Introduction to Digital Minimalism #2 What are the big tech companies doing with us?

digital minimalism
Haven’t read the first digital minimalism post? Here:
#1 — IntroductionAfter I was quite shocked when I looked at my screen time over the last few weeks, one thing was crystal clear to me: I have to change my behaviour. No, not only do I have to, I want to! To help you understand my current situation, I’m going to write a little summary of what I’ve learned far from the book “Digital Minimalism” from Cal Newport.
  • So what do these technologies do to us?
  • How do they affect our subconscious?
  • How do they control our behaviour?
One quote that has stuck directly in my mind about this is from Bill Maher, who said:

“The bosses of social networks should stop pretending to be nice nerd gods creating a better world and admit that they are just tobacco growers in T-shirts selling an addictive product to kids. Because let’s call a spade a spade: Counting Likes is the new smoking.”

You might not relate to that, but I find the statement “counting likes is the new smoking” not only amusing but unfortunately also very true, considering the addictiveness of these platforms.

First and foremost, some background on the industry in which companies like Netflix, Facebook, Instagram, and all the others operate. What do these companies care about? Is it important to them that you’re well connected with your friends and always know what they’re doing? Or is it more important to them how much time you spend on their platforms and how much attention you give them?

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Your attention is the commodity they sell to their customers. We’re not the customers of these technology giants; we’re merely users. The customers are other companies that pay enormous amounts of money to display their products on our smartphones or laptops, regardless of our location or the time of day.

So, what are these billion-dollar tech companies in Silicon Valley working on? They design their apps and websites to make us use them the way they want and for as long as possible. At the same time, they explore how to further influence our thoughts and actions using these technologies. Whether this influence has positive intentions is up for debate.

The fact is, the shareholders of these massive companies expect them to make more and more money, and in the eyes of Instagram, our attention is worth its weight in gold.

To continually increase revenues in Silicon Valley, they’ve made us subtly dependent on their services. Every time we take our phones out of our pockets, it’s almost the same as going to a slot machine to see if we’ll get a special prize this time. Will it be a new message, new likes, or tagged in a new post?
The word addiction conjures up a scary image for many, of drug addicts with nothing else on their minds but their stuff. But from a psychological point of view, you can be addicted to many things. To that end, here’s a little definition I’ve taken from Cal Newport’s book:

“Addiction is a condition in which a person pursues the use of a substance or behaviour whose rewarding effects create a compelling incentive to continue the behaviour repeatedly despite harmful consequences.”

However, it is not easy to admit to yourself that you are addicted to something. I can only confirm that, after trying to observe and reflect more closely on my own behaviour and other things over the last few months, I also had to admit some things to myself. I had repeatedly justified certain behaviours to myself and portrayed them as positive, simply to avoid facing the fact that they were causing more harm than good.To conclude, I will briefly explain how tech companies manage to add addictive properties to their products that encourage our behavioural addictions and slowly catapult our screen time to dizzying heights.

The two culprits are two forces that directly affect us: intermittent positive reinforcement and the desire for social approval. Intermittent positive reinforcement suggests that unpredictable rewards are far more enticing than those with a known pattern. For some reason, this unpredictability releases more dopamine.

Definition of dopamine:

“In the brain, dopamine is used for communication between nerve cells, i.e. it is a nerve messenger (neurotransmitter). In certain “circuits” it conveys positive emotional experiences (“reward effect”), which is why it – like serotonin – is considered a happiness hormone.” – Quote from

With this in mind, this gambling effect becomes clearer, whenever you post something or even just update your Instagram feed, you never know what feedback or new posts await you and subconsciously you hope for something enticing. But let’s face it, you never end up getting what you expect, or at least you don’t really get fulfilled by the outcome and so it comes that you try again and again.

That covers point one: intermittent positive reinforcement. Now, let’s move on to point two: the desire for social approval. In his book, Cal Newport provides us with a good example. He explains that we are social beings who can never completely ignore what others think of us.  Securing our social position against other tribe members was crucial in prehistoric times because survival depended on it. However, today, it’s no longer vital to be liked by everyone. Yet, Instagram and others exploit this desire for social approval. We live in a society where many feel the need for social recognition in the form of likes and tags, as if it were life-sustaining information.

And what do we do with life-sustaining information? We keep it constantly in our sight. If we receive positive feedback, it triggers a feeling of societal acceptance and makes us feel good. But if we don’t receive positive feedback, such as receiving 30% fewer likes on a post than usual, it triggers a feeling of distress. I can confirm the power of this force based on personal experience. There have been moments when I deleted or archived an Instagram post, even though I liked it when I initially uploaded it. The fact that it didn’t resonate well with my followers influenced my perception of the post to the point where I no longer felt comfortable having it on my Instagram account.

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