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A Dangerous Addiction
Wisdom Letter #54 | Our Social Dilemma
Hello and Welcome to The Wisdom Project — Your weekly dose of human curated wisdom in a world full of algorithmic noise.
From the Merriam-Webster English dictionary—
ad·dic·tion | \ ə-ˈdik-shən a compulsive, chronic, physiological or psychological need for a habit-forming substance, behavior, or activity having harmful physical, psychological, or social effects and typically causing well-defined symptoms (such as anxiety, irritability, tremors, or nausea) upon withdrawal or abstinence : the state of being addicted
Do you feel addicted to your phone?
Do you feel “anxiety” or “irritability” if you are away from your phone for a while? Do you impulsively unlock your phone and start scrolling some app without even realizing? Is it the last thing you do before going to bed and the first thing you do after waking up?
Then you my friend, are addicted to your phone.
Don’t worry, we are all in the same boat. I get overwhelmed when I look at my daily phone usage stats. 3,4 sometimes 5 hours in a day. Unlocking the device 80,90 even 100 times a day. And receiving close to 400 notifications almost everyday.
These are mind boggling numbers. And when I ask around I find similar numbers among my peers as well, across friends and family.
Being addicted to our tech devices in general, and to our social media feeds specifically is a real affliction today. And it harms us at a personal level, as well as at a societal level.
Individually it can lead to psychological disorders such as anxiety, depression and delusions. At a larger scale, it fuels our tribalism, polarization and gives rise to the outrage culture we see often these days.
This week Netflix released a documentary about this topic — The Social Dilemma.
It features folks from the “Center for Humane Technology” talking about the twisted incentives of the tech industry over the last 15 years which have brought us to where we are today.
The business model of our favorite social media companies is dependent on us watching ads served up to us by them. Which means they have to get very good at harvesting our attention, packaging it and selling it to advertisers.
These companies deploy highly sophisticated algorithms to design our feeds in a way that we are hooked on to them and keep coming back even against our own will sometimes.
The documentary goes deep on this idea and explains it brilliantly with a parallel fictional story of a family dealing with teenage tech addiction.
The most fascinating part for me was the triplet of AI humanoids working behind the feed algorithm and hatching plans to make sure the user remains on the app a little longer.
I think personifying these algorithms is a good way of illustrating to people outside of the tech industry, how these algorithms work and why that can be problematic.
The movie sends a strong message, its well made and its a must watch, check it out—
Watch the trailer on Youtube.
The movie is facing criticism on a couple of fronts.
First the fact that while they have taken on every big tech company in Silicon Valley, they have very conveniently left out Netflix. I would argue that Netflix’s algorithm is also very harmful and though it does not depend on advertising but its incentives are still aligned to keep us hooked on to the platform for as long as possible.
I think its a fair criticism and does raise prudent questions on the motives of the movie being produced.
I agree to it somewhat but I feel the need to build a strong narrative often causes makers to drop a lot of nuance from the discourse. And at this point, in the middle of a pandemic and an infodemic, I think creating awareness about the issue is more important than having all your bases covered.
So yes, its simplistic, somewhat childish and definitely elitist, but the concerns it raises are still real and need to be talked about a lot more than they currently are.
The Human Curated Feed
This topic is very close to our hearts and we have written extensively on these ideas over the last year or so. Throughout the movie almost every other scene there was something being discussed which we have talked about our written about.
Our whole idea of “human curated wisdom” is aimed at staying away from “algorithmic noise” and focusing on topics that all of us need to think deeply about.
If you check our archive its a long feed, curated by humans, for humans without any intrusive ads or promotions.
But its not an endless feed, it is not unlimited, it does not load up new content instantly with the click of a button. It is limited by our natural human capabilities.
New content comes up at a weekly cadence, and is restricted by our capacity to process and curate information during a busy work week. And I think that is a good thing, both for us as well as for our readers.
The irony of course, is that we still have to compete with our reader’s favorite social media feed for attention, and we demand a lot more thoughtful deliberation on the reader’s end as compared to a cute cat video on Facebook or a viral meme on Instagram.
Its a long uphill battle, but one which we enjoy fighting.
Do checkout previous wisdom letters that we have written around this topic—
Signing off for the weekend, here’s a quote that really stuck with me from the movie—
“There are only two industries that call their customers “users”. Illegal drugs and software.”
Think about it.
We got featured on a newsletter discovery platform called Rad Letters. I think we have seen a boom in the newsletter industry over the last couple of years, and the biggest problem that indie creators like us face is of discovery and reaching new audiences.
I think Rad Letters is doing a fantastic job to solve this problem. Do check it out and also checkout our written interview there. We go deep into our process and purpose of writing this newsletter.
We are asking our readers for advice on how we can improve. We want your honest inputs, so please take out some time and fill this form, it will mean a world to us.
One more thing, if you have an itch for a side project of your own, but you are having trouble kicking things off, let us know, we might be able to help. We have been doing this project for a year now, and have gotten better at getting things done and executing our ideas.
We would be glad to help you out. Just reply to any of our mails, or message us on Whatsapp.
Thank you for reading.
Tell a friend about The Wisdom Project, spread some wisdom :)
Aditi & Ayush