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Will we surrender our free will to screens?

We may be surrendering while we aren’t paying attention
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Authors here at Mind Matters regularly argue that machines will never think like we humans do. One reason is that machines don’t possess free will — they only process algorithms. And Dr. Michael Egnor’s phenomenal arguments for free will decimate the self-refuting claims of materialists who claim that free will is an illusion.

But here’s the irony: In our screen-saturated age, we may unintentionally surrender our free will to powerfully addictive strategies designed to manipulate us. If “the machines” ever do take over, it will be because we have stopped thinking, not because they have started to.

Many authors are revealing that the companies behind our screens are using intentionally addictive strategies against us. There should no longer be a debate about whether behavioral addiction is a thing, especially after Adam Alter’s 2017 book Irresistible convincingly showed how substance and behavioral addictions affect the brain in the same ways. He writes,

There’s also a pattern that describes the brain of a drug addict as he injects heroin, and a second that describes the brain of a gaming addict as he fires up a new World of Warcraft quest. They turn out to be almost identical.

The reason our screens are so addictive is that they have been intelligently designed to be that way. There are books written to share the strategies that have helped our biggest companies make their billions by exploiting our psychological weaknesses (see, for example, by Nir Eyal’s Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products).

In his new book, Digital Minimalism:: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World, computer science researcher Cal Newport cites research similar to what I included in my own new book [Un]Intentional: How Screens Secretly Shape Your Desires, and How You Can Break Free. We both hope to help people free their minds from the clutches of the social media, video games, and television content that consume so many people today.

In theory, we make free choices by acting on our desires—doing what we want to do. If we’re hungry, we can choose what to eat. If we have an unscheduled hour or a few extra dollars, we can decide what to do with those precious resources. But addicts under the influence have surrendered free will. Their desires are consumed by their addictions—so they yearn for whatever will most quickly flood their brain with the dopamine they’ve been manipulated into craving.

In Digital Minimalism, Newport says we’ve been in “a lopsided arms race in which the technologies encroaching on our autonomy were preying with increasing precision on deep-seated vulnerabilities in our brains, while we still naively believed that we were just fiddling with fun gifts handed down from the nerd gods.” Most people are still operating under this assumption, spending an average of over 12 hours a day consuming media of various kinds, not realizing that their desires have been shaped to manipulate them into compulsive screen consumption.

Nobody has ever said, “When I grow up, I want to be a data-serf, enslaved to behavioral algorithms designed to steal my attention, rob my creativity, and waste my best years swiping, buying, clicking, liking, or advocating for what some screen has tricked me into.” And yet many of us are stuck in this loop and are giving the enslaving devices to our kids with impunity.

The younger the age at which a person starts using these intentionally addictive products, the deeper the impact. A recent NIH study summarized by Families Managing Media showed that “kids who spend 7 hours in front of a screen show a premature thinning of the outer layer of the cortex in the brain.” By going along with popular screen-time trends, we’re participating in a worldwide neuroscience experiment, and it’s not going well. Could it be that in the near future, we’ll be just as sad to see a 13-year-old with a smartphone as we are when we see a 13-year-old with a cigarette today?

That’s why it’s so critical to learn the techniques used by the companies who own and market our devices. When we know their strategies and adopt intentional strategies of our own, we can regain our free will and put ourselves on a positive trajectory—where we are free to think our own thoughts and act for the benefit of others instead of living as mindless drones.

Because, yes, mind matters. Our minds — our focused time and attention — matter a great deal to attention-economy-driven companies. By exercising our free will into an intentional way of living with our screens, we can demonstrate how much our minds matter to us.

Doug Smith is a husband, dad to four wonderful daughters, a multi-decade software developer, Bible student, and musician, and author of the new book, [Un]Intentional: How Screens Secretly Shape Your Desires, and How You Can Break Free.

See also: How can mere products of nature have free will? (Michael Egnor)


How the Internet Turns Coffee Klatches into Mobs (Michael Egnor)

Also: AI social media can totally manipulate you

Will we surrender our free will to screens?