News & Perspectives

Taking Back Your Brain From Your Devices

Taking Back Your Brain From Your Devices

An Interview with Max Stossel
Perspective// Posted by: Jeff Greenwald / 12 Jan 2018
Max Stossel on Enter Magazine

Whether it’s through the dopamine hits of social media, neuromarketing (eye tracking, galvanic skin response), or the ping and pop of attention-getting devices, tech devices are changing our brains and the way we relate to each other. At some level, our decision making is no longer our own. As part of a series on “Taking Back Our Brains”, we interview Time Well Spent’s Max Stossel. Time Well Spent is an organization dedicated to reversing the digital attention crisis and realigning technology with humanity's best interests. Stossel has spent eight years in the world of digital storytelling, creating social strategies for some of the world's biggest brands. He has won multiple film festivals, created several viral works of art, and has influenced the way digital media tells the stories of mass murder in the news.  

ENTER: What are the methods currently being used by technology to impinge on our decision-making processes, or manipulate our pre-conscious minds?  

MAX STOSSEL: Ha, your framing of the question isn’t wrong, but it’s very aggressive/direct! I like it. 

The short answer is either “everything,” or “soon-to-be everything.” The people creating technologies, in my experience, have good intentions (political manipulators excluded—though even they often think they’re manipulating for a noble cause). The marketers and technologists think, “Ah, I’m giving people more of what they want!” But as your question implies, the tools for persuasion have become so effective and advanced, and the data so plentiful, that what a person "wants" and what they actually do or click or watch are no longer the same.

In the attention economy, it's safe to assume that shortly after a new technology is implemented, it will be used to help the businesses that operate it achieve their goals. That's why it's so essential that the goals of the consumer are aligned with the goals of the business. I was concerned about this seemingly innocuous Facebook update [which uses your emoji reactions to post to decide what else to show you in your newsfeed] a couple years ago for the same reason. 

Enter: Is there any way to opt out of feeding the big data machine? 

MS: It's my understanding that even if you delete your Facebook and Google accounts, delete the apps, and put a slip over your cameras, so much data is traded between companies that you wouldn't be completely off the grid. 

Enter: What are the top tips, tools, or apps to help us take back our decision-making processes?   

MS: Our organization (Time Well Spent) is about fixing the systemic issues in play with social media, devices, and the mind. In the meantime, we do understand that people are suffering, and looking for ways to take better control of their lives. We call these suggestions "Band-Aids": not good enough to fix the problem, but helpful in the meantime.

One "Band-Aid" that has been most personally helpful to me has been altering my phone's settings to default to greyscale. It stops all the juicy red dots and colorful apps and instagram feeds from being so appealing to my animal brain. You can find a few more suggestions for taking control of your phone here

Meditation is another thing that has been effective for me. You might not think of it as a tool, but it's very important to take a step back and check in with ourselves as we're being bombarded by so much in this age of persuasion and distraction.

In terms of defending ourselves from being persuaded, there's not an easy answer. The digital environment is a persuasive environment. It wants our attention, and will serve us content that best accomplishes that goal. I hate to say it, but systemic change is the only way out of here.  Because even if you disconnect completely, the people you trust are often plugged in and exposed to their own personalized versions of the same processes. 

Apple, Samsung, and Microsoft can help solve the problem, because keeping people hooked to the screen isn’t their business model. They can redesign their devices and core interfaces to protect our minds from constant distractions. They can help minimize screen time, protect our time in relationships, and replace the App Store marketplace with a marketplace of tools competing to benefit our lives and society. 

Imagine a "Help Center" replacing the app store—a place where companies are competing to best benefit our lives and society, not just to get the most usage. What a beautiful world that would be! If this were the case, you and I wouldn't be so concerned about the fact that companies are using the technologies you mentioned.

It's only spooky when their goals are not the same as our goals (and my goal is not to spend as much time as possible on any app or screen). We're not the customer, but the product in these environments. To truly defend our brains, that relationship is what has to change. 


Jeff Greenwald
Jeff is a best-selling author, photographer, and monologist.