Recently, 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 tries to help us navigate the unusual time in which we live, when many are absolutely glued to screens”:
Doug Smith: I mean, it’s the families at the restaurant, all looking at their screens instead of looking at each other. It’s the near misses on the interstate because somebody was on their phone. I saw a photo recently of people in Ukraine that were waiting for their train to escape the trials there, and they’re all on their phone, right? I have a friend that’s a missionary in Papua, New Guinea, and they have trouble with YouTube over there. So it’s a worldwide phenomenon, and it wasn’t always this way …
Andrew McDiarmid: In the introduction to the book, you tell us it can be divided into three sections, awaken, examine, and overcome. So let’s start with awakening. I like how you talk about Truman Burbank in Chapter One. And actually, you weave this throughout the whole book.
He’s the main character in The Truman Show (1998). As the story goes, he’s the first baby ever adopted by a corporation, and they turn his life into a reality show. He’s got fake parents, a manufactured childhood. He’s married to an actress who’s only pretending to be his wife. Everyone in town is acting on cue for the cameras. And Truman is entirely unaware of all this.
Andrew McDiarmid: Tell us what happens next…
Doug Smith: He’s been living in this virtual environment for what’s bumping up against 30 years, and things are starting to fall apart…
A light falls from the sky and they try to cover it up. And he goes into the wrong place at the wrong time — and a door opens that shouldn’t. And an elevator reveals a hidden room …
The real world, his world that he thought was real, was really a virtual world created for him. And many of us are really in a similar boat today. We’re on our screens all the time. And as you look around, we think it’s always been this way, but the problem is, it’s falling apart. The real world is suffering as a result. We’re seeing epidemics of anxiety and depression and suicidality, even, on people that are … And as you watch the trendlines, a lot of those trendlines come from the adoption of some of these technologies.
But everyone else is doing it, so we accept it, just like Truman accepted his world until it started falling apart. But there are some of us that are finding out there is a better way, and trying to put our lives back on a path more along the lines of what we were made to live.
Andrew McDiarmid: You share some really sobering statistics in the first part of your book. One of them is a 2021 study from eMarketer that found that the average US adult had increased their time on digital media in 2020 to nearly eight hours a day on average. Is that right?
Doug Smith: It’s a shocking statistic, really. That’s more than a full-time job each week. Now, some of that time does happen because of multitasking. So think about binging Netflix while you’re scrolling Instagram …
The thing that really is poignant to me is that nobody really signed up to do that. That’s why I called my book [Un]Intentional, because we didn’t mean to sign up for that. But it is the true average, the stats show.
Andrew McDiarmid: Yeah, great name. Well, this increase in screen time can be linked to 2007, a year for me that lives in infamy. It’s the year that Steve Jobs and Apple unleashed their iPhone, the world’s first smartphone. And as of 2021, they’d sold 1.65 billion units, which makes it one of the most successful products ever made. So how did having a screen right in our pockets and hands change us?
Doug Smith: 2007 is the date when some kids came of age who don’t know a world without it.That was also the year that Facebook launched. So we had this perfect storm of the invention of social media and the internet connected device on every person.
But not only are we distracted, we almost have to be distracted. These apps are designed to cause us, if we have five seconds to wait in line, the first thing we think about is to pull out our phone and see what happened on Twitter. And that’s by design.
Other things we know: that online discourse is notoriously uncivil. We all know people with
what we would call, maybe, “digital courage.” They say stuff online they’d never say in person. The mocking, the bullying, it’s epidemic there, especially among the kids and young people there.
As a dad of four daughters, another aspect that’s really tragic is how sexualized everything has become, young girls thinking by what’s online, that’s what women are made to be. What’s on TikTok is what kind of defines the visual of what we’re supposed to be, instead of so much more.
So with all of that, I recognize that our lack of focus is really ruining our ability to think clearly at all. And if we can’t think clearly, then who are we at the end of the day? And that’s what really pushed me to want to try to help people with this.
Andrew McDiarmid: And you actually talk about the dopamine pleasure cycles that these screens can induce in us, similar to those who are taking serious drugs. I mean, it’s really a trick in the brain into this cycle of pleasure. Now, there’s a section in chapter two of your book called “Do What You Want, Or What They Want You to Want.” So this tech doesn’t really form desires or create addictions in us by accident. What do the builders of apps and tech gadgets and streaming platforms know about us that we often don’t even realize?…
But how we use our free will can be exploited. So that’s why these companies that are making the devices we all see and the software we all use hire the top behavioral psychologists, neuroscientists, and apply this technology in what Adam Alter in his book Irresistible talks about, weaponizing these ideas to manipulate us.
Doug Smith: And so what do they do? Well, they do all kinds of things, but among them is they run thousands of experiments on us individually, with all the buzzwords of the day, the big data, the AI, the machine learning algorithms we hear about. So they’re doing whatever they can to keep us engaged. And that’s the keyword, engagement, is to keep us on their platforms as long as possible.
If we didn’t click the button, why didn’t we? Try a different experiment until they literally weaponize the experience so that we’ll do what they want us to do. And what I say is that’s shaping our desires. And so our desires end up forming how we make our decisions, and we apply our free will to the desires that they have created in us.
Andrew McDiarmid: Where else do we see this, the kind of behavior that these apps and games are trying to continue in us? We see it in casinos, and these apps and game development companies, they take some cues from casinos, don’t they?
Doug Smith: They sure do. Yeah. They know that casinos know how to make people keep on playing. They know that, oh, man, I might just win the next time, if I put in just one more dollar, one more whatever. How do they do that? They employ a system of variable rewards because it’s not a predictable reward that really works. It’s the maybe that’ll happen. So they vary not only the frequency of rewards, but also the intensity of the rewards.
And so the tech companies know exactly the same thing. They know that, okay, if I’m going to show a certain post at a certain time on social media, or if the video game is going to show a certain loot box or a certain feature at the right time, it never happens in exactly a predictable way because they know that if it’s unpredictable, we’ll keep on trying to find out what happens next. And again, casinos have been doing that for a long time, and big tech is just applying it on a much more massive scale.
So we’re talking about the shopping sites with countdown timers. You’ll miss out. Or it’s the three choices, but the big one in the middle with the higher price is what they want us to want, so that’s what we do. It’s the Buy Now!
Andrew McDiarmid: Don’t even get me started. Don’t even get me started on those autoplay features. I think Netflix was the first to put that in, and oh, it just makes me so mad, that they take away people’s right to have a little bit, just a few seconds of time to think, okay, is it wise to watch another episode?
Doug Smith: Yo can’t turn it off. No, you can’t. And not only that, they also recently added, I think, a play something feature, like not only are we binge watching, but we don’t have to want to choose what to watch tonight. So just let Netflix not only choose how long we watch their platform, but choose what we watch to begin with. So again, shaping our desires masterfully.
Andrew McDiarmid: ow. Yeah, I knew there was a reason we came off of Netflix a couple years back. I just didn’t like the way it was going, you know? Not to mention 90% of the product is unwatchable.
Next: How to get off Big Tech’s screen drug
You may also wish to read: It’s time for a public conversation about social media companies. Jonathan Bartlett: A company whose platform is built on the backs of content creators owes some responsibilities to those creators. If a company decides to change its direction from one of openness to one of censorship, what are its responsibilities toward the users it was built by?