My Smartphone: With Me or Against Me?
Before the boom of the internet, in Quito-Ecuador (1991), you could certainly find me at my university’s library! At that time – and still today – Quito wasn’t known as a city with plenty of bookstores and libraries as other cities here in the U.S. Books were a commodity for the privileged and were only abundant in schools and home libraries of the upper class. Most of us had access to newspapers and the news broadcasted by the local channels. So when I was finally a college student, I couldn’t get enough of all the books available to me. I spent hours and hours browsing and reading, and I loved to check out books to continue reading at home. Nowadays, the information is available to anyone. Even though I miss the experience of visiting libraries, I no longer have the need to visit them in order to get information. With a simple click on my phone, I can Google the precise piece of information that I was looking for. Online, I can read magazines, books, and blog posts, as well as access major news channels and newspapers around the planet. However, something more extraordinary has happened. With the invention of smartphones, the internet, and social media, anyone can report their reality. Being able to crowdsource information about the same event or problem has empowered the common individual. I strongly believe that technology can be an equalizer of society and give a voice to those who may have remained silent in the past.
A great example of how technology can generate positive change can be seen in Quito’s new campaign, “Down with harassment” (#BajaleAlAcoso), which started in March. Two years ago the United Nations Women and the Municipality of the Metropolitan District of Quito found distressing statistics:
…81 percent of women felt they had been harassed or victimized on Ecuador’s public transportation system and 91 percent saying they had experienced sexual harassment in public in general.
As a result, a digital platform was created so passengers could report the sexual harassment with an SMS, which unfolds a series of actions that will protect the victim. In less than a minute, the bus driver would be informed and the victim would have received a phone call with instructions on how to proceed. Six months after the launching of the new digital platform there had been 560 reports, 24 trials and four prison sentences for offenders.
Going back to the countless hours I used to spend reading at the library prior to the internet and how my phone has now replaced that need, I am becoming more conscious of the endless hours spent looking at a screen. Of course, I can clearly differentiate when I am using my phone productively and when I am just procrastinating with the never-ending scrolling of the new posts on social media. I know this is a behavior most of us can recognize, but I wasn’t aware the apps are designed deliberately to kidnap our attention. In the article, How Technology is Hijacking Your Mind – from a Magician and Google Design Ethicist, Tristan Harris describes how product designers use psychological techniques to have us engage with their app, stay longer and return often. For example, social media platforms want users to stay on their sites as long as possible. This is clear when you see that it isn’t possible for you to look at an event on Facebook without having to see the news feed or posting something on Twitter skipping the news feed. This is done on purpose! Tristan Harris, along with other members of the non-profit organization Time Well Spent, advocates for a future where technology is aligned with our social values, health, and democracy.
We need our smartphones, notifications screens and web browsers to be exoskeletons for our minds and interpersonal relationships that put our values, not our impulses, first. People’s time is valuable. And we should protect it with the same rigor as privacy and other digital rights.
Moreover, Tristan Harris also held a session for the Wisdom 2.0 conference called Can Technology Support Mindfulness?
Here, he provides advice on how to minimize distractions from your phone:
- Turning off notifications or allowing only notifications from people, not machines.
- Charging devices outside of the bedroom when sleeping.
- Putting apps that serve as tools (calendar, camera, notes etc.) on your first page of your phone, make the rest of the apps hard to get.
- Using the search option to type the app to avoid distractions.
To conclude, the ubiquity of technology in our daily lives makes it imperative to understand that its use could be transformational, but it can also keep us trapped. Above all, we need to continue developing critical thinking to know where to find the perfect balance.