Disconnect and Recharge


Iman Baber


Start the day. Breakfast. Snapchat your friends. Lunch time. Check your Instagram feed. Cram in some homework. End of the day. Scroll through YouTube and Netflix. And autoplay. Every single day. As a whole, we are becoming excessively dependent on technology. Think of the numerous accounts with online platforms like Instagram, Snapchat, and countless others with which we orient our lives. We comment, like, and post without a second thought. But do we realize what really happens when we click the button? Every time we do, we are hooked and drawn into the world of online media platforms. We don’t realize that on the other side of the screen are mega-companies that are battling for one thing: our attention. And as they manage to catch more and more of it in their webs, we’re disconnecting from ourselves. And plugging into technology.

Think about all the huge online sites, and how far their influence branches out. Whenever we use such a site, we believe that we are controlling what we see on the screen. That’s actually not true. “[W]hat we [often] don’t talk about is how the handful of people working at a handful of technology companies through their choices will steer what a billion people are thinking today,” explains Tristan Harris, a former design ethicist at Google. “There’s a hidden goal driving the direction of all of the technology we make, and that goal is the race for our attention… and there’s only so much of it.” These tech companies are constantly revising their products to ensure that their consumers are spending the maximum time possible on the screen. And they do this by studying users’ psychology, and then devising persuasive strategies to keep them plugged in.

There’s a simple way that these companies keep us reeled in, and that’s the hook model. This hook consists of four parts: the trigger, the action, the reward, and lastly, the investment. These parts form a loop that, when demonstrated with enough frequency, form a habit. Triggers are the first part of this loop, and they tell us what to do next. Take, for example, the play button on YouTube, or the like button on Instagram. “We see these external triggers all the time,” says Nir Eyal, author of Hooked: How to Build Habit Forming Products. “They’re in our environment, our day to day lives. But what we don’t consider enough, and what turns out to be absolutely critical to forming these long-term habits is creating an association with what’s called an internal trigger.” Internal triggers are inside the user’s head. They can be things like emotions or memories. The most powerful triggers, however, are negative emotions. Think: what do we do when we feel lonely? We open up Instagram. What do we do when we’re bored? We automatically go to Pinterest or YouTube. These triggers are then what drive the action, which can be a simple as clicking the play button. From this, we recieve instant reward and satisfaction. However, we still crave more of that reward — that satisfaction — and that’s why we stay hooked. Leading to the investment. The investment is when we invest stored value in something, so it appreciates. The more we invest in it, the greater value it will accumulate, and more we want to hang on to it. For example, take the Snap streak feature on Snapchat. As the number of days you have accumulate, the more we dread losing them, right? So think, the more you spend time on it, the more its value will increase, and the deeper you will sink into the cycle. You stay hooked.

Ok, you may be thinking, “Well, we know we stay hooked into technology, but is that really a bad thing?” Yes, it is. “I don’t know a more urgent problem than this,” Harris says. “Because this problem is underneath all other problems. It’s changing our democracy, and it’s changing our ability to have the conversations and relationships that we want with each other.” Technology sucks us in constantly into these little actions that completely blow away our attention from other, more important things. And it takes us an average of 23 minutes to refocus. And the worst thing is that these actions are all highly addictive. Think, when you start scrolling through social media, it’s really hard to stop, right? More and more people will be spending more and more time sinking into these activities. The deeper that we sink into technology, the harder it will be to pull ourselves out. 

However, there is a solution to this. “Instead of handicapping our attention, imagine if we used all of this data and all of this power and this new view of human nature to give us a superhuman ability to focus and a superhuman ability to put our attention to what we cared about and a superhuman ability to have the conversations that we need to have for democracy,” explains Harris. We should design our technology so that instead of eating away at our valuable time, it enables us to spend our time in the most efficient and empowering way possible. Some examples are apps that reward users when they stay off their phones. Instead of worrying the wayward ways that technology could go, such as artificial intelligence, we should worry about fixing the technology we have right now to ensure that that never happens. These persuasive techniques that tech companies use can be used for good. They can be used to connect people around the world, enable people to get the help that they need, and empower people to make the most of their time.