This post is sort of an “opinion” piece. It airs some of my discontent regarding modern computer usage. I aim most of my complaints at social media. I don’t expect everyone to identify with my frustration, but I can’t imagine I’m the only person feeling this way.

At this point the article is only an outline. I feel like it has the bones of something good, though. I hope to flesh it out more fully sometime in the future.


  • I feel that humans should be engaged in self-improvement;

  • I claim that computers and smart phones, all too often, hinder our self-improvement (and, in fact, make us worse humans);

  • I attempt to grasp the economic reasons for things to be this way;

  • I argue that the relationship between humans and computers can change for the better; and that this is in the long-term best interest for corporations (and consumers).

Human Flourishing

I want to be strong, not weak.
I want to be smart, not stupid.
I want to be informed, not ignorant.
I want to be kind, not cruel.
I want to be connected, not isolated.
I want to be dependable, not flaky.
I want to be generous, not miserly.
I want to create thoughtfully, not consume mindlessly.
I want satisfaction, not regret.

What kind of person do you want to be? I think there are attributes worth pursuing; attributes that are good, without qualification. Classical philosophers might call them virtues. I think humans “flourish” to the extent that they are empowered to pursue these attributes.

An evocative definition of hell: at the end of your life, to meet the person you could have become.

We Are Our Habits

“Habit” and “identity” are closely related. The idea is conveyed in the following quotes:

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.”

“Men’s natures are alike; it is their habits that separate them.”

“Your beliefs become your thoughts,
Your thoughts become your words,
Your words become your actions,
Your actions become your habits,
Your habits become your values,
Your values become your destiny.”
—Gandhi; various other attributions

I find this idea to be useful. The notion of “who we are” can be abstract and immeasurable; but “what we repeatedly do” is concrete and observable. Under this premise, the poorly-defined task of self-improvement translates to habit-improvement—which is easier to think about.

Good and Bad Habits

Certainly, some habits are better than others; some promote flourishing and satisfaction while others lead to disfunction and regret. Good habits can be filtered from bad habits by considering how they affect our attributes.

Habits from Modern Computing

Compulsive internet use.

Compulsive phone use.

Mindless consumption of low-quality “information”—more noise than signal.

Uninhibited voicing of uninformed opinions—Twitter = barking dogs.

Computers Should Help Us, and not Hinder Us

Computers have the potential to help us make better decisions and avoid regret. For example, machine learning and optimization can give us a fuller picture of our environment, and help us think through our options. I envision a future where computers help us navigate life with greater wisdom and understanding. We are a long way from that.

Some people have taken initial steps, though.

“Intentional computing” research: promoting thoughtful internet usage.

Browser plugins to enforce disciplined usage.

Decision support systems—computers at their best. Mostly found in the business world.

Problematic Incentives

Social media sites earn revenue on advertisements.

Their advertising value is proportional to traffic on their site.

Hence, social media sites are incentivized to be addictive.

It Doesn’t Have to be This Way

Pursuing advertising revenue strikes me as short-sighted. If social media companies were a little more patient, they could benefit from long-run thinking. I feel confident that social media companies would do well in the long run—and sleep better at night—if they focused on helping their users in substantive ways.

I envision social media reinvented as a decision support system; one that helps us maintain healthy social ties. Not a vice that demands our attention, but a tool that helps us navigate our social lives proactively and confidently.

A Possible Solution

Offer paid subscriptions with no advertisements, and a design that is delightful though not addicting (e.g., get rid of the infinite scroll activity digest on Facebook). Or make the design configurable to user preference (they can have the scrolling activity digest if they really want it). Move the focus away from retaining attention and toward promoting healthy behaviors. In the long run, I think this would be better for social media companies as well as their users.

\( \blacksquare\)