Human beings program algorithms, then algorithms return the favor—especially on social apps. Both the programmers and their pets want to change your behavior, as long as it keeps you on the platform. They call that metric "engagement," when you are anything but. How can you be engaged when you are passively scrolling through pictures of other people's lives, instead of out there living your own? To keep you scrolling, the algorithm provides whatever it thinks you like, learning from every move you make (and perhaps every breath you take). The more you scroll and like and comment, the more it knows exactly what to serve up to keep your attention.
At first, Instagram appealed to me, as it seemed to provide more interesting content without the political vitriol common to Twitter. Each day, my feed started with posts from a number of close friends. But as I scrolled past their vacation photos and memes, I found a number of interesting investment opportunities. It's easy to believe that the people and companies that advertise these offerings on Instagram and other social channels would be willing to pay a high price to acquire a lead. After all, the greatest contribution to the United States’ GDP is the financial vertical.
After I filled out a contact form for just one of these opportunities, the algorithm immediately reshaped my world to keep me engaged. My feed was flooded with more investment opportunities, and if I even let one linger on my screen, another appeared faster than a well-fed tribble.
To remove a social app from your iPhone, you press your finger on the application, wait for the context menu to pop up, and click “delete app.” A few minutes after I used that method to remove Instagram, it reappeared, a wonderful metaphor for an application specifically designed to keep you scrolling for as long as possible.
You Are Always Being Programmed
Not too long after you are born, you begin to be programmed by other people, first by your parents and then by your siblings and cousins. When you reach a certain age, your parents turn you over to the media for additional programming, whether on “Mommy’s phone” or on the large screens that adorn the walls in your home. The fact that every television station has a person in charge of "programming" should give you pause.
Later, you go to school for further programming by your teachers and, increasingly, your friends. The society and the culture you find yourself in has programmed you with their norms. You are taught to conform: graduate high school, go to college, get a good job, get married, have children, work until you are old enough to retire, and then sit back and enjoy your life. You are also programmed to vote for this party, not that one, support this football team and hate their rival, and attend this church but avoid the one across town.
A fish is unaware of the fact that it lives in water. It has never known anything else. Like the fish, you have never known anything other than programming, now supercharged in ways never before possible before the social apps. Your own actions inform your programmers how best to program you and extract dollars from your wallet.
Learn to Code (Yourself)
You have to decide for yourself whether to allow yourself to be programmed or to take charge and program yourself. Every time you reach for your "smart” phone, you execute the algorithms that the social apps have installed. The same is true when you choose to watch news channels (cable or network) that provide a political narrative designed to agitate and enrage you, commit to a tribe, and believe the other tribe is somehow your enemy.
You don't have to accept this programming. Not only can you avoid being programmed, but you can also uninstall any of the programs that don't serve you. Removing those programs will also prevent you from installing the programs in other human beings. I didn't believe my scrolling for investment opportunities was somehow harming me until I started to pick up my phone solely to check Instagram for new and exciting ways to spend my money. At one point, I “liked” every investment opportunity on my feed, to test just how fast investing posts would take over my screen. That strategy worked far too well.
There are better things to do with your time than scrolling. When you give your attention to pictures of other people's lives, it means you are not engaged with your one, very short, finite life. The average lifespan in the United States is just under 79 years, or 4,108 weeks. If you are reading this, you have less than 4,108 weeks remaining. How many of them have you already lost to other people’s stories?
The Metaverse Awaits You
There is nothing in the metaverse that can possibly match the actual universe. Rather than trying to replace your life with a virtual reality, you are better off addressing whatever makes you feel like you need to escape. You have always had to power to program yourself, even if your existing programming hides that fact from you. Recognizing that you have had programs installed without your consent means you can reject them with extreme prejudice. Replace them with disciplines and principles that will let you look back on your 4,000 weeks with contentment, no matter who liked your posts.