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The Bookblog / 26 April 2022

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Reclaim your Device

Keep your phone in your hand. Feels good, right?

There’s no escaping the dominance of digital devices — it’s almost impossible to put them down — but you can change your relationship with your shiny rectangular buddy. Easily, happily, and for good.

Your device pokes you for attention more often than you poke it. It used to be the other way round, but it sure isn’t anymore. Yes, it’s you choosing to look at it, which we all do often enough. But it is choosing what to show you. It’s got a lot to share: an endless stream in fact, nicely tuned to your interests. Your attention is being trained by algorithms.

Not to freak you out, but it is important to understand what’s going on here. The reason digital devices are so successful is precisely because we don’t notice everything they’re doing. We even think we don’t care — I’m just relaxing with my phone, right? Right... But the net effect is that we spend our time servicing the objectives of our device, more than the other way round.

The algorithms that direct your attention are super clever. They were first set in motion by legions of highly-educated Maths / Economics / Linguistics / Artificial Intelligence / Programming / Psychology post-grads. Once those algorithms are running, then the cleverness really kicks in: the algorithms are designed to be continuously, automatically, self-improving. Genius! The machines voraciously search for more potent methods: try this, try that, become more efficient, become more effective. They quickly become more knowledgeable than their designers at how best to achieve their objectives. The machines constantly exceed their own intelligence. That’s their game. They’re getting more effective at using you.

What makes you tick? What makes you click? It’s a heartbreaking work of staggering genius called machine learning.

It’s not like the Matrix... there’s no evil robot overlord. All this cleverness was set in motion by the Internet mega-companies simply to help those companies flourish. You know the deal:

add new users,
add new features,
keep users on the platform,
show some ads,
sell some data,
increase profits.

But it kind of is like the Matrix... you are a stat in their system, and if they can milk 2.7% extra profit from you, all of their arsenal will turn effortlessly toward that target. Automatically. Like a CCTV camera that no-one’s watching. That’s just good business.

Good business. But maybe not so good for your mental health. And don’t forget the opportunity cost of what we could have done with that extra time. Let alone the effect on global politics.

On the surface it’s about keeping up with friends, keeping up with the news, indulging your interests. Behind the scenes, it’s about business survival where you are the currency.

So... reclaim your device

Don’t throw your phone in the bin. Don’t even bother with the digital detox. There’s a newer easier trick in town: train yourself to see your device in a new way. Use it — without it using you.

The lessons that root most deeply are the lessons we learn subconsciously. They affect our behaviour without thinking. That’s how the algorithms have quietly worked on us. It’s also how we turn the tables.

Long-form reading is the single best way to build your attention span while also developing your intelligence. When we read a book we take a deep-dive into one person’s perspective. It’s not about them, though, it’s about you. It’s about the effect of that deeper mindful activity on your outlook. Reading a book takes longer than watching a movie; it’s less reactionary than playing a game or responding to messages; and it’s the antithesis of multi-tasking. That’s what makes it so powerful. Your long-form reading habit makes you smarter, more empathetic, more tolerant, more focused, and more relaxed.

So do it on your device. That’s the trick. Book reading is in decline, in part because we all compulsively spend more time with our devices: little kids, teens, adults, everyone. Too many people say they find it hard to read digital books because their devices are too distracting. That is exactly the habit you need to break. Turning off notifications is easy. Learning to use your device in a different way is easy too, but it takes a little time and practise to consolidate a new habit. Along with being really enjoyable and very very good for you in all sorts of ways, reading digital books subconsciously trains your brain to reappraise your phone.

It’s time to reclaim your device as a place of calm continuous focus, where you are in charge.

In more ways than one: Reading changes your mind.

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