I have been writing blogs since 2017, each blog focusing on a great book and unpacking insights what I found most insightful. This has become an impressive repository of cool ideas and insights if I say so myself. But by mainly summarising someone else’s ideas, I am not adding value with my own insights, and how I can take those lessons learned forward.
I am therefore going to try a new writing and thinking style that allows me to pick the main ideas from a book or books that have really spoken to me, and discuss what I think and how I see these topics relating to our lives. My hope is that adds value through personal reflection and opens up new avenues for conversations (and if you think this is a major step back, then please let me know…)
Book worth reading
This week I am featuring a book by Professor Gigerenzer (2022) How to Stay smart in a Smart World that looks at the world of Artificial Intelligence (AI), the way different online platforms have been developed and geared to function, and the promises that relate to AI and its powers to change our world for the better.
What makes this book a great read is first of all Professor Gigerenzer’s ability to make such complex information and concepts into easy to understand and well-explained format that is easily grasped. Professor Gigerenzer is one of the key scientists to study fast-and-frugal heuristics (and clearly I am a fan) that explain and assist our decision-making processes under uncertainty. In this book, he however looks at our online environments where many of us spend a lot of our headspace as modern global citizens.
The key messages from the book have been a profound personal revelation even if I have known about the role that algorithms play across different platforms. In fact, reading this book has helped me to re-focus and re-think my use of social media platforms.
Most platforms are run by algorithms, you choose in the end very little what you are shown.
The extent that algorithms govern platforms like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and LinkedIn are examples of how our realities are dictated by Artificial Intelligence (AI) rather than what is best for us.
The algorithms determine more often than not what we see: which posts pop up, which people we see, what news links are being featured. Even if we want to believe that our Facebook or Twitter follows mainly what we like, we as individuals have very little control on what we see on our online feed. There has been extensive research already on this e.g. on Facebook’s role in elections, targeting particular voter groups with particular ads, and changing even election outcomes. (e.g. Social Dilemma Documentary on Netflix).
The platforms have been build to keep us on the platforms as long as possible, and so we develop habits such as endless scrolling. The confused look or realisation “where did the time go” while holding our phones is an example of this (especially after the kids are in bed and you are just going to check that “one thing” and then get off the phone).
I call this “ghost scrolling” where we keep doing it for the habit in case we find new exciting information that we just cannot miss. Granted, for some people, this is a way of relaxing and if that’s you, please keep going … but for many of us, it’s not necessarily a conscious deliberate choice.
Likes and social comparison on platforms
The more we post, the more we check whether people have liked or commented on our posts. This occupies our minds because likes emphasise social connection and our online “worth”. Some platforms, like Facebook, use algorithms that actually hold off likes immediately after you post. This is because to hook the brain, it needs to go through “intermittent gratification” to develop a scrolling and platform habit. This delayed gratification of finding likes later on our posts actually makes us to check these platforms more often.
The platforms also rely on social comparison: when we compare our lives with how other people are “succeeding”. Yet, most of us never post those really hard moments in our lives but rather carefully curated moments that show how we too are succeeding. All of this feeds into the creation of perfect standards of lives-well-lived that can make us to feel pressure when our lives don’t seem to stack up with what everyone else is doing.
Don’t get me wrong, social media can be an incredibly positive place as well. Many of us have found new insights, new colleagues and friends, and connected with communities of practice that were previously not available at such speed and scale. (Read here if you are interested in the power of virtual networks).
But to be smart in a smart world, we need to also acknowledge how these work and also understand the caveats that come from living with and using smart devices that have their own vulnerabilities (eg cyber security, information gathering etc).
Lesson and trial: Trying to forge a balance between real-life and virtual worlds
Reading this book led me to do a trial of my own: I deleted all my social media apps from my phone after reading this book (except those I use only for messaging friends and family) to see what difference that would make to my daily life.
I am on Week 2 and I am finding that if I stick to my decision to check only these on my computer rather than my phone, I am actually seeing a positive change in my life. I am learning to refocus, and actually finding that I have more time to read a book, build lego with my son and well… cleaning the house.
I have for years advocated for brand building via social media platforms on the basis that each of us need a strong online presence as part of our career building efforts. But to tell you the truth, I have also grown tired of social media, the constant need and desire to be on, to keep attracting followers and post things so I can keep up.
I am not saying that social media and AI-generated platforms are bad. I still believe in the power of branding and being able to share messages and insights across the globe (and I will be posting my links to blogs on social media too). What I am saying is that now more than ever, one of the key skills that is well worth developing is our personal power on what we pay attention to, to whom and where.
Finding gratitude and slowing down time
This experiment unexpectedly opened a path of finding more gratitude. By disconnecting, I am finding it easier to be grateful for the small things without the pressure of living (in my head) in constant social comparison. I do still believe in the power of personal branding and standing for ideas. But I think there are different ways of doing so, different ways of finding how to deliver impact and different ways of fostering social movements.
Using social media platforms for work remains important for me as does connecting with friends and seeing their happy snaps on my feed (when they do show up). Online platforms are part of a modern society and I acknowledge the connections and new insights I am able to gain.
Gigerenzer’s message, or mine, is not that we must and should become anti-social hermits and forget all AI-driven platforms to keep away from danger. But rather: to stay smart in a smart world takes new kinds of skills including developing a better understanding of the digital worlds we inhabit. Then we can choose what we want and choose to pay attention to.