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Doug Smith on How To Get Off Big Tech’s Screen Drug

The most powerful technologies the world has ever seen manipulate us into spending more time than a typical full-time job looking at our screens

When Andrew McDiarmid interviewed Christian author Doug Smith about his book [Un]Intentional How Screens Secretly Shape Your Desires, and How You Can Break Free (2018, updated 2021), Smith offered some insights into are ruining our lives. Now in this episode (183), he talks about how to sever Big Tech’s strings:

Show Notes and Additional Resources follow.

Andrew McDiarmid: Let’s just briefly summarize the problem and then move into some of the solutions you present. So what are some of the ways that our screens are secretly shaping our desires?

Doug Smith: Well, the long and the short of it is, it’s ultimately they use the most powerful technologies the world has ever seen to manipulate us into spending more time than a typical full-time job looking at our screens. They hire top behavioral psychologists and neuroscientists to exploit weaknesses and apply massive algorithms to learn what makes us keep doing what they want us to do. And they’re super good at it. And we know that by looking around at our society today.

Andrew McDiarmid: And who is behind this desire shaping? Do they know what they’re doing, and why are they doing it?

Doug Smith: It’s all the big tech companies we know. We can list them all, the social media, the video game companies, the streaming media platforms.

All these companies have become giant entities because they know exactly what they’re doing.

They’re some of the most intentional companies in the world. They didn’t become super successful by accident. They’ve built some of the biggest platforms in the world by making these things automated. They’re doing it ultimately for the growth imperative of the stock market. To conquer their space, whatever that space is, and just win big financially, but also powerfully. In every way that companies want to win, they are doing it by, really total domination of the technologies that they’ve invented.

Andrew McDiarmid: You go beyond the typical things that make a tech company desire this information and this control. You talk about the stock market and how growth is just the main thing that’s driving these companies. And it is the bottom line of money. Power can play into it. Certainly, growth. But as you say in the book, there’s ultimately an unseen, pervasive, yet often forgotten evil at work that seeks to distract, to deceive, and ultimately destroy. Can you speak about that just a little bit?

Doug Smith: It’s really been this idea that this biblical worldview has really informed how to respond to our screen-saturated world. And one of those aspects really is a recognition that there are unseen spiritual forces, which is not a real comfortable subject to most Western people. We’ve made our world more materialistic. We don’t really think about spiritual forces or anything like that, but that isn’t the way most of the world has been or, or was. And certainly if you read the Bible, you can see that Jesus really did believe in evil spiritual forces.

There’s one verse in particular that drives it home for me in Ephesians 2: “The prince of the power of the air, the spirit that works in children of disobedience.” And given that we’re being manipulated by things that happen over the air, so to speak… thinking of wi-fi and data and all the rest. I wonder if some of those spiritual forces understand the irony of today’s moment.

Andrew McDiarmid: And it’s really key to look at this from that perspective, whether you’re a Christian or not a Christian, just understanding the reasons people are doing things.

We’re not calling Big Tech evil and just leaving it at that. These are human beings that are making decisions, trying to get a paycheck, but there’s more to it than that. And if we can unpack some of that, then I think we get a richer look at what’s happening and a more powerful way to rise above it. So I’m really glad that your book addresses that.

Now, you and I have quite a lot in common. We certainly have a shared interest in helping people live authentically, as I like to put it, with the technology in their lives. Once we awaken to the problems that are facing us with screens, you say the next step is to evaluate your life. You relay some positive postures of evaluation that would help us with this. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

Doug Smith: the vast majority of the book is what I’ve been told is really a grace-filled introduction to live the life you’re called to live. It’s not about how bad everything is. Look at how bad you’re being with your screens. It’s not this shaming. It’s way more about, there’s so much hope. You can do this. It is quite counter-cultural and not super popular, but it is doable.

Doug Smith

We have to approach it as we evaluate our lives and look at: am I really one of those people that spends eight hours a day on average consuming digital media? And we don’t really want to ask those questions about ourselves…

One of the things that’s really important is to have objectivity. Which is the idea that you look at your life, almost like a scientist. Like what’s that guy doing, and is it working for him? That idea that you look at it more objectively, not with shame, not with guilt, but just like, hey, man, I do spend a lot of time on this platform or on this streaming video. Maybe I … is that working for him? That’s an objectivity question. And we look at it with openness. A willingness to see things we may not want to see, but being okay with learning. Just as with curiosity.

Andrew McDiarmid: Right. And I’ve been seeing a lot of signage and messages about self-care recently, for obvious reasons. But I think it’s a really modern thing to say, oh, well, let’s take care of ourselves. And I think this fits right in with that. And also, we see that tech companies themselves are giving us the tools to check on this. If you know that your smartphone maker is giving you a screentime app, well, that pretty much assures you that it is something worth paying attention to. This isn’t just all in your head. So yeah, those are great methods to help evaluate ourselves.

You bring out a really important point in the book about halfway through. Which is that our desires aren’t the most important part of who we are, and they don’t form our identity. This I think is so key. And it’s so great that you’ve brought this out, because realizing that you are not your desires, can give you the power to change the desires that you see as harmful. Can you speak to that a little bit?

Doug Smith: It is what I call the double bind that the industry puts us in. We hear these messages, two messages that play against each other. The idea that we should do whatever we feel like doing. Just do it, right? Whatever you feel is what you should do. Be your authentic self, which always means whatever you’re feeling right at the moment. But then on the other side, they shape what we feel like doing. They make us feel like doing what they want us to do. So there’s this double bind. Hey, do whatever you feel like, but do what we want you to feel like.

So that’s a real bind, but the key out of it is to realize that what we want isn’t who we are. Our identity is way more built upon eternal things. We’re people made by God for a purpose. So we shape our thinking around that concept that our desires can change. We all know that our feelings change from day to day, but it turns out that our feelings can change on purpose. Not only by the intentionality of big tech companies, but by our own intentionality. We can actually renew our minds to a place where we end up desiring things that are better for us instead of the
things that are leading us off track.

Andrew McDiarmid: What is the relationship between vision and purpose? You come to a point in your book where you ask people if they’re ready to take on a vision.

Andrew McDiarmid

Doug Smith: We don’t really make changes based on negative things. We make changes… or at least better changes. Based on positive motivations. We want carrots not sticks, right? So what I encourage people to do is cast a vision. And I call a vision this idea of a hopeful anticipation of participating in a certain positive future. It’s this broad idea of, wow, there’s something great out there, and I could participate in that. In fact, I was made for that. And so you cast this vision.

Because the vast majority of the reasons that people are spending so much time on screens is we’re spending it as consumers, not as producers. But we are here for a purpose. And that purpose is to do what only we can do to make the world a better place. And that’s really the goal of my book. It’s the reason I wrote it. Not just to call out what was happening to us and make us

Andrew McDiarmid: Well, towards the end of your book, you relay the touching story of a young boy and his mom who you noticed in the library one day when you were working on your book. They sit down at a table, the mom gives the son a notebook, a pencil, an eraser, and a workbook. And then she sits next to him, reading a book. And you noticed that there was no phones, no screens, no kid whining for video games. And then you saw the boy’s eyes wander from the workbook to the beautiful landscape outside. And something filled him with wonder, to the point where he got his mother’s attention and pointed it out to her. What did this little scene remind you of?

Doug Smith: It really did bring me to tears when I saw that, because it was such a stark difference to what we normally see. We see… car seats with tablets built in. With a place to put your tablet in for your infant. There’s just this push, and the classic thing is to see kids everywhere on their screens. So that was so different. And I saw this boy … this library is a beautiful library in a really nice part of Nashville. And there was this forest and trees. And his mouth was wide open, and something in there just caused him to think, this is wonderful. It really put him in a state of wonder. Mom, look at this. And what it caused me to realize, is how much we miss when we don’t make time to build in that wonder and to be able to experience it. Because we miss it.


The previous episode is How social media are ruining our lives. If we can’t stand five minutes in a lineup without checking our phones, we have a problem. We all know people with what we would call, maybe, “digital courage.” They say stuff online they’d never say in person. That’s a problem.

Show Notes

  • 00:38 | Introducing Doug Smith
  • 01:34 | How Are Screens Shaping Our Desires?
  • 02:09 | Who is Secretly Manipulating Our Screens?
  • 05:43 | Awaking to the Problem and Evaluating One’s Life
  • 09:43 | You Are Not Your Desires
  • 13:55 | Five Practices To Help One Live Intentionally
  • 17:42 | Creativity from Boredom

Additional Resources

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Doug Smith on How To Get Off Big Tech’s Screen Drug