Tech is Empowering You to Make Bad Decisions
How technology gives you the choices you’re better off without.
See below, a poorly aged tweet, perfect for framing a much broader issue:
I’m not going to focus much on the actual tweet, or its author, mainly because it’s not relevant what the intent was here or whether it was followed by any apologies or recourse. The broader point is that this idea, that cyber bullying can be opted out of, used to be very pervasive. I’m sure some people still hold this belief.
Given how I’ve framed this post, it’s probably clear that I disagree with the idea that cyber bullying is easily preventable or in any way not real. However, the tweet’s oversimplified argument begs a broader question of our technology ails:
- cyber bulling
- screen addiction
- doom scrolling
- fake news
- social media-induced depression
- and many, many others…
In the case of all of the above, why can’t we just opt out? Why don’t we just walk away, close the screen? The physical barriers to solving these problems are, as the opening tweet pointed out, just that simple. We could just log off, but very few people do.
Thankfully, we can draw on historical wisdom and spare ourselves some critical thinking here, as it all boils down to an issue older than the Internet itself.
The “Basic Advantage”
Consider the wisdom of Benjamin Graham, investing icon and mentor to mega-billionaire Warren Buffet, in an excerpt from his timeless classic, The Intelligent Investor. Admittedly, our topic is not related to investing. However, I promise the analogy will become very powerful as the discourse progresses, even for non-financiers.
Below, Graham (whose writing precedes today’s pronoun best practices) discusses the motivations of investors who watch stocks relentlessly to the extent that they feel unduly compelled to sell:
But note this important fact: The true investor scarcely ever is forced to sell his shares, and at all other times he is free to disregard the current price quotation. He need pay attention to it and act upon it only to the extent that it suits his book, and no more. Thus the investor who permits himself to be stampeded or unduly worried by unjustified market declines in his holdings is perversely transforming his basic advantage into a basic disadvantage.
It’s worth reading the last sentence again, but here it is in layperson’s terms: investors who relentlessly watch prices and consume news are using their basic advantage (the ability to sell at any time) to their detriment, thus turning it into a basic disadvantage (the personal compulsion to sell).
This is a powerful idea, and it has nothing to do with financial markets. Benjamin Graham, a legendary information processor, is admitting to a tendency to over-analyze. And let’s face it, if an investor of historic discipline was susceptible to this in the era of print media, we are all susceptible to this in the era of digital social media. There is no strength in lacking this tendency, only foolishness in thinking you are above it.
Options and Obligations
So what’s our basic advantage, and how are we transforming into a basic disadvantage? Much like Graham’s hypothetical investor always has the option to sell, we all have the option to consume information. This is our basic advantage in the digital era — the world is at our fingertips. However, this becomes our basic disadvantage as soon as this option starts to act like an obligation.
Frankly, there exists a wealth of accessible information that we have no reason to consume. For example, who hasn’t clicked on a video, an article, or a search result they wish they could unsee?
It isn’t always so clear cut. We fancy ourselves as intelligent, and capable of understanding complex situations — and maybe that’s true. But complex situations require diligent analysis and time, much more than we have the patience for when idly browsing online. So, why is it so easy to find ourselves in an inescapable rabbit hole of political content, apocalyptic news, or someone’s deeply personal affairs?
I believe it’s because we’ve used our over-analyzing brains to our detriment once again. We’ve turned our basic advantage: accessible information, into a basic disadvantage: radicalization and misinformation. If we are hesitant to admit this, it is because the reality is both subtle and unflattering. But it isn’t uniquely unflattering, because overanalysis is a shortcoming we all share. The true strength is not in improving your analytical abilities (i.e. becoming a digital super-sleuth). Rather, the masters of the digital age must engineer circumstances wherein they are not constantly exposed to their weaknesses.
Reclaiming Your Basic Advantage
Not everything you read on the Internet is true, even if it seems agreeable. Information becomes lost and distorted every time it changes hands, especially when commentary gets added. I’m an optimist, so I think most people already know this stuff.
What we may not realize is how impressionable we all are. Here’s a simple rule that anyone can follow online: if you didn’t search for it, don’t click on it. Whether it’s a tweet, a TikTok, or a YouTube video, if you didn’t search for it, it’s coming to you because Twitter (or TikTok, Youtube, etc.) wants you to see it. These are incredibly sophisticated organizations with deep pockets and powerful algorithms. They are compensated with your most precious and valuable commodity: your time. It’s the most important metric they track. Protect it like it’s something you value.
Recognize, also, that you are fallible. Engineer a lifestyle where it’s difficult to fail. Set screen time limits on your devices. Don’t just commit to using less social media — block all traffic from your problematic sites (I highly recommend nextdns for controlling your traffic). Uninstall social media apps from your phone. Use third-party clients like TweetBot, a Twitter app with no recommendations page. Leave social media on one device if you must use it at all, and don’t take that device with you to bed. Read a book.
In sum, opt out. Reclaim your basic advantage.