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  • Writer's pictureAnanya

alive girl diaries: week 2

Defanging Big Tech’s Frankenstein

There’s a recurring ad that I’ve been getting since I graduated high school. It first showed up on Youtube, but has since followed me across platforms, entering the digital landscape on my Instagram, TikTok and most recently even my Twitter. 

The copy usually reads something like: Tired of bras that don’t fit? Try <<REDACTED COMPANY>>, the solution for women with small breasts. 

If I’m lucky and I get a video ad, there will undoubtedly be a woman profusely detailing her membership of the itty bitty titty committee (her words, not mine) before telling me that I have to buy these bras. Every time I get the ad, I have the same two successive thoughts. I look down at my 32Cs and think… they’re really more average than small. Followed by - how do they even know

That second question is the one I want to talk about here. Before getting the ad, I had never bought a bra online. Actually, I’d barely even bought bras in person — I usually didn’t wear them. As someone who’s sporadically freaked out over data privacy and always hits “decline” on the cookies question, it continues to perplex me that my phone has approximated something so personal and intimate as the size of my chest. It really sits with me. 

But the question I’m asking here — how do they know — goes beyond boob size. Via what I’m going to characterize here as predatory data privacy laws, the algorithms that run our favorite apps know more about us than we can currently comprehend and that’s precisely the biggest issue I’ve been struggling with as I’ve tried to take back my life from the screen. 

For the past month, I’ve tried time and time again to limit my screen time and found that the biggest killers of progress were my social media apps. No surprise there. It’s a well-known fact that these apps are designed to be addictive, which the U.S. public opinion has grown increasingly critical of over time. We’re re-thinking social media’s role in society, particularly in relation to our country’s youth. As surgeon general Vivek Murthy put it in his recent op-ed for the Times calling for warning labels on social media, “There is no seatbelt for parents to click… no assurance that trusted experts have investigated and ensured that these platforms are safe for our kids. There are just parents and their children, trying to figure it out on their own, pitted against some of the best product engineers and most well-resourced companies in the world.” 

When I read the article, I was hit with overwhelming deja vu. It reminded me of high school conversations with my dad, who’s worked for Silicon Valley tech companies all his life. When I sneakily opened social media accounts (I was technically never allowed to have them, but was never particularly fond of following rules) my parents warned me that it was bad for my brain, that I’d be addicted and hit me with the classic Desi parent shame-by-comparison tactic, telling me, “We never did this when we were your age. We didn’t even get our first phones till we were 26.” To which I’d snap back, “Phones didn’t exist till you were 26.” 

My parent’s warnings only made social media sexier to me and pretty soon I was tapped in, having conversations on there that would horrify them to this day if they knew. Over the years, it’s taken a lot for me to change my views. Moving away from my parents and experiencing the disillusionment that comes with infinite scroll and the pervasive invasiveness of weak data privacy infrastructure helped. But these feelings really only inspired at best dispassionate detachment and at worst a sense of overwhelming helplessness. When I got the opportunity to write this column, I was forced to push beyond helplessness. As I researched, I started to see the rising tide of Gen Z dissent vs social media and I think that’s when my mentality started to shift towards finding a serious solution. 

I was reading a book the other night that brought up the concept of systemic addictions. There’s a really great quote that I think is applicable here: “Some addictions are deep, structural and radically destructive; they expose the morbidities of modern life and modern capitalism,” writes Michael Watts, a leading academic from UC Berkeley. He was talking specifically about U.S. oil addiction but it immediately stuck because this framing is exactly what I think needs to shift in Gen Z conversations about social media addiction. It’s difficult because it is systemic, meaning by design. And because it’s so widespread, I think it takes a little extra work to recognize just how destructive it can be in our personal lives. Through conversations with friends, I’ve found that the way we talk about social media addiction flits between two extremes, either intense normalization or intense individual shame. I think the way forward comes by finding a happy middle ground between the two, one that recognizes its permeation of the collective consciousness while simultaneously pushing us away from it, towards something better. 

In search of more perspectives on the symptomatology of this addiction, I went to Netflix and stumbled upon the movie the Social Dilemma. As a Silicon Valley native, I’ve avoided watching the movie mainly because I pride myself on already knowing this stuff (thanks, Baba). And to my credit, I did know most of it. But seeing it laid out in narrative form was more powerful than I imagined. Made me want to throw my phone into the ocean. And reaffirmed my absolute and total hatred of Mark Zuckerberg. The doc, which featured a ton of prominent tech executives from FAANG companies, walked through the process of algorithm optimization and broke down the attention economy, which you can read more about here. What stuck with me the most was an anecdote from the CEO of Pinterest, who lamented his inability to put down his phone and pay attention to his kids. If the very makers of these apps aren’t able to resist their call, then what chance do we have, I remember thinking to myself. 

There are thousands of teams spread across massive companies creating algorithms that target our psychological predispositions and test tailor-made strategies that prey on our individual strengths and weaknesses. And the worst part is it’s all designed to be imperceptible, eroding our decision-making processes and robbing us of critical thought. I think it’s only through advertising, such as my itty bitty titty recruitment campaign, where the depth of knowledge collected is revealed to us for a second. Most of the time it masks itself under subtle cues. We’ve gotten very good at forgetting the nature of our struggle — which, the doc points out, is by design. It’s not a battle of equals; it’s a David vs Goliath situation.  

I think it’s very easy to slip into the whole “this generation is doomed,” ideology. I’m not with that. The thing is, I’m an idealist at heart. I love being born in 2002. I love memes. I love being able to subtweet my opps. I’ve said it before, but I don’t want to toss away the double-edged sword of social media because I’d like to stay connected to everything and everyone I love. What I do want to keep in mind is that when I start scrolling, there’s a very thin threshold between who’s wielding that sword.  

This is all to say that I have been unsuccessful so far in developing a consistently healthy relationship with social media. My wins are sporadic. There’s a slew of apps out there that promise to help but to really get their full benefits you have to pay some sort of fee. Call it ego or my ingrained first-gen miserliness, but I’m determined to find a way to get offline without having to pay. And if I do I’ll share it here, with you. 

In the meantime here’s some stuff that has helped me so far: 

  • Defanging - I turned off the notifications for all my social media apps and added a grayscale option to my phone.

  • Dumbphone - I used a free trial from the app Blank Spaces for a while to “dumb down” my phone and added a simplistic home screen. This helped for a bit because it reminded me of my mission. I did get bored of it pretty fast and started surpassing it, but if you’re interested you can watch this tutorial on how to set it up. 

  • Web2 therapy (more on this next week) - I dug up my old iPod and digital camera. I found that replacing some of the functions of my phone with more manual tools helped me rediscover the joy of those art forms and left me more appreciative. Some photos were meant to be taken on a digi cam. Some songs are meant to be blasted out of an iPod — give me suggestions for what songs I should download on there by adding to this collaborative playlist

  • Offline hours - This one is so tough for me but is one of the most helpful and accessible techniques. Hailo introduced the idea of “offline hours” in the Hot Literati Discord chat. No screens after 10 p.m. If you’re feeling ambitious, try no screens for an hour after you wake up too. 

This post is the first part of an ongoing conversation on social media, which I am sure I will write about at length over the course of this column. For next week, I’m going to shift focus a little bit and get into algorithm blindness + creativity and try to answer a question that’s increasingly been on my mind - who were we before we grew up?


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