Normally I write about programming topics (usually .NET); today I'm going to veer very far from that track - and talk about society, mental health, individual and corporate responsibility, and personal relationships. I genuinely hope you hear me out, but if that isn't your thing ... well, then you probably need to read it more than most. I could try a clever reverse psychology trick to oblige you to see it through, but you'd see straight through it... or would you?
My apologies in advance if I seem to be on a negative tone through much of this - I'm pulling no punches in something that has been a quite deep - and painful - personal journey and realisation. I assure you that it ends much more positively than the body might suggest. Maybe for me this is mostly cathartic self-indulgence and rambling, but.. it's my personal blog and I get to do that if I want. But if it makes even one person think for a few minutes, it has been well worth my time.
So; on with the real title:
Technology is Outpacing our Individual and Societal Health
This week, I've identified hugely with that famous (infamous?) festive favorite: Ebenezer Scrooge (humbug!). Not the usury part - but instead:
- the familiar story of spending a long time making choices that cause harm
- having some catastrophic event or events bring everything into focus
- having a genuine yet painful inspection of those past (and present) choices
- consideration of what those choices mean for the future
- undergoing a fundamental transformation, a realignment of priorities and thinking, that should lead to a much happier future
- actively walking that path with actions, not just hollow words
See, I got heavy and personal! Let's see how deep this rabbit hole goes. How to start...
Recently I nearly destroyed my marriage and a relationship of nearly 25 years.
As opening lines go, it isn't quite up there with "Marley was dead: to begin with.", but it's all I've got. It wasn't anything huge and obvious like an affair or a huge violent argument. What I did was to make - over an extended period of time - a series of bad choices about my relationship with technology.
The reality of the era is that we are absolutely surrounded by technology - it encroaches and invades on every aspect of our lives, and it has progressed so fast that we haven't really had time to figure out where "healthy" lies. I must immediately stress that I don't say this to absolve myself of responsibility; we're adults, and we must own the choices that we make, even if we make those choices in an environment that normalises them. So what do I mean?
Ultimately, the heart of my personal failings here stem from how easy - and tempting - it can be to lose ourselves in a digital world. We live in such a hyper-connected time, surrounded by flashing instant updates at every turn. It is alarmingly easy to confuse the signals that this electronic phantom universe provides, prioritising them over the real world in front of us. I'm sure we can all relate to seeing a group of people out together, whether at a bar, a meal, or some other social gathering - and seeing the mobile phones come out regularly. Don't get me started on the idiots who think they can drive while distracted by a phone. I'm certainly guilty of occasionally "parenting" by observing the digitial-tablet-infused face of one of my children, by half-watching them over the top of a mobile. And I'd be lying if I said I'd never treated my marriage with the same over-familiarity bordering on contempt.
The digital world is so easy and tempting. Everything is immediate and easy. The real world takes effort, work, and time. When I was growing up, "allow 28 days for delivery" was a mantra; today, if something physical won't arrive within 28 hours we look at alternative vendors; for purely virtual items, we'd get twitchy and worried if it took 28 minutes.
I've reached the conclusion that among other things, I was - for want of a better word - in an addictive and unhealthy relationship with the internet. The internet is amazing and brilliant - and I'm not proposing we need to nuke it from orbit, but it is at our great peril that we think that it is always (or ever) without harm. We have grown complacent, when we should be treating it with respect and, yes, at times: fear - or at least concern.
We build a global platform for communicating data - all the shared collective knowledge and wisdom of the world past and present, and how do we choose to use it? If only it was "sharing cat pics", maybe the world would be a better place. Instead, as people, we mostly seem to use it for either validating ourselves in echo chambers (tip: nothing useful is ever achieved by listening to people you already agree with), or getting into angry anonymous rows with strangers. Either triggers a spurt of rewarding chemicals to the brain, but they're both usually entirely empty of any real achievement. If only that was the only mine to avoid.
Perverse Incentives and Eroded Psychological Walls
Again, I want to keep emphasizing that no personal responsibility is voided, but we haven't arrived at this place in isolation. At risk of sounding like a radical anti-capitalist (I'm not - really), corporate interests are actively averse to us having a healthy relationship with the internet. One way this materializes is in the notion of "engagement". Now; "engagement" by itself isn't an unreasonable measure, but as with most measures: the moment that we start treating it as a target, all hell breaks loose.
Because all genuine inspections should start at home, I'll start by talking about Stack Overflow. We have a measure there, on a user's profile page: consecutive days visited. We're not monsters, so we only display this on your own profile, but: I can only see negative things about this number. On its own, it adds nothing (not least: you can't compare it to anything), but: I know that at some point in history I cared about that number. I would try to do something, anything to not lose this number, including checking in while on family holidays. And here's the thing: the more you maintain it, the more it feels to lose. It is purely a psychological thing, but... when thinking about it, I can't think of a single positive use of this number. The only thing it does is encourage wholly harmful behaviours. I love our users, and I want them to be happy, rested, and healthy. Making users not want to go even 24 hours without checking in with us - well, that doesn't seem good to me. If anything, it sounds like a great way to cause burnout and frustration. I would love to start a conversation internally about whether we should just nuke that number entirely - or if anything, use it to prompt a user "hey, we really love you, but ... maybe take a day off? we'll see you next week!". As a counterpoint to that: we actively enforce a daily "rep cap", which I think is hugely positive thing towards sensible and healthy usage; I just want to call that out for balance and fairness.
Now consider: in the grand scheme of things: we're cuddly kittens. Just think what the Facebooks, Googles, etc are doing with psychological factors to drive "engagement". We've already seen the disclosures about Facebook's manipulation of feeds to drive specific responses. Corporations are often perversely incentivized to be at odds with healthy engagement. We can see this most clearly in sectors like gambling, pornography, gaming (especially in-game/in-app purchases, "pay to win"), drugs (whether legal or illicit), "psychics" (deal with the air-quotes) etc. Healthy customers are all well and good, but you make most of your money from the customers with unhealthy relationships. The idea of fast-eroding virtual "credit" is rife. If I can pick another example: I used to play quite a bit of Elite: Dangerous; I stopped playing around the time of the "Powerplay" update, which involved a mechanic around "merits" with a steep decay cycle: if you didn't play significant amounts of grind every week (without fail): you'd basically always have zero merits. This is far from unusual in today's games, especially where an online component exists. I've seen YouTube content creators talking about how they strongly feel that if they don't publish on a hard schedule, their channel tanks - and it doesn't even matter whether they're right: their behaviour is driven by the perception, not cold reality (whatever it may be).
I now accept that I had developed some unhealthy relationships with the internet. It hugely impacted my relationships at home, both in quality and quantity. I would either be unavailable, or when I was available, I would be... distracted. Checking my phone way too often - essentially not really present, except in the "meat" sense. Over time, this eroded things. Important things.
And yet as a society we've normalized it.
Let's look at some of the worst examples from above - gambling, pornography, drugs, etc: it used to be that if you had a proclivity in those directions, there would be some psychological or physical barrier: you'd need to go to the book-maker or casino, or that seedy corner-shop, or find a dealer. Now we have all of those things in our pocket, 24/7, offering anonymous instant access to the best and worst of everything the world has to offer. How would you know that your colleague has a gambling problem, when placing a bet looks identical to responding to a work email? As if that wasn't enough, we've even invented new ways of paying - "crypto-currency" - the key purposes of which are (in no particular order) "to ensure we don't get caught" and "to burn electricity pointlessly". There is possibly some third option about "decentralization" (is that just another word for "crowd-sourced money-laundering"? I can't decide), but I think we all know that in reality for most regular crypto-currency users this is a very far third option; it is probably more important for the organised criminals using it, but... that's another topic.
We Need to Maintain Vigilance
I wouldn't be saying all this if I thought it was all doom. I do think we've reached a fundamentally unhealthy place with technology; maybe we've been over-indulging in an initial excited binge, but: we really need to get over it and see where we're harming and being harmed. We don't need to obsess over our phones - those little notifications mean almost nothing. I'm absolutely not saying that I'm detaching myself from the internet, but I am treating it with a lot more respect - and caution. I'm actively limiting the times that I engage to times that I am comfortable with. There are very few things that are important enough to need your constant attention; things can wait. For most things: if it is genuinely urgent, someone will simply call you. I've completely and irrevocably blocked my access to a range of locations that (upon introspection) I found myself over-using, but which weren't helping me as a person - again, hollow validation like echo-chambers and empty arguments. I can limit my usage of things like "twitter" to useful professional interactions, not the uglier side of twitter politics. And I can ensure that in the time I spend with my family: I'm actually there. In mind and person, not just body. I've completely removed technology from the bedroom - and no, I'm not being crude there - there is a lot of important and useful discussion and just closeness time to be had there, without touching on more ... "intimate" topics. You really, really don't need to check your inbox while on the toilet - nobody deserves that; just leave the phone outside.
I got lucky; whatever problems I had, I was able to identify, isolate, and work through before they caused total destruction - and I need to be thankful for the support and patience of my wife. But it was genuinely close, and I need to acknowledge that. I'm happier today - and closer to my wife - than I have been in a long long time, mostly through my own casual fault. I'm cautious that the next person might not be so lucky. I'm also terrified about the upcoming generation of children who have very little baseline to compare to. What, for them, is "normal"? How much time at school and home are we dedicating to teaching these impressionable youths successful tactics for navigating the internet, and what that means for their "real" life? I think we can agree that when we hear of "Fortnite", "kids" and "rehab" being used in the same sentence: something is wrong somewhere.
Maybe somewhere along the line we (culture) threw the baby out with the bathwater. I'm not at all a religious person, but if I look at most established religions with that atheistic lens, I have to acknowledge that among the superstition: there are some good wisdoms about leading a good and healthy life - whether by way of moral codes (that vary hugely by religion), or by instilling a sense of personal accountability and responsibility, or by the simple act of finding time to sit quietly - regularly - and be honestly contemplative. To consider the consequences of our actions, even - perhaps especially - when we haven't had to do so directly. Humility, patience, empathy. I know in the past I've been somewhat dismissive of even non-theistic meditation, but: I suspect that it is something that I might now be in a position to appreciate.
To re-state: I'm OK; I am (and in terms of my marriage: we are) in a much better, stronger, healthier place than I (we) have been in a long time. I've had my Thanksgiving Miracle, and I've come out the other side with a renewed energy, and some fundamentally altered opinions. I'm interested in your thoughts here, but I'm not opening comments; again - we've made it too easy and anonymous! If you want to email me on this, please do (marc.gravell at gmail.com - if you could use "Thanksgiving Carol" in the subject, that'd really help me organize my inbox); I may respond, but I won't guarantee it, and I certainly won't guarantee an immediate response. I'm also deliciously conscious of the apparent irony of my blogging about the harms of the internet. But: if - as Joel assures me - "Developers are Writing the Script for the Future" - we need to start being a bit more outspoken about what that script says, and calling out when some measure of "success" of a product or service is likely impactful to healthy usage.
Closing: technology is great, the internet is great; but: we need to treat them with respect, and use them in sensible moderation. And pay lots more attention to the real world.