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Your Happiness Was Hacked

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“Technology is a great servant but a terrible master. This is the most important book ever written about one of the most significant aspects of our lives—the consequences of our addiction to online technology and how we can liberate ourselves and our children from it.”
—Dean Ornish, M.D. Founder & President, Preventive Medicine Research Institute, Clinical Professor of Medicine, UCSF, Author, The Spectrum

Technology: your master, or your friend? Do you feel ruled by your smartphone and enslaved by your e-mail or social-network activities? Digital technology is making us miserable, say bestselling authors and former tech executives Vivek Wadhwa and Alex Salkever. We've become a tribe of tech addicts—and it's not entirely our fault.
 
Taking advantage of vulnerabilities in human brain function, tech companies entice us to overdose on technology interaction. This damages our lives, work, families, and friendships. Swipe-driven dating apps train us to evaluate people like products, diminishing our relationships. At work, we e-mail on average 77 times a day, ruining our concentration. At home, light from our screens is contributing to epidemic sleep deprivation.
 
But we can reclaim our lives without dismissing technology. The authors explain how to avoid getting hooked on tech and how to define and control the roles that tech is playing and could play in our lives. And they provide a guide to technological and personal tools for regaining control. This readable book turns personal observation into a handy action guide to adapting to our new reality of omnipresent technology.

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3 Online Technology and Love

ePub

We are living in the Tinder era, when a swipe is a terminal judgment taken in an instant upon scant information—at a rate of hundreds per hour. This is entirely new to humans—the appearance of an apparently endless choice of potential partners. Were it that simple! This chapter looks at how the Internet has changed our views of love, of romance, and even of ourselves.

Since the first civilizations, and across all cultures, humans have told stories about love. From Paris and Helen, to Romeo and Juliet, to Bonnie and Clyde, to Brangelina, lovers have captivated our imaginations, and love stories have become part of our cultural fabric. Very few of us can live happily without the love of others. The love of children and partner, of parents, and of friends: all contribute mightily to the richness of our existence.

In many ways, past technological revolutions have affected how we love. Universal schooling and the popularization of letter-writing made love letters a common vehicle of expression. Later, the camera allowed soldiers to exchange pictures with their wives and families and girlfriends. The telephone connected distant lovers and friends over twisted strands of copper wire.

 

4 Online Technology and Work

ePub

Before the Internet and smartphones, we left our work at the office. We typed reports on typewriters (or on word processors and PCs). Calling meetings was complicated. Today, e-mail and chat connect us around the clock to colleagues around the world. We share information quickly and easily—and are often interrupted. We must process and filter far more information. As we show in this chapter, the changes that online technology has wrought in recent years may be impeding our work, reducing our productiveness, and taking its toll on our well-being.

As Alex sat down to work on this chapter for the first time, he shut off his Internet access and settled in to read the research he and his research assistant, Sachin Maini, had collected on the impact of technology on the workplace. About fifteen minutes into reading on his computer screen off line, Alex clicked on a URL because he wanted to read a related article. He turned his Internet access back on, went to that article, and found that he would need to search the web for a PDF version.

 

5 Online Technology and Play

ePub

We spend more and more of our time attached to glowing screens. This started with television and has accelerated with the Internet, video games, and smartphones. In this section, we will look at how technology has affected how we play and how we spend leisure time—and at how this may be detracting from our health.

Alex grew up in a quiet middle-class neighborhood in Baltimore. The streets were lined with tall trees, and the roads were wide and safe for children on bicycles and scooters. Alex spent much of his childhood outside playing with neighborhood friends. Despite the proximity only two miles away of an exceptionally dangerous neighborhood, Alex’s parents did not worry about his playing outside on his own or moving about the neighborhood. He was allowed to ride his bike to friends’ homes and to the swimming pool, and to walk a mile to his elementary school unsupervised. And most of his friends lived the same way. These were very normal childhoods for the time.

Decades later, Alex lives in a middle-class neighborhood in California. The streets are lined with trees, and several streams crisscross the woods and run alongside the wide roads and narrow lanes. The hills that overlook the neighborhood are laced with an extensive network of bike lanes and fire roads that make the neighborhood a magnet for recreational cyclists. In fact, prominent magazines have many times named the Bay Area town where Alex lives one of the best places for outdoor living in the country.

 

6 Online Technology and Life

ePub

Are the many discouraging indicators, such as increasing depression and suicide and skyrocketing obesity, actually arising from our use of screen technologies? Clearly, these technologies cannot be the only factor, but in this chapter we look at how our omnipresent screens may be impairing our sleep and undermining other basic pillars of health and entailing a cascade of major compromises of our physical and mental states.

As we were writing this book, many of the tech industry’s most prominent members, troubled by the addictive and destructive behaviors that they perceive social media, mobile phones, and other technologies to intentionally foster, began offering serious criticism of the industry. They include former senior executives at Facebook, Google, and other prominent companies. Among the loudest and most insistent was Roger McNamee (whom we later asked to write the foreword to this book). Roger has been investing in technology companies, such as Facebook, for three decades, and introduced Sheryl Sandberg, its present chief operating officer, to its founder, Mark Zuckerberg. From his seat at the table, McNamee has one of the longest perspectives on how the industry is affecting us and our world. In a Guardian interview in October 2017, he pointed out the underlying conundrum: “The people who run Facebook and Google are good people, whose well-intentioned strategies have led to horrific unintended consequences. The problem is that there is nothing the companies can do to address the harm unless they abandon their current advertising models.”1

 

7 How Can We Make Technology Healthier for Humans?

ePub

In a well-known parable, a group of blind men encounters an elephant. Each man touches a different part of the elephant and receives very different tactile feedback. Their later descriptions of the elephant to each other disagree, though each individual’s description is accurate and captures one portion of the elephant: a tusk, a leg, an ear. Humans often have only partial information and struggle to understand the feelings and observations of others about the same problem or situation, even though those feelings and observations may be absolutely accurate and valid in that person’s context.

Though more multifaceted than our perceptions of an elephant, our relationships with technology are similar: Each of us experiences it differently. Each of us relates to technology in a unique, highly personal way. We lose or cede control, stability, and fulfillment in a million different ways. As Leo Tolstoy wrote in the novel Anna Karenina, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

 

8 A Vision for a More Humane Tech

ePub

Imagine that your smartphone had a pause button that would stop all buzzing and notifications for multiples of fifteen minutes and clear your home screen to leave nothing on it except for a clock—and that you could block all incoming messages by pushing a single button on the phone. You might say that your phone already does that with its Do Not Disturb (DND) mode, but DND requires quite a bit of management in its present state, and when the DND period ends, you get a rush of notifications, followed by newly arriving notifications. What if you could program the phone to send you notifications only on the hour, in regular batches?

In fact, someone has already invented a phone like that. It’s named “Siempo,” and it was designed by a team from the ground up to encourage more conscious, thoughtful use of applications and technology, and to return to users control over their lives. Siempo calls the device the “phone for humans.”1 Siempo was launched on Kickstarter in March 2017, and it raised only a fraction of its goal of $500,000. Sadly, the market did not fully validate what Siempo was offering.

 

9 A Personal Epilogue

ePub

Almost immediately after we pitched this book to our publishers, criticism broke out about the business practices, ethics, and values of the big technology companies. In August 2017, sociologist Jean Twenge published her book iGen, which examines how teenagers are growing up with technology dominating their lives while being completely unprepared for adulthood.1 Her September 2017 article in The Atlantic, discussed in chapter 6, sparked a firestorm of commentary and criticism. Former New Republic editor Franklin Foer published World Without Mind: The Existential Threat of Big Tech in September 2017, a polemic that criticizes Google, Facebook, and other tech giants for what he regards as soulless monopolism that seeks to understand every facet of our identities and influence every decision of our lives for profit.2 In a blog post titled “Hard questions: Is spending time on social media bad for us?” Facebook’s director of research, David Ginsberg, finally acknowledged that perhaps the social network was not so good for its users.3 (The eye-popping irony of the post was that the prescription to solve the problem was even more in-depth Facebook participation!)

 

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