Digital Supermarkets & the Fattening of the Mind

Imagine social media as a supermarket for your mind and that your newsfeed is shelves stocked with online content that is digital food.

The layout of this mental supermarket is an algorithm which is curated especially for you by arranging your favourite digital foods at the entrance of the supermarket and the stuff you don’t like towards the back.

Suppose every time you use social media that your mind wonders into your personalised supermarket and begins snacking on digital food.

What kind of shape would your mind be in?

With nine in ten Australians now owning a mobile phone1, and the accelerating developments in the tech industry, online content is becoming both easier and more desirable to consume.

Research has shown that most Australians use social media several times per day with a typical Facebook user spending 10 hours a week on the site2. That’s a lot of online snacking.

Big tech companies are racing to develop artificial intelligence (AI) and algorithms to make your supermarket layout as satisfying as possible as they fight for your attention.

One of the problems is that AI and algorithms do not prioritise good information over bad information. It simply chooses content it thinks you’ll like based on your online dossier which can lead to issues such as confirmation bias.

It’s as if the digital food has no nutritional value labelled on the packaging, making it hard to tell if your digital food is healthy or just full of sugar.

This widespread overconsumption of force-fed information has led to an epidemic of mind obesity.

In a keynote presentation given at the 2019 Bits & Pretzels event, Aza Raskin talked about the digital attention crisis which is being fuelled predominantly by big players (e.g., Facebook, Google, TikTok etc) in the attention economy.

(Bits & Pretzels) via YouTube

Raskin is the co-founder of the Center for Humane Technology and the inventor of the infinite scroll. He now works full-time alongside his co-founder Tristan Harris in ‘creating the conditions for a new race to the top to realign technology with humanity.’

During his speech, Raskin referenced work by Gloria Mark, a professor in the Department of Informatics at the University of California.

“Gloria Mark did some research recently and she shows that while we’re on our screens – whether it’s a phone or a computer – we now self-interrupt every 40 seconds.” he said.

It’s probable that today, maybe even while reading this article, you have experienced an urge – a notification from within to check something.

This urge, Raskin argues, is the experience of your mind being ‘trained’ and ‘fattened’ for the extraction of your attention.

As big tech companies battle for your attention, questions of ethical innovation are being brushed aside with the focus of keeping your mind nice and plump, ready for extraction, to be sold to advertisers and others.

Social media is designed to be severely addictive, to ensure that you stay in your mental supermarket for as long as possible. One way this is achieved is by feeding you your favourite digital foods.

So, what’s the solution? Exercise of course.

Imagine that every time you notice a self-interruption and restrain yourself from unlocking your phone, that you are doing a mental push-up.

And that each time you enter your mental supermarket and consciously control the amount of digital food you consume, that you are doing a mental sit-up.

Being mindful of your impulses and aware of the true mission of companies within the attention economy is the best treatment for mind obesity. Remember that digital food, like everything else, should be consumed in moderation.