We need a (tech) diet

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One day, I forgot to charge my AirPods.

Delightful. Now, my 13-minute route felt like a half-hour chore instead of a four-song sequence. 

Every step was jarring. I had no musical metronome to strut to, no curated audio segments to eclipse the farrago of noises around me. Trudging home in solitude with my thoughts, I hyperanalyzed my every movement, tripped more than once and consequently doubted my ability to reach a Point B without a backdrop.

But with no alternative, I heard. And finally listened. The sweet babble of children chasing bubbles on Sproul Plaza, the enchanting piano music outside the Martin Luther King Jr. Student Union, the staunch champions of flat Earth-ism near Bancroft Avenue, the countless student conversations in so many different languages — I listened to it all, realizing that I had forgotten how diverse Berkeley was. I had unlearned what the expanse of existing felt like. 

It was one of many in-between moments in life — the walk back home, the line at the coffee shop, the wait for a friend, the short passenger ride — in which I would’ve defaulted to consuming short snippets of content. 

Thirty seconds? Let me scroll through my Instagram feed.

One minute? Gotta check my Slack notifications.

Five minutes? Perfect, I’ll listen to a couple of songs while I peruse my Twitter feed.

Seven minutes? I can create an aesthetic Instagram story of the brunch I had this morning.

Thirteen minutes? Great, I’ll spend two minutes finding an exactly 11-minute Medium article to read.

More than 20 minutes? Oh gosh, let me just watch an episode from Netflix on my phone.

The convenience of content, accessible with the pop of a wireless earphone or an instantaneous facial unlock and available in “snackable,” binge-able bits, is obliterating our humanity. Unlike live television channels and movie DVDs, new streaming services are designed for your personal computer, not a communal TV. The individualized, customizable accounts, the “made for you” recommendations and infinite choice schemes are inducing addictions, impatience and a consumption-for-myself model. And such insidious “dark patterns” or deceptive design ploys, like endless scrolling and misleading choice architecture, hold us captive. “Pull-to-refresh” features that resemble the lever motion in slot machines exploit our gravitation toward unpredictability and susceptibility to shiny, intermittent reinforcements. When there’s always something else to see, we’re unable to pull away

And while Instagram’s latest “like” ban begs to differ, the Silicon Valley isn’t growing with your best interests at heart. Capitalizing on cognitive weaknesses such as social reciprocity, e.g. Instagram’s “follow back” button; infinite experiences, e.g. YouTube’s autoplay; and senses of urgency, e.g. Facebook’s inescapable read receipts, generates profit. And even more concerning than the difficulty to withdraw or “unsubscribe” from these addictions is the false pretense of efficiency and solvency we attribute to the products we are most enamored by.

Public newspapers have diminished in circulation, defeated by curated fragments of information in five-minute, individualized newsletters whose mission statements are so audacious as to make “reading actually enjoyable”. From Medium articles with a projected time-to-consume estimate and prehighlighted key takeaways to could-have-been articles that delineate content in a series of tweets instead of prose, information is being stripped, selected and summarized for our dumber selves. And how we read between the lines and make sense of the massive gray area is directly dependent on our filter bubbles.

One of my favorite champions of efficiency is Slack, the real-time messaging app. What started as a revolutionary communication tool intended for email replacement in the workplace has spiraled into an incessant overuse of @here, @everyone, @channel across timezones — the indiscriminate blasting of notifications even when they may have absolutely no relevance to you. It does come second, though, to the six food delivery apps I have on my iPhone because ordering delivery to save time, then meticulously tracking the driver on the app’s estimated map for every minute of the journey on my phone, definitely makes sense. Living and working “remotely” is more possible than ever with an app for just about everything at your disposal, and dopamine-driven feedback loops are winning the battle for our time.

The phone-industrial complex has optimized against natural human interaction in every possible way. Tech for me has posited itself as an ideal conduit through which I can attain my ideal world. But, as my exploration has morphed into reliance and finally evolved into my average of 4 hours and 27 minutes of phone use with 229 pickups per day (according to my dreaded screen-time notification), and as my means to combat tech addiction is yet again, tech, I’ve realized … I might have a problem. The malaise of stillness is something I’m actively working to eliminate in my life. But equating inactivity with restoration is hard, especially when the price of doing nothing for a few seconds feels like an irrecoverable opportunity cost. 

So these days, I’m practicing attuning to the world beyond my phone. And no, I don’t mean engaging in the digital sabbath movement or escaping to some Silicon Valley tech cleansing like Burning Man. I’m talking about actively looking away from my 5.8 inch, 1125 x 2436 pixel screen and appreciating new architectural details and incremental construction efforts on the streets. I’m talking about befriending people in the most unpredictable, nonvirtual situations and feeling secure when existing in gaps, without reaching into my pocket. 

And slowly and surely, I’ll relearn how to walk. This time, without AirPods.

Divya Nekkanti writes the Friday column on tech, design and entrepreneurship. Contact her at [email protected].