“Drop the ‘the.’ Just ‘Facebook.’ It’s cleaner.”
This line from (fictionalized) Sean Parker in “The Social Network” is one of the most quoted lines in the movie. But it’s more than just a good quip.
Debates about phones in Claremont often become about communication styles (What’s different about texting vs. calling vs. just talking in person?) or issues of self control (What does it take to quit Facebook?). The question that those debates miss is a larger one: What are our phones, really?
To answer that question, we have to go back to the “the.” If we were to boil down Facebook—, and the smartphone in general—, to something specific enough to warrant a “the,” what would that be? And once we know that, what role should we welcome that to play in our lives?
There is a concept from economics and political science called “path dependency” that determines how present choices are restricted by past decisions. The advertising model that Facebook chose, for example, makes it difficult for the company to simply stop collecting data from users.
But path dependency affects more than just the products and services at the center of the conversation. More importantly, it affects how, and why, we have those conversations in the first place: the questions we might ask and the urgency with which we consider them.
Therefore, to move toward a more healthy relationship with our phones and social media, we need to start on the right path. These are no longer communications devices. Or to be more precise, the problems that we need to solve when it comes to phones and social media are not communications problems.
I’m not offering advice for people who take too long (or too little time) to text back, or who look at their phone during meals. Instead, let’s treat the problem with phones for what it really is: an addiction. The trick to curing it is to stop believing that addiction is an accident.
With all that in mind, here are a few ways to reign in phone addiction, without treating it like a communication issue:
Keep track one day: Out of all the times your phone buzzes or beeps, how many 1) require your immediate attention and 2) are the result of another human attempting to communicate with you?
For all the push notifications that don’t fit those two categories, I recommend turning them off. I bet you won’t feel like you’re missing out on much. If you want to go a step further, you can turn your phone on to Do Not Disturb by default, and add exceptions for select contacts.
At the very least, I plead with you: Turn off vibrate for emails. We get too many in Claremont. Way too many.
2. “Going gray”
One of the reasons phones are addictive in the first place is pretty simple: They’re very fun to look at! No matter what you’re doing, chances are the colors and shapes popping up on screen have been carefully chosen to catch your eye and keep you hooked.
Neutralizing this part of the addiction threat is actually pretty simple: Just go into your accessibility (Apple) or developer (Android) settings and turn on grayscale mode. Although this can make some apps a bit tricky to use, the payoff is clear. Without slick blues and pops of red, nothing looks quite as enticing. Embrace the frustration, and just put your phone away if it’s now annoying to use. Entering personal information into government documents is boring, too.
Oh, and everyone’s Instagrams instantly become artsy. You’re welcome.
3. Better media, not less media
There are only so many hours in the day, and let’s be real: Most of the important work we do isn’t on a phone. We attend classes, read and write hundreds of pages of text (not texts), and attempt to squeeze in all the other ingredients for a balanced life into an increasingly constricted space-time-burrito: exercise, sleep, socializing, relaxation, medical care, relationships.
The role of the infinite-scroll from social media plays a major role in the “relaxation” component that I will not deny. It simply feels good to zone out for an hour or two, to relish in being unproductive, so much so that it can feel like a radical act (at least for Claremont) — as if scrolling mindlessly is a way to exit the capitalist pipeline for a bit.
But the thing is, that endless scrolling actually is productive in the most capitalist way: It is labor that is alienated from you both technologically and economically. The data generated by your behavior in apps is how those companies make money. If you were sitting in a coffee shop just idly grinding beans and sorting change from the tip jar, it wouldn’t take very long before you’d want some compensation other than the right to purchase refills.
One solution? In this case, you can fight the symptom, not the cause. We need a break from “tough” media like academic articles sometimes, but infinite scrolls aren’t the only “easy” media you can turn to. There are centuries worth of books, “trashy,” and otherwise, waiting to be read. Netflix is making money off your data, too, but they make a lot from subscription fees and don’t serve you ads that could install the United State’s latest version of a fascist government (yet).
I’m not recommending you to stop scrolling mindlessly through those apps. I know I still do. But try to categorize them a bit differently: a trip to the casino, a two-dollar scratch-off, or an amusement park with a lackluster Health and Safety rating. Partake accordingly.