On the Formative Power of Technology

May 17, 2017

Steve Jobs once shocked a reporter who asked whether his kids, then 12 and 15, liked the new iPad. “They haven’t used it,” Jobs said. “We limit how much technology our kids use at home.”

Why would the founder of the world’s most successful technology company, the man responsible for filling public schools with iMacs and putting iPhones in the pockets of 90 million Americans,1limit the use of technology in his own household?

Jobs wasn’t alone among Silicon Valley executives in moderating his children’s exposure to the very products he created. The prophets of our glittering techno-utopian future are keenly aware of the habit-forming power of the technologies they create—and not just for children. A new constellation of movements, conferences, and retreats promising “digital detox”—with names like the National Day of Unplugging, Time Well Spent, and the Habit Summit—are emerging throughout the Valley, inviting adults to drop their “WMDs” (wireless mobile devices) and re-engage with the material world. Some startups have even taken to fighting fire with fire: one of this year’s hottest new gadgets is a minimalist cell phone that only makes calls.

This new low-tech groundswell is fed by the steadily spreading realization that our favorite devices and apps—marketed to us as mere tools, or at most, servants—are, in fact, acting back on us in powerful ways. Why is this the case? The reasons may be too many to name, but here are four. Consider that the most successful digital technologies are:

Inherently social. Nearly every new device and app on the market offers some way to connect and communicate with friends, or even perfect strangers who happen to be using the same platform. Tech companies know that humans are powerfully influenced by social pressures and affirmations, and so our devices draw upon these forces to incentivize usage. (Though ironically, technologies designed to create social connections have in fact been shown to increase social isolation.)

Psychologically sophisticated. Many tech companies are driven by business models that incentivize attempts to capture customers’ attention—and influence their behavior—as effectively as possible. The most successful apps—from Candy Crush to Uber—use a strategy called gamification to give users a sense of mastery or accomplishment that rewards extended time spent using the app. Refined by behavioral science, predictive algorithms, and artificial intelligence, these strategies are growing more sophisticated even as they spread throughout more and more of the technologies we use every day, influencing the information we encounter and the decisions we make with thousands of nearly imperceptible nudges.

Increasingly immersive. Virtual reality technology is still in its infancy, but its principles are beginning to permeate the technologies we use every day. As mobile computing power, graphics, and sensory feedback improve, it becomes increasingly easy to lose ourselves in the worlds our devices create for us.

Nearly ubiquitous. Statista estimates that nearly 70% of Americans own smartphones.2 Our internet-connected, notification-pushing, cloud-connected computers are rarely more than an arm’s length from us at any given hour of the day or night—and with internet-connected appliances, cars, and wearables on the rise, the spaces of our lives that aren’t digitally mediated are becoming fewer and fewer.

Together, these new realities make digital technologies uniquely effective at creating something humans can’t live without: habits. Our behavior at any given moment is guided along well-worn tracks, laid down by our previous behavior in similar circumstances. Behavior that succeeds (even occasionally) in helping us experience pleasure or escape pain becomes self-reinforcing; and a technology that becomes our habitual response to a common psychological trigger (like loneliness, boredom, or sadness) can exert a powerful influence over us. And today’s most successful technologies are designed to do precisely that.

Recognizing the power our devices wield can leave us confused about the extent of our own agency. Just how powerful and pervasive are these invisible forces of artificial intelligence and behavioral science? To what degree are we controlling our machines, and to what degree are they controlling us?

It would be naive to think our devices are merely servants; but they don’t have to be masters. We still have the ability to limit our exposure to the barrage of powerful behavioral nudges with which our devices consistently batter us, with simple steps like these:

Wake up. We can become attuned to the ways the technologies we use are designed and equipped to influence our behavior, as well as the ways we’re naturally susceptible to certain types of behavioral nudges.

Set boundaries. We can physically remove technology from spaces in our lives where we know it’s likely to crowd out something more important, like attentive conversation with a loved one or deep focus on a creative task.

Take control. We can take control of our devices. Actively manage your notification settings instead of passively accepting the defaults. Use an email service like Inbox to reduce distracting clutter. Turn off attention-catching red notification badges on app icons. Set your phone or watch to buzz only for communications that really require your immediate attention.

Unplug. We can make a habit of taking what Andy Crouch calls a technology “Sabbath”—a regular “routine of disengagement” from screen time that helps us focus on what’s lost during periods of constant connectivity.

Two important qualifications are in order here. First, it’s important to remember that for those who rely on platform-based work for their daily livelihood, limiting technology usage may be costly. As Julia Ticona reminds us, the rise of flexible capitalism means that for more and more of our neighbors, constant connectivity is not just a bad habit, but an economic necessity. Second, while limiting our own exposure to addictive technologies must be part of any healthy response to its formative power, it’s also the case that habits can never be simply discarded, but must be replaced with new habits. The question is not whether our behavior will be guided by habits, but whether those habits are conducive to a flourishing life. No strategy for “putting technology in its place” can succeed without putting something else in the places where technology tends to creep.

About the Author
  • Sam Speers is Managing Editor of Culture Briefing, a publication of New City Commons. He is also the co-author of Kingdom Politics: In Search of a New Political Imagination for Today's Church. For more on this topic from Culture Briefing, see Vol. 91: On Gamification and Vol. 88: On Loneliness and Addictive Technology.

  1. https://www.statista.com/statistics/232790/forecast-of-apple-users-in-the-us/ 

  2. https://www.statista.com/statistics/201183/forecast-of-smartphone-penetration-in-the-us/ 

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