Otis Johnson was released from prison in 2014 after spending 44 years of his life behind bars.
What’s remarkable about his story is that upon re-entering civilisation, Mr Johnson witnessed 44years of technological advancements in a single moment – an experience very few will share with him. To put this in perspective, he was completely removed from society at a time when consumer technology was still in its infancy: people would still write letters, listen to music through a radio and the mobile phone was a sci-fi daydream.
It’s now 2017 and times have changed. Mr Johnson has re-entered civilisation to find the society he once knew walking around like ‘secret agents’ – with listening devices in our ears and a distracted indifference to crossing the road. His long absence from society gives him only two reference points for technology’s development: 1975, when mobile devices were something you’d hang above a baby’s crib, and today, where our phones are ‘smart’ and we count on them as though they were our life support. The leap is huge for Otis, but also for us, since it signals the possibility that we have a technology addiction we may not be in control of.
The truth is we are agents, but there is no secret. In the words of Anastasia Dedyukhina, “Technology has become a new kind of religion, and the ultimate goal of these new gods is to keep us online as much as they can”. In fact, marketers bank on us spending more and more time online, since the more time we spend browsing the web, the more advertisements we become susceptible to, the more money we spend, the more money they make.
In short – our attention sells. And with that kernel of knowledge came a surge of new content to occupy our thoughts and keep us clicking on links. There’s just one catch. The speed at which content is required means that quality went out the window a little while ago. Headlines are becoming more startling and nonsensical, “music videos, commercials, movies, and reality TV shows look like soft core porn: any kind of attention sells”. The digital economy is literally suffocating quality journalism and marketing, tempting brands to compete on the same level or run the risk of going home empty-handed.
This nonsensical tidal wave has only intensified through the advent of apps – the cupid of the smartphone software world, piercing the clutter on our smartphone home screens with constant notifications that draw us back in. They are a “powerful and cheap way to make you come back to your device over and over again”, until your behaviour becomes automatic and you can’t remember how you got by without them.
It’s important to remember that this is a kind of ‘false love’, and there’s something we can do to create a better balance between technology and the world beyond our screens. Firstly, it is our choice whether to be an agent to the ‘Technology Gods’ or not. They win us over because they have programs that track us 24 hours a day, 365 days a year and for some reason, we get a little dopamine boost when we receive an email with our name in the subject line. But there is a big wide world out there and it offers us so much more. Once we add up all of the time we spend online, we are amazed by how much can be achieved just by breaking bad tech habits. As Dedyukhina suggests, “a good place to get your red pill is to start measuring, how much time you really spend online across all devices, and how much of this time is productive”.
You could try it right now and give yourself some of your lost digital time back. Maybe take a loved one out for dinner, pretend its 1975 and leave your tech distractions at home. Or you can click a few links and let the Internet take you around the world without really taking you anywhere. It’s your choice.
You can read more from Anastasia Dedyukhina in her book ‘Homo Distractus’.