3rd-Millenium Slavery

I just came out of a couple of weeks without my smartphone. For what it is worth, it is one of the smartest and oddly inspiring things I have done in a while.

This 'analog' form of fasting felt very much like 'taking the red pill'. If you don't know what that means, you need to (re)watch The Matrix. Whoever came up with that script was on to something big, very early on.

The experience gave me a much larger perspective on something that has been bugging me for some time now: 3rd-millennium slavery.

I know, it sounds extreme. Let me try to explain what I mean with this.

To start, we need to go back to 1833 when the "The New York Sun", the world's first tabloid publication, first appeared.

Ever since that moment, monetising people's attention became a serious business.

The Sun was groundbreaking in its content. It was the first newspaper to report crimes and personal events such as suicides, deaths, and divorces. It changed journalism forever, making the newspaper an integral part of the community and the lives of the readers. Prior to this, all stories in newspapers were about politics or reviews of books or the theatre. 

In other words, from that day onwards, anyone could potentially become newsworthy. That was a huge paradigm shift. I think we often forget how 'insignificant' people's lives were only a century ago when compared to today's standards.

Oh, and by the way, The Sun may also have invented fake news to get the attention that sold copies of the paper. Think about it, misleading reporting is not exactly something of our time only. It just got amplified in the digital space.

Almost 200 years later, you simply can't get any serious business done without a strategy to earn and keep people's attention. During this journey, we had the rise of literacy, advertising, radio, television, celebrities, more advertising, the internet, which in turn spawned even more forms of advertising.

Studies show that the average consumer is exposed to up to 10,000 brand messages a day (here's some research).

Sounds like a crazy number, right? If you are wondering how people can get exposed to so many ads, look no further than that devilish device in your pocket.

This also brings me closer to my point about 3rd-millennium slavery.

Going 'analog' for 2 weeks made me realize a few things:

Not constantly being 'prompted' left me with more time on my hands that I could have imagined! I've already been doing my emails only in the morning and the late afternoon for some time now. What I discovered was that the inability to just 'take a peek' to see if there is anything 'important' going on had a huge multiplier effect on my free time!

I was also nice to see that people won't 'unfriend' you and send you into exile for not responding to their Whatsapp or facebook messages :-)

Being on public transport was also weird. Apart from the occasional driver, I was often the only one with my head up. In Madrid - where I spent most of my phone fasting experiment - I noticed that even the 80+-year-olds can't keep their eyes off the 5-inch screen.

Something you should know about Spain is that the TV set gets switched on around 10 am and it stays on until past midnight. So, when you wonder what all those elderly people are doing with their phones, it is probably not so much about social media but more like having an ultra-portable TV set so they can keep watching the same junk anywhere, anytime.

Truth be told, I'm actually quite worried about Madrid's smartphone zombie epidemic!

So what I am trying to say here is that, only by stepping out of the 'mobile matrix' can you truly observe just how crazy it is that we spend so much time and attention being prompted by our smartphones.

We have become slaves to the attention algorithm. What comes to mind is the claim that Noah Yuval Hariri makes in his book 'Sapiens'. He makes a strong case for the idea that we believe in the illusion that we have free will, while in reality we are just getting prompted to behave as part of a bigger algorithm.

In the Matrix, people's only function is to be tapped for energy from their bodies, in this world we are increasingly enslaved to provide attention on demand.

I've written about this before. No matter how you look at it, our world has already become a virtual reality. And in case you haven't picked up on it yet, there is a rising debate about how social media might be destroying society as we know it.

I think we are at an important juncture in our evolution right now. I wouldn't be surprised to see an exodus out of social media into smaller, more exclusive communities by those few who are still capable of thinking for themselves.

However, I am not convinced it will be the demise of social media. The opposite might be true because in the next 2-3 years another 3 billion people are expected to join the online community.

If you thought it was getting noisy and distracting, you haven't seen anything yet.

I'm curious to know your thoughts.

Earlier on, I mentioned Sapiens. I urge you to read it. You will be thankful you did.

You may also want to listen to this podcast about how the 'attention merchants' conquered the world. It was an important source of inspiration for this article. It's on Hidden Brain, one of my favorite podcasts.

Thanks for taking the time to read this.

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