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How Billionaires Stole My Mind

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You may have fallen into the same trap as me, and I want to help us all get out.

You use your phone as an alarm clock, and because you do, the first thing you learn, every morning, is that while you were sleeping someone messaged you, Liked you, or Mentioned you.

The one-second task of turning off the alarm leads to ten or twenty minutes of swiping and scrolling through pictures, messages, memes, jokes, diatribes and recipes. Maybe you find reports of a violent attack somewhere, or a gaffe by a politician, or a GIF of a baby goat. Or all of those things.

You learn some things your friends have been up to—someone checked in at Olive Garden, someone ran in a 5k fundraiser, someone bought tickets for Yo-Yo Ma, someone doesn’t like some country’s labor minister, and someone plans to make cake pops later, or is at least thinking about it.

This ritual seems benign enough, but sometimes you think it takes up too much time. Twenty minutes a day (if somehow you only fall into this pit once daily) adds up to a lot of your life gone. 

But wasting time isn’t all this habit does to us. More and more often, while making my morning coffee, I notice myself already agitated, or at least preoccupied, by something I read or watched in those impressionable few minutes after waking. It isn’t always about a serious news issue; it might just be a soccer player writhing flamboyantly to draw a penalty, or a guacamole recipe that contains some offensive ingredient like mayonnaise or green peas.

Whatever it is, ten minutes into my day I’ve already seen a hundred things that can easily push some psychological button, namely the ones for indignation, worry, judgment or ill will, just because I like getting notifications and I don’t want to get out of bed.

Think of how absurd it is to wake up this way. Before your mind can take in the immediate reality of your life this morning—your bedroom, your house, your neighborhood, and the other concrete details life is actually made of—you are already asking it to process the implications of different health care systems, compare your work and family life to those your peers, and take stands on genetically-modified food, Swedish immigration policy, whether ketchup belongs on hotdogs and a dozen other things.

Whether it makes sense to put all these elective tasks through your brain at all is an open question, but it should be clear that seeding your mind with fifty disparate concerns from all over the world—some petty, some very serious—is a completely insane way to begin a day. I don’t know about you, but I was only looking for an alarm clock that doesn’t use a horrible buzzing sound.

I take full responsibility for my actions. But it is understandably very hard to defend your attention from very smart tech-industry billionaires whose primary goal is to capture and keep as much of it as they can.

They know how your mind works better than you do

From the designer’s end, nothing is accidental about your morning phone habit. Social media services are designed deliberately to take over as much of your attention as possible, from as early in the day as they can get a hold of you. Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and other services have teams of experts employed solely to exploit your psychological weaknesses, hijacking your reward centers and personal insecurities to serve their business goals.

Tristan Harris, a former design ethicist at Google, wrote a fascinating but also disturbing piece outlining nine common ways this is accomplished. Everyone who has a smartphone or a social media account should read it.

We all joke that it’s easy to spend too much time on these services, but we don’t recognize quite how engineered our social media addictions are. I knew I had a bad habit, but I didn’t grasp the gravity of what has really happened: a few big tech companies have literally succeeded in securing my attention from literally the moment I wake up, every single day.

I don’t mean this to be a general rant against social media. I like social media. These tools give us useful, if costly, ways to learn and connect. But if we’re going to use them, we should understand two things:

1) They are designed to take up as much of your attention and time as possible. Harris frames it this way: a small number of designers at Twitter and Facebook influence how a billion people think and act every day, right down to how they get out of bed, how they eat breakfast, how they shop, how they vote, how they think. The goal of these services is not to improve your life, it’s to increase the amount of time you spend on their service—”time on site” is the primary metric they gauge their success with. Everything else is secondary, including how much you enjoy that time. If the addictive experience they create harms your morning routine, workday, friendships, self-esteem, or ability to concentrate, that’s not their problem.

2) We don’t use them for the reasons we think. We think we’re connecting with people and staying aware of the world at large. But mostly we’re hooked on a carefully engineered, slot-machine-like reward schedule of notifications and social approval. Each time we check for a new such reward, we end up aimlessly scrolling and swiping for another fifteen minutes. I can’t be the only one who cycles through Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, then finds that they’ve opened Facebook a second time, or clicks “refresh” once or twice after opening all the new emails.

After reading the Harris piece (and listening to his interview with Sam Harris—no relation), I listened to an interview with Cal Newport, of Deep Work fame, on the same topic, and before it was over I had deleted Facebook and Twitter from my phone.

Immediately after that, I had a classic 21st-century experience that brought this whole series of revelations home. I was swiping through my phone, dimly aware that I couldn’t do whatever I was trying to do. After failing to find what I was looking for for the third time, I realized that what I was trying to do was announce on Twitter that I had deleted Twitter from my phone.

And that was enough. Clearly my mind has been successfully warped by Silicon Valley tech designers. I began to fantasize about taking a month off the internet completely. I can’t really do that though, because in the years since my online behavior became so automatic I accidentally became a professional blogger.

I do love the internet. I would never quit using it. But I would like to stop bleeding my time and attention away every day seeking tiny Pavlovian rewards dangled by a few big tech companies. My goal is to not to stop using social media services, but to stop using them unconsciously.

Using the Internet, 2007 style

For the next 30 days, I will not be waking up to a torrent of images, opinions, jokes and fears from around the world. The first step was to get the most addictive apps—Facebook, Twitter and Reddit, for me—off my phone. I still have accounts, and will still use them, but I’ve set them up so that I can’t reach them from my bed, or from waiting rooms, coffee shops, and sidewalks. And they can’t reach me in those places.

All my social media use will be done “2007 style”: when I want to use one of these services, I have to go to my desk, and manually “log on” by typing in my username and password. At least for the next 30 days, social media will no longer have an all-day, or even everyday, presence in my life. I want to use them like the tools they used to be, picking them up when I need to use them and putting them down when I’m done.

This will be my first official lifestyle experiment of 2017. It starts today, and will last until the end of this month. [My four-month no-drinking campaign wasn’t an official experiment, but it ended yesterday and I’ll report on it soon.]

Join me if you like. I’ll report my progress here.

I’m going to live in my local, concrete world, using the internet much like we used the television back in the 80s—there’s a world of stuff to discover on it, but it’s in one place, and you’re either using it, or it’s off.


Photo by Lauren Powell-Smothers

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Ashley Kung May 3, 2017 at 9:20 am

I think people should be wary of using blocking apps as a permanent solution. If I still need a blocking app, it means that I am still not in control of when I access the website, and I’ve had to give up my control to my browser. I personally don’t feel very good knowing that the only way I’m able to stay away from something is by physically blocking it.

In my experience, blocking apps would successfully address the effect of the problem (spending way too much time on a website), but not the causes of the problem. I realized I needed to actually use the time and space that the blocking app gave me to find and address any underlying causes of the problem, and find a more permanent solution.

I like being able to leave websites completely unblocked, and either I don’t navigate to them anymore, or if I do, it’s in a way that I control, not in a way my browser controls for me. For me, a blocking app is a great temporary aid, with the ultimate goal being to remove it because I don’t need it anymore.

Tom May 3, 2017 at 11:01 am

I agree that blocking apps/websites isn’t dealing with the causes of the problem, and ideally one would be able to refrain from compulsive internet use by self-control alone, but unfortunately I don’t think that’s realistic, because:

– Self-control is finite
– A large number of people are employed in trying to undermine our self-control, and they know how to do it

If you were trying to remove some other compulsion/addiction, such as smoking or drinking, one of the first things I imagine you’d do is remove the cigarettes/alcohol from your immediate environment.

Ashley Kung May 3, 2017 at 3:05 pm

The first thing I did with social media was to remove it from my immediate environment, with a blocking app. I definitely think that’s a good first step. But I didn’t stop there – I set to work to resolve underlying issues. Sometimes the space and time away is all someone needs, but that just wasn’t the case for me.

I agree that using self-control is unrealistic. I don’t recommend it. You are right that self-control is finite – it will always run out, and when I tried to use it, it got me nowhere! Sorry if I was unclear in my comment above – I did not mean to imply that I’m using self-control as my solution. I meant that I had taken back control of the situation by removing the addiction, through addressing the underlying things that were causing it. Remove an addiction, and you don’t need to rely on self-control anymore.

Also, I can’t speak for anyone else, but for me, just learning that something is a tactic being used against me lessens its power over me, because I can then see that I’m being manipulated. Not sure whether it works like that for other people.

David Cain May 6, 2017 at 9:31 am

I’ve been thinking of that a lot too, reading all the different approaches people have had. For me the philosophy is to use blocking apps as a kind of scaffolding, to get used to a different way of relating to social media and a different way of using it. That’s the form most of my experiments take — impose artificial restrictions on something so that I can see what life is like that way, and learn more what works better.

With the smartphone I’m already noticing that the behaviors are less appealing, and I guess it’s because it was never about Facebook or Twitter, but the muscle-memory pattern of opening it up to check notifications many times a day.

Abhijeet Kumar May 6, 2017 at 12:51 pm

The muscle-memory pattern of opening it up to check notifications many times a day is quite true for me, but it crept beyond notifications. My active interest in social media of any kind waned away a while ago. But I would mindlessly open Facebook to check what is going on, even without notifications (I don’t have Facebook installed on my phone). Since I did not have an active interest, checking Facebook was always an escape.

It seems that when you do something out of escapism vs active interest, there is quite a difference in the role it plays in your life. There is research about psychological benefits of playing video games when it is done consciously.

Kenoryn May 3, 2017 at 10:13 am

I solved this problem by not having a phone. I have an alarm clock, and a laptop. :)

You may also be interested in this NPR podcast, Hidden Brain, a really interesting podcast in general, but check out Episode 68, “Schadenfacebook”. It’s about the psychological effects of social media use. http://www.npr.org/podcasts/510308/hidden-brain

laura ann May 13, 2017 at 3:48 pm

I have a laptop and a flip phone only for urgent calls @ 8.00 a month (Trac Phone). He has a smart phone. We don’t do social media. I socialize with cats near me and my own cat and few people. Hubby and I spend time outdoors biking, etc. Read a lot also. Shut house phone off from 8pm until 12 noon next day. Anyone can lv message anytime. We don’t answer phone unless we know who it is. We are retired and not tethered.

Gareth May 3, 2017 at 11:54 am

One of my New Year’s Resolutions was to delete twitter from my phone (a good resolution as I could achieve it at once….the challenge was to keep it off, which I have, so far). I use my old 2010 Nokia (without a SIM-card) as my alarm clock. It’s very small and I even take it away with me for the same purpose.

Julian Cappelli May 3, 2017 at 1:59 pm

Hi David,
I was so inspired by your blog that I started my own. If you’re interested, come check it out: https://juliancappellisite.wordpress.com/ I like to pretend I’m customer service and answer questions with lines like “Thank you for your comment. We will take it under consideration.” Please don’t be annoyed when I do that!

Tim May 3, 2017 at 3:46 pm

Three things:

1. There is probably a market for an updated dumbphone for younger people. A dumbphone with a high megapixel camera and simple GPS would be ideal.

2. To scratch that “itch” for information or input I have been attempting to bring a book with me more often. I have also been checking out books of poetry lately for my breakfast reading.

3. I wonder pretty seriously about how to protect the young from this problem. I teach high school English and I have two small children–so this wondering is both professional and personal.

David Cain May 6, 2017 at 9:36 am

I think you are right about the dumbphone market, and it’s part of a bigger discussion, about how we’re going to see a backlash against invasive and obnoxious technologies. We’ve seen the “slow food” movement respond to fast food in a similar way. I’m looking forward to seeing what happens.

And I love the idea of bringing a book everywhere. That’s all you need.

Priscilla May 13, 2017 at 11:44 am

Tim, an updated dumbphone is a brilliant idea, but not just for the young ones. I’m older, and that’s exactly the kind of thing I’d like to have. As it is, I have a smartphone, and I use only a fraction of its capabilities, mostly in an effort not to get swallowed by social media overkill.

David, thoughtful, wonderful post!

Wrkrb May 14, 2017 at 11:23 am

Amen to the dumbphone market! I’m 28 and grew up with a computer, AOL was a horrible vice in my turbulent adolescence. I was in a continuous process of creating and deleting livejournal accounts and obsessed over the html styling of my myspace profile. I used AOL chat sites that I shouldn’t have had access to but I was more tech literate than my parents and my older siblings had already moved out so no one had the ability to monitor me. Zoom forward and I get sucked into StumbleUpon which also gave me a platform to html style my profile so I would get lost in designing pretty displays for content that I had gathered like drops of dew from the web. Then Facebook came to town and it got me for a while but when I went through a bad breakup and kept getting confronted with pictures of my ex and the other woman I developed an association between facebook and heartbreak. I immediately deleted my account because the feelings were too overwhelming but for the next week when I opened the browser my fingers would fly across the keyboard to type http://www.facebook.com even though I didn’t want to login because it would cancel the deletion process. That year the feeling of heartache would bloom at the sight of the facebook icon anywhere but with distance the reaction passed. I still don’t have social media accounts. I’m a minimalist so several years ago I began expanding into the realm of managing the presence of my information on platforms controlled by outside sources and managing opportunities for machines to offer me suggestions. Deleting old accounts, updating passwords, monitoring automatic settings, disabling autosuggest, etc. Maybe it sounds exhausting but it itches at me like spring cleaning to protect my center from the ravenous tentacles of internet technology. I think this is the help to offer young people – raise their awareness of the rights that they have to their privacy, individual thought, and inherent dignity. The primary trap is that the feeling of worthiness gained by social media rewards has another edge that swings back toward a feeling of worthlessness. I still use LinkedIn because I have existential career confusion and it’s useful for as an online resume but it demands that I manage compulsive checking because of its social media components.

CS May 18, 2017 at 8:11 pm
Miro May 3, 2017 at 4:58 pm

Airplane mode to the rescue.
I use my phone as an alarm clock but after 10pm I set the phone to airplane mode. When wake up, I turn off the airplane mode only after I’m done with shower and meditation.

LanChi Pham May 3, 2017 at 10:04 pm

Dear David,

This post (and similar comments on your other posts) fascinated me, mostly because it sheds light on how a lot of my peers live their lives. It illustrates perfectly how many teenagers and young adults live nowadays. As soon as they wake up, they are on their phone (namely, on the internet of their phone). It’s the same trap my brother and father fell into: spending their “physical time with other people” scrolling through the internet on their phone or messaging other people not physically in the room with them. It’s the reason why I never got a smartphone. I don’t have internet on my phone at all so I use my phone for its original intended purpose: to call people. If you really want to see how much you rely on the internet, then try not using the internet on your phone for three days. See how life changes.

Alex May 4, 2017 at 8:31 am

I can’t recommend enough to not use social media apps on the phone. Also: take an entire time out from social media overall for a couple of weeks. I took my profile off facebook about 9 months ago and didn’t miss it at all in the course of perhaps a week. Had to get on because of an organizational thing of a retreat group and boom, I was back to basically useless scrolling in the matter of days. Just went off 10 days ago, and hey, it is such a relief, I can breathe again. Give it a try, honestly. And yes, delete all social media apps from your phone. All of them ;)

ساخت اپلیکیشن اندروید May 5, 2017 at 1:43 pm

great post

Deanna May 6, 2017 at 10:35 am

Brilliant as always David. Sometimes I day dream of spending a month up in a log cabin with no technology what so ever except for a clock and some household appliances.

For now though, you’ve inspired me to do the best I can at home since it will probably be many decades before I can afford a log cabin and a month to spend in it. Thank you so much!

Dmarie May 13, 2017 at 8:04 am

My 4! year old smartphone (Samsung Galaxy S3) died last month and when I switched over to my new phone, I didn’t migrate over any of my apps. I made a conscious choice not to re-download Twitter, Instagram, Google News. (I don’t have Facebook.) I don’t miss any of it one bit. I’ve read 2 books since then and my brain feels more ‘chill.’

After reading your blog post, I’m definitely considering a “no-tech” bedroom experiment. Now, if I can just remember how to set my old school alarm clock.

Denise Vermillion May 13, 2017 at 8:33 am

A while back, I relegated my Facebook app to the third page of my iPhone and turned off the notifications. Thankfully, I was able to disengage just doing this, and didn’t have to delete the app entirely. But now it’s back on the first page, albeit in a group named “Be Social” with Twitter. I left Instagram out in full view because I enjoy just looking at pictures.

I have been trying to be aware, though, of using my phone as an immediate distraction. In line, at a stoplight, during commercials. I don’t automatically pull it out, and I’ve turned off most notifications. To this end, I’ve also stopped mindlessly turning the TV on as background noise, and been sitting quietly and reading actual books. God, I’ve missed them.

Thanks for this post! I’m going to share, lol, and then go read.

Irene May 13, 2017 at 8:46 am

I’m so glad to read this post here and now. I’ve almost cancel my fb suscription. I don’t have any social media in my cellphone (it’s an smart phone btw) only tw in an old ipod I’m still using (this is another issue, how addicted we are to get the latest devices in our hands)
And I’m free to do whatever I want in any place. when I get bored I start to look and watch around me. Looking for other faces, colours, sounds, smells… I also write and draw so this is what I do to get ideas or simply connect with the world around me. I’m used to be on my mind all the time, so the less automated my life is, the less I’m thinking like an absent minded person, and I’m more focused in my actions.
As you say social media it’s not evil, but the power we entitled the owners of those sites to be omnipresent 24/7 in our lives is evil, and we must, and can, stop it. I’ts simple and it’s also healthy. I’m so glad we’re in the same team boat, David. greetings from south amerika =)

Melissa May 13, 2017 at 8:19 pm

Well for me this is silly. I simply do not look at all that stuff. I don’t have the time. My alarm goes off and I check the time and I start my day. I choose when I view anything no one force you to look or view something if you don’t want too. lol I have two kids too get ready in the morning, 3 dogs to let out, and my day to start. For me though I have never been a follower, I have never done what the crowd does. If I actually have time to look at my email or a website then when it is a good time for me then I view it, if I cant or don’t want too I simple don’t.

Kathy D May 14, 2017 at 9:47 am

Or, and this is a novel idea, use an alarm clock. More reliable because it does not have to be charged. How about a basic phone with no internet and no apps? Once upon a time, we all got where we needed to go without all of that. Remember maps? I have one in my car because I have a basic phone. Turns out it is more inconvenient for others than me.

Wrkrb May 14, 2017 at 11:31 am

After years of waking up several minutes before the alarm clock I stopped using one. At night while I’m falling asleep I focus on what time I want to wake up. I only set alarms for unusually early occurences as a precaution.

Jeffrey Pillow May 14, 2017 at 6:39 pm

Self Control for Mac, 1Blocker for iPhone. Boom! Life changing. Also, airplane mode on your phone. Make it your best friend. And the outdoors. Go there. Human beings are not meant to be inside buildings as much as we are. It’s bad for your mental health.

Ken May 14, 2017 at 8:12 pm

Last year, I stopped looking at Facebook altogether. I got tired of the intolerance and small mindedness that seems to pervade it. I guess it depends on he people you’ve friended. Anyway, my mind is much quieter without it. Then I learned, the longer you stay away from Facebook, the more their automated system starts emailing you to entice you back. That was when I really started feeling the manipulation, and it cemented my decision to stay away. I have a coworker who is a Facebook and news alert addict, but she denies it. However, if I try to talk to talk to her, the phone alerts soon begin and interrupt our meaningful conversation. “Hey, Don Rickles died!”… (sigh).

Anne May 15, 2017 at 3:35 am

I’m going to follow your experiment with interest. I’m still trying to work out how to enjoy the positive aspects of social media (contact with the lives of friends, especially those on other continents; news of local events; interesting articles on all sorts of subjects; humour; politics (sometimes)), without it dominating my days.
I leave my phone in another room when I go to bed – there’s a landline phone if there are any nighttime emergencies. I have an alarm clock. When I wake up, I make some tea and spend 30 mins coming round. If my eyes are sufficiently open, I read a poem (Mary Oliver at the moment). I read a book while I have breakfast, and only then do I make more tea and enjoy some time looking at FB and emails.
I’m still wrestling with the tendency to check in online far too often during the day. But I’ve recently realised that social media is stealing the solitude that I claim to value – if I’m following and making FB posts, reacting immediately to everything that comes in, I’m not in solitude, not giving my mind that free space to roam and just be that I know is essential to my mental health and creativity. I’m running away from it. That realisation has challenged me, and I’m now considering how to balance the need for true solitude with my enjoyment of contact with friends and the world.

Jodie Utter May 17, 2017 at 11:14 am

Thoughtful and meaningful curation is my favorite and “Becoming Minimalist” curated this post right into my inbox. Love! Especially when you wrote, “My goal is to not to stop using social media services, but to stop using them unconsciously.” Which is an essential element of any kind of minimalism. Not the scrapping of anything entirely, but instead intentional usage that brings joy and value. Me too, me too! I’ll be swapping being in bondage out for being the boss of my own usage right along with you.

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