timed session runs out.
Switch up Chrome for browsers with built-in ad-blockers, anti-tracking programs, and potentially unwanted program (PUP) blockers, like
New Edge, Vivaldi, TOR, and Brave. I can confirm opening a Brave ‘Private Window with TOR is a great way to get around annoying paywalls.
Batching your usage
While it’s counterintuitive to limit your tech usage with more tech, Screen Time, Rescue Time, or Moment can help you detect the times of the day where you’re most susceptible to a mindless scroll. Replace that “free time” with focussed activities like gym classes or a catch up with mates. And be sure to chuck your phone on Aeroplane Mode so you don’t get served sponsored ads following your mates’ new recommendations.
Don’t lose focus
Feeling uncomfortable? You should be. A little scroll here and there is what you’ve been using to numb your stress, and the bright colours give you short-lived boosts of the dopamine and happy hormones. For most people, it’s a serious addiction. Cutting it out will cause cravings and compulsions. It will suck, at least at the beginning, but you are worth more to humanity out there, living your life, than viewing ads. Double down!
Reducing your phone or web use should naturally lend itself to the next question: “What is worth focussing on?”, “How better can I fill my time?”
If you want to spend all day in front of a screen, go for it, but at least do so purposefully with your choice in what you’re ingesting.
Swap short form for long-form
Cleaning your online footprint is as much about reducing unwanted information and security leaks, as it is actively rebuilding a balanced ecosystem with your preferred content.
We are being unconsciously cornered into “echo chambers,” and fed more of the same information to support, and often radicalise our existing views. It’s how tech companies retain your attention on their platforms, but it can lead you down very obscure rabbit holes with severely bias views.
Short-form content inspires polarising, knee-jerk, black and white views of the world, which isn’t reflected in reality. Mark Manson, author of Subtle Art of Not Giving A Fuck, put it succinctly when he wrote, “Stupidity in a tweet can sound deep. Stupidity repeated for 12,000 words quickly makes itself apparent.”
Books, podcasts, articles, and documentaries help you rebuild your diminishing attention span as well as reflecting more nuance and research in the material. Try to expose yourself to both sides of any argument, so you can stay open-minded, and socially tolerable.
One thing social media excels at is conditioning us to become outraged one minute, and totally complacent the next. But don’t let this minute go!
Dismiss the more sensationalized parts of the documentary (like the dumb, dumb and dumber in the control room), and remember it was released the very same week ex-Facebook employee Sophie Zhang declared, “I know that I have blood on my hands.”