"Your smartphone makes you quick, not smart. Every time you pick up your quickphone, you stop inventing and begin transacting instead."
In the past few months, I've been working to combat a consumerist spirit within myself. A greedy little spirit. A spirit that wants to spend, spend, spend, that compares myself to others, that wants what I can't have. That wants what they have.
And I'm finding that it's impossible to talk about consuming messages, advertisements, and products without also talking through how we consume data on our phones and computers.
I certainly recognize all the many benefits afforded to us by the use of smartphones. But my fear is that as we consume, whether we're consuming products or consuming content, we're being consumed—by envy, want, and even hate.
I'll say it again: As we consume we're being consumed. It's a scary thing to me. It's something I'm only waking up to now. If you don't see it, read these 21 facts about how big the problem has become.
Your consumerism is fed daily—did you know we see up to 5,000 ads per day?—having been conditioned and trained by years of messages about what you should buy or who you might become with more things.
Advertisers want you to consume and they've become predatory in their efforts to reach you. This issue has become more terrifying in the age of social media. At this years' World Economic Forum in Davos, George Soros said:
The business model of social media companies is based on advertising. Their true customers are the advertisers. But gradually a new business model is emerging, based not only on advertising but on selling products and services directly to users.
They exploit the data they control, bundle the services they offer and use discriminatory pricing to keep for themselves more of the benefits that otherwise they would have to share with consumers.
This enhances their profitability even further—but the bundling of services and discriminatory pricing undermine the efficiency of the market economy.
Advertisers want you to consume. Giant social media monopolies like Facebook and Google, who control over half of all advertising revenue on the Internet, want you to consume. They want to capture your attention, they want your eyes.
"They need to expand their networks and increase their share of users’ attention," Soros explains. Not only that, advertisers look to change your beliefs.
In his book All Marketers Are Liars, Seth Godin writes, "Facts are irrelevant. What matters is what the consumer believes." Advertisers want to change a neutral belief into a positive. They want to change a positive belief about their competitors to a negative. They want to influence your beliefs about their own products, to make you believe that you need their product.
In the same way that advertisers want to capture your attention and change your beliefs, smartphone manufacturers and app developers design their products to capture your attention and keep you tapping and clicking and watching as long as they can.
In what Tristan Harris, a former product philosopher at Google and co-founder of Time Well Spent, calls "a race to the bottom of the brain stem," tech companies seek to expose users' psychological vulnerabilities to keep us chained to our phones. To arrest our attention. To keep us consuming.
"Never before in history have the decisions of a handful of designers (mostly men, white, living in SF, aged 25–35) working at three companies had so much impact on how millions of people around the world spend their attention."
He's referring to the developers at Google, Apple, and Facebook. He continues, "We should feel an enormous responsibility to get this right."
I think the only way to combat consumerism in our personal lives to promote the opposite: Creating. Consumers ask, what's new, now, or next? how can I spend my money on it? how can I own it? While creators ask, what can I make with my hands? what can I give to the world? what can I turn this into? what kind of statement can I make about what I value?
Consumers are shoppers, always hunting down that next thing. Creators are artists, musicians, writers, sculptors, designers, architects, inventors, woodworkers, craftsmen and craftswomen, tinkerers, programmers, cooks...the list goes on and on.
Consumers are unimaginative—they only know to buy what they're told in advertisements and on social media. They listen to messages like, "You're really missing out on this!" and they respond in the only way they know how, with a purchase.
By contrast, creators are wildly imaginative—dreaming up entire worlds on paper, making melodies previously unheard, carving out meaning from a formless block of wood or heap of clay.
Seth Godin extends the differences between consuming and creating to the way we use our smartphones. He calls it inventing and transacting, and says, "Transactions are important, no doubt. But when you spend your entire day doing them, what disappears? We can’t day trade our way to the future we seek."
He has a point. The future is in creating, inventing, innovating. Yet we spend so much time throughout the day simply executing commands on-screen. Find this, show me that...at some point we've got to put down the phone and make something of value to our world.
We're all both consumers and creators. We all must find a balance. There are things you simply must consume or you'll die: Food, drink, music, the ball game, great conversation (or maybe we create great conversation), and the news in small doses. But as much as you must consume, try to create so much more. Feed your creativity and cultivate it.
Bottom line: Turn off. Drop out. Disconnect. Stop transacting and start inventing. Stop consuming and start creating. Learn to identify ways in which advertisers and tech monopolies are hacking your brain. I'll be continuing my Digital Detox this month and I'd encourage you to detox along with me.
The detox plan Siempo posted here is awesome too. You could also read Colin Wright on setting up your device to help you live more intentionally, his entire blog post is full of practical steps like these:
Consider turning off the notifications on your phone and other devices, allowing only the most important through (and being honest with yourself about what’s actually important). Delete all the apps you don’t use, and simplify the tech that’s in view all day; there’s research that shows even knowing this stuff is around and seeing it sitting there can stress you out and distract you from other things.
I promise your brain will thank you.
Further reading: "How to Turn Off and Drop Out of The Attention Economy," by Siempo; "The Binge Breaker" by Bianca Bosker; "Remarks delivered at the World Economic Forum" by George Soros; All Marketers Are Liars, by Seth Godin; Want To Hook Your Users? Drive Them Crazy, by Nir Eyal; "How Technology Hijacks People’s Minds — from a Magician and Google’s Design Ethicist" Tristan Harris