I went to a department store recently and tried on a black dress. It was one of those voluminous ones which are on-trend at the moment. I liked it, but wasn’t completely in love with it. So I left without it. Later that day I went on Facebook and a dress almost identical to the one I tried, from the same store, popped up and screamed ‘buy me!’
It would be easy to start wondering if our lives are being filmed, somehow. But that would be silly, wouldn’t it? I mean, some man in black with a camera is hardly going to follow my every move. I’m really not that interesting.
So I told this story to Soren Kenner, a high-powered advertising executive and author of a new book, Offline, co-written with his friend Imran Rashid, a medical doctor.
“Was your phone on?” he asked. Affirmative.
“The location was tracked and a prediction was made on the dress you tried based on an algorithm of previous purchases and browsing history.”
I was so astonished that I vowed to start buying clothes that were way out of character, just to confuse those confounded algorithms. How presumptuous are they? More worryingly, how predictable am I.
Although the book Offline has some pretty scary facts about the way social media is impacting on our lives, both physically and mentally, Soren is keen to stress that abstention is not the answer. The authors advocate for change not abolition.
The stark fact is that many are concerned about the effect digital devices are having on our lives. We’ve read about young people who have thousands of friends on Facebook but no real life skills. From research we know that humans need to bond and to love and receive love from other humans and that means interaction on several levels, from friendships to sexual relationships and even a chance conversation with a stranger. So when interaction with humans decreases, the closeness and bonding hormone Oxytocin also decreases and the result is lack of empathy. That is frightening.
Co-author Soren Kenner
So we know that constant distraction from notifications, selfies and the like is not good, but we still can’t put those damn digital devices down and that’s because they’ve been designed that way to demand our constant attention. Soren and Imran call it technoference.
So the authors are appealing to media tech giants to tone down their offering and the book contains a letter for readers to pass on to the likes of Facebook, Google and the like to do the right thing by the human race.
“This is an ongoing discussion,” says Soren. “Facebook denies the use of addictive design and mindhacks, but they’re easy to see. We would love for them to get rid of notifications or at least make them so they’re not so much in your face. You look at your phone and there are constant red numbers which you believe maybe important. So you have a look at what you feel you maybe missing and get pulled into a hypnotised state of browsing and scrolling forever, mesmerised by cliff-hangers and click-bait. The next thing you know three hours have passed. If Facebook really wanted to help us they would make major design changes.
“I’m not against Facebook or any social media. I recognise that it has its strengths. I’m from Denmark and it’s a wonderful way to keep in touch with my family and friends there. So what we have to do is train ourselves to make it work in our favour.
“Imran and I are both proponents of free markets and competition – we believe technological development brings growth and eradicates poverty – but we also believe that we need to be careful how we use that technology that interacts with us on very fundamental levels. We hope to see a shift in the near future towards a more human-centric technology designed to help humans augment and boost their skills, knowledge, competencies and abilities by working with our biology and psychology instead of against it.”
Both Soren and Imran are fathers whose children, like everyone else’s, love digital games and social media. They emphasise that to change a child’s viewing habits, a parent has to set the example.
“We take our children to the park and they’re calling ‘Daddy, Daddy’, but we’re so absorbed in our phones that we ignore them and that affects them. It also shows them that it’s OK to do that when it really isn’t.”
The book outlines ways in which we can curb our digital habit, firstly by recognising we have one. As with all habits we need to understand it, what triggers it and what need it covers. Then we have to set a goal for what we can replace it with. Being able to counter the habit is important and endlessly repeating this new way of working helps us to overcome it.
So here are some tips: If you’re taking the kids out to a playground, leave the phone in your bag and interact with them. If you don’t want to be tempted by constant notifications, turn them off. In boring meetings, force yourself to pay attention if you need to fiddle with something, try a pen and pencil. Quickly checking emails? – set a timer and give yourself five minutes. Tempted to browse before bed? put your phone in another room and buy an old-fashioned alarm clock. In a café? Leave your phone at home and try striking up a conversation with a stranger. In the car – turn your phone off when you are driving. Even handsfree connections tend to slow down your reaction time.
As Soren says it’s not rocket science, but it’s not that easy either. Deciding what your goal is and how you want to see yourself in terms of family life, leisure time, own time and work is important. So is mapping out what your habits look like now by writing them down, then you can find effective ways to counter the habit.
Because after all, in the words of the author: “We need technology that helps us become better humans – not technology that makes us less civilised by destroying our self control.”
Online: free your mind from smartphone and social media stress, is published by Capstone, £12.99. ISBN: 978-0-857-08793-5