Your attention is sovereign.
There are two things that should be addressed.
- You, personally, get to decide where you put your attention.
- By acknowledging this fact you have to take full responsibility for where you have put your attention in the past, and where you will put it in the future.
I’ve been attempting to find mechanisms to remind myself that my attention is sovereign every single time I open an app on my phone. The only solution, has been to keep it in my pocket and not even try and open an app. Slowly slowly you begin to not bother pulling out your phone at all. If you are actually doing something, like reading a longread news article and feel the urge to check social media you have to think to yourself ‘Should I open twitter again or should I keep doing what I was doing’.
Let’s face the truth. We are in an abusive relationship with our phones.
Ask yourself the first three questions that UK non-profit Women’s Aid suggests to determine if you’re in an abusive relationship:
- Has your partner tried to keep you from seeing your friends or family?
- Has your partner prevented you or made it hard for you to continue or start studying, or from going to work?
- Does your partner constantly check up on you or follow you?
If you substitute ‘phone’ for ‘partner’, you could answer yes to each question. And then you’ll probably blame yourself.
If this feels dangerously close to trivializing abuse and intimate partner violence, then stick with me just a minute more. What our smartphones and relationship abusers share is that they both exert power over us in a world shaped to tip the balance in their favour, and they both work really, really hard to obscure this fact and keep us confused and blaming ourselves. Here are some of the ways our unequal relationship with our smartphones is like an abusive relationship:
- They isolate us from deeper, competing relationships in favour of superficial contact – ‘user engagement’ – that keeps their hold on us strong. Working with social media, they insidiously curate our social lives, manipulating us emotionally with dark patterns to keep us scrolling.
- They tell us the onus is on us to manage their behavior. It’s our job to tiptoe around them and limit their harms. Spending too much time on a literally-designed-to-be-behaviorally-addictive phone? They send company-approved messages about our online time, but ban from their stores the apps that would really cut our use. We just need to use willpower. We just need to be good enough to deserve them.
- They betray us, leaking data / spreading secrets. What we shared privately with them is suddenly public. Sometimes this destroys lives, but hey, we only have ourselves to blame. They fight nasty and under-handed, and are so, so sorry when they get caught that we’re meant to feel bad for them. But they never truly change, and each time we take them back, we grow weaker.
- They love-bomb us when we try to break away, piling on the free data or device upgrades, making us click through page after page of dark pattern, telling us no one understands us like they do, no one else sees everything we really are, no one else will want us.
- It’s impossible to just cut them off. They’ve wormed themselves into every part of our lives, making life without them unimaginable. And anyway, the relationship is complicated. There is love in it, or there once was. Surely we can get back to that if we just manage them the way they want us to?
Nope. Our devices are basically gaslighting us. They tell us they work for and care about us, and if we just treat them right then we can learn to trust them. But all the evidence shows the opposite is true. This cognitive dissonance confuses and paralyses us. And look around. Everyone has a smartphone. So it’s probably not so bad, and anyway, that’s just how things work. Right?