Using technology to mitigate bad effects of technology - A discussion


#1

I really liked Cal Newport’s book Deep Work, and today I stumbled across one of his new blog posts thanks to another NoSurfer.

“Digital Wellness for Grownups” is mentioning the current rising trend of tech giants realizing their responsibility, and implementing techniques and apps to mitigate them - like the new tracking and blocking feature both Android and iOS have in their new versions.

One way to view it is to be grateful: Finally, awareness is rising and people have made enough noise about the harmful effects of too much social media or phone usage. And the tech giants are taking responsibility and helping the end user take control of their habits! Of course we need shiny, easy to use, playful apps to convince people to use them, so it’s easier for them to go through with the changes!

Cal Newport has a different view, something that’s really worth thinking and discussing about. Do we really need apps to limit us from apps? He writes:

I recognize that digital tools have a useful role to play in productivity. I’ve long advised, for example, that people use internet blocking software like Freedom to help jumpstart deep work training.
But something about this growing digital wellness movement makes me uneasy, and I think I’ve finally put my finger on the source of my concern: it’s infantilizing.
I’m a grown man. If I’m checking my phone every 5 minutes, or playing video games instead of paying attention to my kids, I don’t need an animation of a dying tree to nudge me toward better habits, I need someone I respect to knock the stupid thing out of my hand and say “get your act together.”

He argues apps like them can be downright infantilizing, treating us like children that are at the mercy of their parent’s parenting blocker, and having to entice us with cute images and softly reeling us into the reality of limiting our use, instead of us being consciously following this path while training our discipline and willpower and having social support at our side. It’s like we rely on technology to keep us away with similar addictive features, instead of doing so many good, focused, exciting and important things that we are so immersed that we don’t need blockers to stay away, and having actual human intervention.

He explains:

I’m arguing instead that many of the “solutions” of the digital wellness movement don’t take the problem seriously enough. If I’m wasting away hours every day on digital randomness, this is a big deal. I need more than some helpful apps. I would want “someone I respect” to pull me aside and impress on me that this is serious; that I need to make serious changes.
I’m advocating an approach for digital issues that matches what we have seen work for other health and lifestyle issues.
If someone has a drinking problem, for example, it’s not enough to hang a warning about liver damage on their beer fridge, or put up an inspirational poster at the bar; you need people they trust to intervene. To say clearly: This is a problem. Stop with the little fixes. You have to change your life.
[…]
Cute apps, plug-ins, and OS features is not a solution for grown ups with real problems. The real solution is the stand up and resolve to make real changes in your life. This is hard. It helps to have support. But it’s the way we should be talking about these issues.

I think both views have a lot of merit; it’s right that too many times, we just rely on apps to take the job of discipline and willpower. Willpower is limited and we should use it for good, but we sometimes end up expecting too much of the blocker and tracker apps and change nothing else in our life.
Our focus should not only be to block, it should be to change our life and habits which starts at the brain and what we do! We also need a much bigger intervention than just our apps; we need community (as lined out in our other Community thread) and we need people who mean a lot to us to support us.

On the other hand, I am personally glad things are designed to be easy to use, integrated now so people don’t have to go through the first obstacle of installing them, and have imagery and work with feelings of guilt sometimes as well. We are talking about people that are addicted to sleek user interfaces and seeing lots of cute new content all the time that are used to being drawn in and manipulated - just discipline or a straightforward design and blocking could be averting someone trying to make a change. And sadly, not everyone has so many great, immersing things to do, especially not all the time; and a lot of people are surrounded by people exactly as addicted as them, or no one they would respect. There is no one to intervene. So change has to come through them entirely, which can be hard without blocking software holding them accountable.

What’s your opinion? Are we relying too much on blockers, or is our use of them justified? Do you find them rather childish, or a useful crutch to support your values and the habits you want to incorporate?


#4

Modern day in general has a way of infantilizing people, treating them as if they cannot be faced with the realities of life. What Cal Newport looks at here is just a piece of the puzzle. In my opinion, we, as a society, have to grow up and consider ourselves able to deal with the problem outright without the dependence on cute technological crutches. We have become too soft and it’s hurting us as a whole. In this respect I am often ashamed in front of our parent’s or grandparent’s generation, as so many of us are so devoid of useful skills and independence far into our twenties - when they already worked for a decade, built a house and raised several children, all on themselves.

As an example I’ll add the badge system that Discourse uses. I find it strange that a piece of software feels the need to pat me on the shoulder for embedding a link into a posting or editing one, as if any of this would be a prizeworthy achievement and not the mundane task it really is.

Another would be the Nintendo 3DS remake of Pokémon Sapphire. The amount of additional handholding and gifting is - in my opinion - appalling. Legendary Pokémon are handled as a sort of commodity. Being able to use TMs any number of time had me dumbstruck. It’s as if nowadays all possible hardships and feelbads have to be removed from gaming experience because people aren’t expected to tolerate hard decisions.


#5

I agree with some parts of what he’s saying but disagree with a few others as well.

I agree with what he’s saying about the usage of internet blocking software in general. A lot of people seem to become dependent on them, just using them without really trying to work on their problems. Why would they try to change their behavior by themselves when the software tells you, when you should stop. I don’t think these programs should be seen as the sole solution to the problem. They should be treated like training wheels; your primary goal should be to not need them anymore.

However, I do believe that different kinds of software are valuable tools to help you improve your internet habits.
I think his comparison with alcoholism does not make sense. Blocking software, in terms of this comparison, aren’t just hanging a “warning about liver damage on their beer fridge, or put up an inspirational poster at the bar.” Blocking software is paying somebody to come to your house and lock your entire fridge. Is it still possible to circumvent these blockers? Absolutely (I guess they left the key to the lock on your fridge on the kitchen table). But the extra time you would spend on trying to nullify the effect of the software, may be enough to make you realize “I shouldn’t try to unlock the fridge. The lock is there to help me.” I realize, that in some cases, this realization is just wishful thinking and there people do exist who have no problem with bringing down the barriers that they themselves put in place to help them. But saying installing blocking software is nothing more than hanging a motivational poster on the wall is, in my opinion, an incredibly narrow way of looking at the entire issue.
Is having moral support from a close friend or family member helpful? Yes, absolutely. Having someone to talk with about these issues, helps a lot. That is why a lot people always ask for accountability partners on here. It just makes it easier. But the way Newport describes this, doesn’t accurately reflect how this problem can be handled in the context of NoSurf. Being more mindful about your internet time is an issue that more and more people see as an actual, real problem. But finding someone to actually talk to about the problem is still difficult. Think about it. Tell a few people in your social circle that you are an alcoholic. You’d get showered with support and advice. Tell the same people that you’re addicted to the internet. the amount of support you’d get is nowhere near the level of alcoholism. And I know, that that comparison is kind of bleak, and I don’t want to say that one addiction is “worse” or “better” than the other, but for the sake of this argument, my point still stands. Only getting help from people in your social life isn’t enough. Internet addiction isn’t an accepted social problem yet. And until society is at that point, blocking software is the most effective thing you can use, if you’re just starting out.


#6

I agree a lot with that. I mean, on one hand I get it, things have to be as attractive to people as possible and they found out really childish stuff can really work a number on our brains, but on the other hand, it is bothersome how much stuff has to be packaged in nice colours and words before people consider it.
Like you said, the Discourse badge system. It’s like participation trophies. ;D

I knowww, not really the thread topic but the Pokemon thing bothers me as well. Back then you actually tried to get every Pokemon and grinded through the tall grass areas to get them and got through countless battles, and only that gave you enough XP to be an appropriate level for the next arena. But the games nowadays… I try to catch most Pokemon and I’m 20+ levels overleveled. People don’t have to grind or catch them all anymore to be good enough for an arena, now it’s enough to just run through the whole area as fast as possible.

@MaxWolf Yeah I was asking myself what he meant about the labels at first as well, but the way I understood it, he likes actual blockers like Freedom (or Cold Turkey), but a lot of blocker apps nowadays are rather cutesy (Forest, for example) so that they aren’t actively blocking, just trying to move you with an imaginary thing. Or all they do is send you weak notifications telling you you’re over your limit or giving you stats to either boast about or ignore. I think what he is ciriticizing is that, for the most part, there is no real lock. There’s just a cute ribbon holding the fridge shut. Or the fridge telling you you shouldn’t take a beer but opens anyway.


#7

Do blockers like that actually exist? I don’t use them, so I don’t know too much about the different types of blockers that exist, but using a blocker that doesn’t actually block, seems rather pointless.

Oh, and about the thing that @horatio mentioned:
This really seems to be trend not only with video games but with user software in general. It’s something that gets mentioned in “The Shallows” as well. Easy-to-use software tends to make the user think less about the things they do with the software, therefore limiting the expertise the user normally develops when repeatedly interacting with the software. In video games it’s just more apparent. I mean, having the EXP share give experience points to every Pokemon in the party is just dumb. Might as well just drop me off at the end of the game with max lvl pokemon immediately. It’s not like there’s a lot challenge left then


#8

It is and they do exist! I find that they can have their place, I have Forest installed too, it’s really just for periods where I want to train self-control more than rely on an actual blocker. I haven’t used in in quite a while, but I think that’s one of the good uses it has. But otherwise, I think software like that is more feel-good than effective. You can tell yourself you’re doing something while not really doing something.
It’s like that phase where we all subscribed to /r/nosurf “as a reminder” or to “gather info before doing anything”. Felt like doing things but we didn’t.


#9

What usually happens when I set up blockers or limiters and then have an urge to access the blocked or limited content/media is that the additional difficulty of accessing the content/media stops me and makes me think whether it is worth the effort required to access it. For a few hours or for a very few days my mind doesn’t want to go through the hassle required to access the content/media. However, it is not long before I have stronger urges to access the content/media and my mind will come up with all sorts of excuses that justify my addiction to the content/media. Then I always end up disabling the blocker or limiter and accessing the content/media anyways. I think solely relying on the blockers or limiters is dangerous because every time I go about disabling or find ways to disable the blocker or limiter I reinforce the behaviour of ‘seeking out’ the content/media to a much greater extent. The cycle of enabling the blockers or limiters and then disabling them to access the content/media just strengthens the addiction in the long-term.

What is required to overcome my addiction is self-control. By using my own authority to notice the urges and inquiring to myself about the reasons for the urges and the reasons for why I don’t want to access the content/media I am able to either decide to say ‘no’ to the urges or the urges disappear on their own at least for the time being. At first this is extremely difficult because of my addiction but if I use self-control every time an impulsive urge occurs saying ‘no’ to the urges becomes gradually easier and the urges start to disappear faster. This method weakens my addiction and trains my self-control which I can also apply to many other aspects of my life. Obviously, I have to remember that the urges are likely to continue for the rest of my life if there are reminders of the content/media present in my environment so it’s worth training my self-control for situations where technological aids are not available as I can’t always expect reliable blockers or limiters to be available on all the devices I possibly interact with.

These are the reasons for why I believe that relying solely on technology to overcome an addiction to technology is a bad and maybe even a dangerous idea. The determination to overcome my addiction can only come from myself because if I rely on technology and don’t use my own authority I will just keep going in a cycle of enabling and then disabling the blockers or limiters.

Blockers or limiters may be helpful at first to start the journey of destroying the addiction to technology but to even start the journey of destroying the addiction people need to be shared with the knowledge of the harmful addictive effects of technology. It is only after that knowledge that people can start to practice self-control to make conscious decisions to not stop or limit their access to the content/media using their own authority. From looking at the ‘digital wellbeing’ apps people are just going to infer that limiting technology use is good for their wellbeing but they won’t have the solid knowledge of the harmful addictive effects of technology that is required for people to overcome their addiction. If they rely solely on technological aids without self-control they’re likely to just go around in cycles of enabling and then disabling the blockers or limiters which will just further reinforce their addiction.


#10

I just responded to @horatio in his journal with a very favorable view of using software.

I do agree with both of you though that relying solely on software is bad and that you need to MORE than just rely on cold turkey or something.

I think blockers are really good at helping to “kick start” the process. They help you get away from youtube or whatever long enough to think and strategies to improve your life and figure out what’s causing the internet addiction. Maybe it’s loneliness, maybe it’s just sitting around at home, or other issues.

They can lead to what you were saying of relapse “like” behavior. That once the blocker time is elapsed, you go immediately back to your old habits. I think this is a sign that you need to continue working in other areas so that the urge to go back and surf mindlessly doesn’t occur anymore.

Also like @MaxWolf said you shouldn’t be able to uninstall or disable a blocker while it is active. If so, then it’s not really a blocker it’s a hurdle. You would need better software. E.g. if you can open a safe whenever you want, then it’s not really a safe.


To clarify one important point in Cal’s post:

Cal’s suggesting that the screen overuse is due to a lack of meaningful engagement in people’s lives. I agree with this.

However, I just want to add that the solution for someone in the cycle might not be immediately pursuing meaningful engagement right away. The feedback loops present can prevent someone from ever finding meaningful activities to be meaningful. Meaning that the reason people lack passion or fulfillment in other areas is that the dopamine release from their devices serve to satiate this area, eliminating the void that needs to be filled.

It’s a bit like when you were a kid and your mom said “Don’t eat junk food, it’ll ruin your appetite.” The junk food functions to satiate your natural hunger response. So for you to ever feel hungry enough to want a meal of steak, potatoes, and broccli you need to stop eating potato chips.

So when you quit social media, youtube, games or whatever, a massive void opens up in your brain, due to your dopamine stimulation threshold being reset to lower levels. (armchair neuroscience alert). So that desire to have something meaningful in your life, something that you’re truly passionate about starts to exist again.


#11

I definitely agree that blockers do help to start the process of weakening the addiction and even allow us to continue the process. However the urges can be really strong especially when I am surrounded by devices all around me in my home and outside. Even if the blockers are extremely difficult to disable there’s always the possibility of using other devices. For example there are a lot internet enabled devices in my home most of which are used by my family and there are also a few ‘old’ and ‘spare’ devices that function alright which when I don’t practice self-control I could just pick up and start relapsing with. It’s not always feasible to install blockers onto all the devices. That’s why I believe that self-control is more important than blockers. It’s still a good idea to use the blockers as well because the blockers do help to stop me and make me think whether it’s worth the effort to disable it.

I just think that when most of the people use these factory installed apps they will rely solely on the blockers without using any other ‘inner’ help from themselves or ‘external’ help from others, and this can be a very bad thing as it can lead to the cycle of enabling and then disabling the blockers which reinforces the addiction especially since the blockers on these factory installed apps are likely to be very easy to disable I assume.


#13

I can empathize. Have you tried working in coffee shops or libraries instead of at home? I know it seems like a temporary solution but it gave me the “mental break” i needed from constantly resisting the urge to go online at home.

I’m typing this up at home where I’ve been working for the last few days and things have gotten much better thankfully. I think taking temporary breaks gives your brain a brief rest like how you take days off from the gym. I’ve noticed my willpower comes back a little stronger now when I’m at home, not using blockers etc.

So I do thing it’s important to strengthen willpower like a muscle, but I also think it’s important to let it rest too as muscles do get fatigued from overuse.


#14

Yes, I have found using my university library to be a good alternative to my home at times. I agree with what you said about willpower as I have also experienced that using it for a lot of the time can be tiring.