For years, I sat down to work each morning, realizing hours later that I felt drained, but got little done. Instead of writing, I spent my time texting, emailing, and mostly aimlessly browsing through news sites, blogs, and social networks. Every click triggered another. I tried to regain control by using an app called Freedom that blocked my computer’s online access for fixed periods of time. Sometimes it helps, especially when I have a work deadline looming. Sometimes it didn’t. But trying to control work time was only part of the struggle. I kept feeling the irresistible urge to pull out my phone wherever I went. At that point, I blamed myself. After all, I was the girl who spent hours playing video games well into college. But something happened in 2015 that made me realize that something much bigger was awry.
It was a Saturday evening when I arrived with my family to a friends’ home for dinner. Their 11-year-old son was playing with his parents’ iPad. When we came in, his parents demanded that he hand it over and join the other kids. The boy at first refused to hand it over. He then tried angrily to snatch it back from his mother, regressing to toddler-style wailing to demand the device. Throughout a long evening he exercised every manipulation tool in his power to regain control of the iPad. As I observed his parents’ despair, I recalled a family conflict that transpired at my parents’ house some years earlier. At that time doctors diagnosed my father, a heavy smoker, with emphysema. My father could have avoided his painful final years, being hooked to an oxygen tank, by quitting smoking when he was diagnosed. He refused. We desperately tried to resist his decision by taking his cigarettes away. But like my friends’ son, my father reacted with uncharacteristic anger, exercising every means at his disposal to get his cigarette pack back.
That day I began to see how our present relates to our past. The past can answer one of today’s most confusing problems. Why, despite multiple reports from Silicon Valley whistleblowers revealing that technology companies are using manipulative designs to prolong our time online, do we feel personally responsible? Why do we still blame ourselves and keep seeking new self-help methods to decrease our time online? We can learn from the past because in this case the tech