“Leave your phone in another room” is a popular anti-addiction strategy.
For this episode of Too Embarrassed to Ask, The Verge’s Lauren Goode roamed the halls of the 2018 Code Media conference in Huntington Beach, Calif., interviewing attendees about their tech addictions and what we can all do to be less addicted.
You can listen to the whole show in the audio player above. Below, we’ve posted a lightly edited complete transcript of their conversation.
Kara Swisher: Hi, I’m Kara Swisher, executive editor of Recode.
Lauren Goode: And I’m Lauren Goode, senior tech editor at The Verge.
KS: And you’re listening to Too Embarrassed to Ask, coming to you from the Vox Media podcast network. This is a show where we answer all of your embarrassing questions about consumer tech.
LG: It could be anything at all, like which Olympic sport Kara Swisher would participate in if she was an Olympic athlete.
LG: Oh good, I guess I’ve befriended the right person for my next big story.
KS: Yeah, a lot of business for that business. Anyway. So send us …
LG: “Icarus.” Have you seen that documentary?
KS: Yes, I have. I think it was … ugh, the Russians. I don’t wanna talk about the Russians. God. Like, the international grifters, essentially. Anyway, so can you send us your questions, please? Find us on Twitter, or tweet them to @recode or to myself or to Lauren with the hashtag #TooEmbarrassed.
LG: We also have an email address. TooEmbarrassed@recode.net, and a friendly reminder, embarrassed has two Rs and two Ss. Today’s episode of Too Embarrassed to Ask is a special one.
KS: Oh no. Did you convince my mother to come back on the show? I think she’s in Mexico.
LG: No, unfortunately. People love it when Lucky comes on the show.
KS: Yeah right.
LG: Although, this topic today is probably something that is relevant to Louie’s generation.
KS: Louie, who just wrote to me about Snapchat. He doesn’t like the new Snapchat.
LG: Oh I would love to … We need to bring him back on to talk about this.
KS: We really do. He really doesn’t like it. He goes, “Exactly no one likes it, Mom. Please, do something about it.”
LG: Louie Swisher is coming back.
Well, today we are in Huntington Beach, California. We are at the 2018 Code Media conference.
KS: Yes, we’re looking at a beautiful view of the ocean, which is lovely.
LG: That’s a tough life.
KS: Wait, that’s from my suite … no, I’m sorry. No, it’s really lovely, we’re having a Code Media conference. We’re interviewing a lot of really cool people. It’s Peter Kafka’s conference. We’ve been telling you about it for the last couple of weeks, but we’ve got people like Susan Wojcicki of YouTube, Tim Armstrong of Oath, Lydia Polgreen of the Huffington Post and many others.
LG: Yes, and one of the topics that’s being discussed a lot lately in the news is this idea of tech addiction.
LG: And I say addiction in that way, because it’s actually a very serious term, and in a lot of cases, maybe it doesn’t truly apply to a lot of people, but it’s this compulsion or this obsession that some of us have with both our physical devices and the software that we use on them.
Kara, put down your phone.
KS: No, it is an addiction. It’s not a compulsion, obsession. It’s do they design these things in order to addict you, the way you might any other thing. Does it go to dopamine? Does it go to physical reactions that you have, when you’re using these things? So, I think addiction is quite the correct word.
LG: Well, there are two sides to it. There are the companies, sort of, the gaming apps, and software to make you … yeah.
KS: Yeah, they do. They have psychologists, they have anthropologists.
LG: But then, we are humans who are also, for the most part, in control of our devices.
KS: Perhaps. That’ll be an interesting bunch of science, going forward. I think it’s both things. People are willingly becoming attached to these things. And at the same time, if there are elements that they’re putting into the design of these things, it creates a slot machine of attention. That’s what I call it. There are lots of studies around this.
So, you know, a lot of people are very attached to their devices. I certainly am. I was just away for a week in Mexico and not using it very much. It was nice, but it was hard. It was definitely hard, and I’m not addicted to anything. I think it’s pretty clear. And also, how it makes us feel, such as, Facebook makes us feel bad, or good. Mostly bad, I think. Twitter, same thing. Because more evidence is coming out that these are bad for our health and that maybe we should start to figure out how to disconnect from them.
LG: How do you disconnect? I mean, aside from taking one …
KS: I go to Mexico, to a luxury retreat without electricity.
LG: Aside from that, how do you disconnect?
KS: I don’t. Someone I’m seeing has just said, “Put down your phone at dinner or I’ll break up with you.” So, I think, that was one of the things.
LG: Ooh can I use that on the podcast?
KS: No, it was just really …
LG: Put down your phone during the podcast or I’ll break up with you.
KS: Okay, bye. No, it was things like that. Just paying attention to my kids, and I think a lot about things. I think about them, and I’d have to do it myself. So, I can’t tell them to put down their phones if I don’t put down my phone. So, I grab them at dinner and I put them in the center of the table. You know, things like that.
LG: That’s a good motivation, actually. Before you can tell someone else to do it, you have to, sort of, check yourself.
KS: Yes. Do you remember when I did … We were at one of the Codes in New York, and there was … Hurricane [Sandy] was there.
LG: We were on a beach?
KS: We were at a bar, and I made everybody … no, we were there.
LG: Oh yeah, I do remember that, actually.
KS: And I took all the phones and put them in a pile in the center of the table. And Ina Fried, particularly, was going crazy.
LG: And that was back in 2012.
KS: A long time ago, yeah.
LG: Dare I say that I don’t think that we were all quite as addicted as we are now.
KS: Yeah, but people had a problem when we put them there. I wouldn’t give them back to anybody, and threatened firing them if they took them, things like that.
LG: So, if you were one of those Code conference attendees that year who got stranded during the storm and you couldn’t get in touch with Kara Swisher to find out where to go, that’s because she put our phones on the center of the table.
KS: They didn’t work. Nothing was working then, which was also a relief.
So anyway, it’s an interesting issue because I think it’s becoming more serious. Obviously a lot of people are focusing on it, and some people are taking advantage of the situation. But we have to think about, as we get into VR and AR — I just had Jeremy Bailenson on the Recode Decode podcast — as it becomes more immersive, how we’re going to deal with it is going to be an important issue.
Lauren, how are you addicted to phones? You’re not really that addicted to phones, I find.
LG: I’m somewhat. I think it’s part of the job.
KS: I don’t think you are. You’re addicted to Fitbits and things like that.
LG: I do like wearable tech.
KS: Yes you do.
LG: Because I think that kind of tech has something that has the potential to kind of disappear into your experience. So if you’re wearing it and it truly is well designed, you might forget about it, and you might still get the benefits from it. But the problem is that not a lot of them are very well designed, and then you’re very aware of them.
KS: But you like the idea of quantifying yourself?
LG: I do, I do. I think there’s a lot of interesting data being pulled from it. But I also think there is something really, really important about totally disconnecting. Like, last year I started taking up more water sports, because I found that if I did that, I was carving out time for myself. At least a couple hours a week where I was not … I couldn’t check my phone.
KS: Well someday you’ll have goggles that have AR, VR.
LG: Possibly. Well, there are sports goggles that already exist for that. But, like, in the water it’s just … or another thing I started doing lately is buying a lot of physical books. I’ve bought like four or five so far, in the new year. And there’s that problem where they pile up on your bedside and you start to feel bad about yourself because you can’t possibly finish them all. But, I just find that because they’re there I’m more inclined to pick them up in the evening.
KS: Right. I read some books on this vacation.
LG: You did? What did you read?
LG: That’s good.
KS: Yeah, it was weird. I haven’t not read on my phone …
LG: It’s good though, right. How did you feel afterwards?
KS: The same. I read on my phone, books. I’ve been reading the Hamilton book for six years on my phone. It’s definitely an addiction. Sometimes it’s useful, sometimes it’s not. I mean, I think you feel that way about most things.
LG: Yeah. So, we decided to ask the very smart attendees at Code Media if they consider themselves addicted to their devices, and if so how do they manage that obsession, and sometimes even manage to disconnect. And we decided to kick it off with who else but Recode’s Peter Kafka.
Peter Kafka: Lauren, are you asking me if I’m addicted to tech? That’s really your question? I’m sitting here, talking to you with my iPhone on mute, temporarily. I’m wearing an Apple Watch, and in the other room are some Bluetooth Apple headphones that I have in my head all the time, so much that I’m kind of losing my hearing. So, yeah, I think I have a tech addiction. The best way for me to solve that is usually to remove myself from tech, which is nearly impossible. In the meantime, I will sometimes take these really feeble gestures like deleting Twitter — not entirely, just from my phone. I did that for a month last fall. It was very exciting.
I think tech addiction is an issue for all the speakers here. But it’s kind of like, it’s an issue for cigarette makers, right? They’re still gonna keep selling cigarettes. I think they all probably genuinely feel we should maybe use a little less tech except for the products they sell, but they’re probably not going to do anything dramatic, like stop selling their products.
LG: So that’s not the first time I’ve heard the comparison to cigarettes. You’ve brought it up before, too. Do you really think the comparison is apt?
KS: Could be. I don’t know. You know, obviously cigarettes are very clearly related to your health — and death, essentially. And they had to put those warnings on them, but there could be some things happening with your brain, with all these things. I think there are. Something. We don’t know what it does, what it makes us feel like, and I think there should be a lot of studies. I think it will be hard.
I mean, even after all these years, the studies around cellphones and radiation and things like that are still unclear. And cellphone makers would say they’re not, there’s no correlation. But, you know, I think like a lot of things should be further studied, and there’s nothing wrong with putting down your phone. I think that’s probably good advice to most people.
LG: Let’s hear what some of the other attendees had to say.
I’m speaking now with Ian Schafer. He is the former CEO of Deep Focus and he’s here at Code Media this week, enjoying the weather, like the rest of us. It’s a great day today.
Ian Schafer: Yeah, it’s pretty nice out in the sun.
LG: It’s easy to take a break from tech in weather like this.
Ian Schafer: I haven’t seen the sun in months, I’m in New York.
LG: So, what are the apps that you can’t live without, that you find yourself checking all the time?
Ian Schafer: Probably, obsessively, Twitter, for news. There’s no shortage of news. And so it’s something that I use not only to consume it, but I guess engage with it, as well. Instagram has been my cultural window to the world. So, I mean, I feel like those are the two that I pretty much am always on.
LG: Do you ever feel like you are addicted to your devices or the apps that you use? Like, it’s very difficult to put them down?
Ian Schafer: Yes, it is difficult to put them down. I don’t feel like it’s an addiction, in that it’s a habit that I necessarily have to break. I grew up in a home where we literally had a TV in every room. My father was in the TV business, and we … I watched a lot of television. So I feel like I’ve been able to self-regulate with my media intake. I haven’t let it control my life.
I actually … There are a lot of people that I know who probably spend obsessively too much time on, let’s say, Facebook, where I think it actually affects their daily life and makes them narcissistic. Things like that. And I feel like I’ve tried to check my narcissism at the door on these other platforms. But that’s me, the very subjective analysis of myself there. I’ll let someone else give their opinion of my media usage. It’s quite public.
LG: When you say you self-regulate your usage, how do you do that?
Ian Schafer: I tend to keep my phone away from me. From bed, for example, so it’s never the last thing I do at night, nor is the first thing I do in the morning. I cherish that time, actually, a little bit.
Honestly, I’ve gotten a little more detached from technology as I stepped away from ad agency life. It seems that when you’re in the service business, everything is an emergency. And for me, I’ve just felt like in the last few months there’s just been a lot fewer emergencies, normally. And even with phone calls, for example, in the service business if someone is calling you, it’s probably not with good news. So, I’m enjoying my phone ringing and saying, ‘Oh, this might be a good phone call.”
Yeah, I think it’s taken a little bit of willpower to do that, but once you put yourself in a routine it’s a pretty decent way to avoid bad habits.
LG: How much of the onus, do you think, is on us, as the consumers, to control our usage of tech? And how much is happening on the part of the companies who design these apps and games and services we’re using?
Ian Schafer: Well, I think as these companies learn to evolve with the habits that they see from consumers — because I don’t think Facebook, when they started, had no idea we were going to be using it the way we use it and to the extent that we use it. It’s beyond their wildest dreams. Going into it, you’ve got to learn from the behavior of the consumers. But, I believe once you get to a point when you’re the size of Facebook or Google or any one of their sub-platforms, there is, I believe, an inherent responsibility. And, it’s a moral and ethical one, until it starts getting regulated in some way by the government. But I believe theY do have a responsibility to self-police.
I mean, you see it from the alcohol industry, the spirits industry. Where they … So they don’t get regulated by the government, get told what to do. They put mandates on the businesses that are a part of their trade group, to be good actors. I think we need to see that out of these platforms.
I think that they use a lot of terminology that’s convenient for them. They will say they’re a platform, but in reality they’re media companies. They are. They’re just modern media companies. And so, saying you’re a platform, saying you’re an open set of tools and anyone can use it the way they see fit as long as they abide by our terms of service, I think is a cop out. Being that we’re spending so much time consuming media via those platforms, they have to take the responsibility of being sure that the content that we consume through those platforms are things that aren’t going to be harmful to us, either as individuals or a society. And so yeah, I think the onus is on them, actually.
Lehua Sparrow: My name is Lehua Sparrow, and my position is Vice President of product management at Group Nine Media.
LG: Do you consider yourself in any way addicted or obsessed with tech? And, if so, how do you give yourself breaks?
Lehua Sparrow: Yes, I think it’s an addiction that I have. I would say the app that I use the most is Instagram because I have a 2 year old, and so I’m constantly documenting his life on there. But as far as a break, it’s so tough, because it’s literally the first thing I look at when I wake up and the last thing I look at before I go to bed.
My break would be, I don’t know. I have to be very conscious about not using it. I’ve heard of people putting their phones to sleep, in a box or something, and I did try that. It didn’t last very long. I think just because I needed something. It’s just kind of a habit now, like smoking or something like that. It’s an addiction.
LG: Do you find yourself feeling any differently when you’re able to take those occasional breaks from tech?
Lehua Sparrow: Yes, I feel accomplished that I was able to just take a break. I feel good and relaxed. I feel like a good sort of mindful person, especially living in San Francisco. I feel like it’s a good point of reflection for me, when I’ve done it. It’s a good accomplishment.
LG: How long before you find yourself reaching for your phone again?
Lehua Sparrow: Well, to be honest, I guess … my phone is charging right now, and so that’s the only reason why I don’t have it in my hand. I mean, I have like a pop socket on it too, so it’s a source of fidgeting for me, and it’s usually just another extension of my body. But it’s literally dying, so I have it charging in my bag right now.
LG: There you go. In order to get away from tech, just let your phone die, and then you’ll have to distance yourself from it for a while.
I’m speaking now with Rollo Wenlock. He’s the founder and CEO of Wipster, which is a Portland-based video platform for business. Is that correct?
Rollo Wenlock: That’s the one. You nailed it.
LG: All right, I got it. A lot of media buzzwords in that, except for Portland. So thanks for talking to us today on Too Embarrassed to Ask. We’re asking people about their so-called tech addictions. What they use on their phones, what they feel like they can’t live without. What’s the first thing you check when you wake up in the morning?
Rollo Wenlock: In the morning, I mean, I have an iPhone, so it’s just the front scroll. And they’ve just created a new feature with the front scroll, if you go into something because, you know, you hit the buttons so that you jump in there and then it all goes away. And you’d used to come back and it’s not all there anymore. So my favorite feature of the phone is the front scroll. And it comes back, and you can scroll back through and you see everything, so that’s just perfect. So I get access to everything. It’s like a dashboard.
LG: So you use a lot of notifications, is what you’re saying?
Rollo Wenlock: Oh yeah. Everything. I hardly ever use apps. I just get notified, and then I go and do something else.
LG: What are the apps though? Even though you’re not going in-app, necessarily, that you feel like you can’t live your life without?
Rollo Wenlock: Well, in terms of business, we as a team, we run on Slack. So Slack is hooked up to all the other apps that we use.
LG: Yeah, I feel your pain.
Rollo Wenlock: Then Slack does notifications of all the other notifications, and so its like notification inception on the front of my iPhone. So I’m thinking of getting a watch. An Apple Watch so I can just throw it on my wrist.
LG: I don’t know if by getting a watch you’re throwing more problems at the problem or you’re solving something. I’m just going to be honest. Do you ever feel like it’s too much?
Rollo Wenlock: Totally, yeah. And so there’s times my partner, Gemma and I, we just leave our phones in a box in the hallway at home. At times its very, very hard to do. And she’ll often, actually, plug her phone in to charge in a different room, because otherwise it’s just … it’s addictive. You know, you just go crazy for it.
LG: What do you think it is about our devices, or the services that we use, that are so addictive?
Rollo Wenlock: Its because it gives us little moments of pleasure. And so that’s really all that it is. They’ve figured out that … Because people are essentially self-obsessed by proxy of staying alive, if you went somewhere dangerous you’d probably die. So by being self-obsessed you get these micro self-obsession payoffs. You know, every notification is about you. And it’s somebody or something telling you something pertinent to you. And so you feel needed and wanted.
I guess it gets the most depressing when you realize that all of your notifications are coming automatically from apps, reminding you that an app is doing something. That would be the most depressing version of that, but if all of them are about other people talking to you, like, there’s a new tweet, there’s a new email, there’s a new this, there’s a new that, that’s cool, because that’s humanity. But the rest of it can get a bit weird.
LG: I mean, the notifications are also intermittent. It’s not like you have a steady stream,or you know exactly when they’re coming in, right? So the whole idea is you have to keep looking down at your phone, because you’re thinking, “Maybe there’s something new.”
Rollo Wenlock: Well, there’s always something new. You know, there’s enough stuff going on that there’s always something new. Every time you look at your phone there’s another page of stuff. So it’s kind of, I don’t know, it’s kind of that you’re always connected, you know? It’s almost you’re addicted, because if you don’t get it you start to feel bad. And I think that’s also another crazy part of it.
LG: Aside from putting your phone in a box or charging it in another room, what are some other tactics that you or your friends and family use to stay away from their phones?
Rollo Wenlock: You leave the house without a phone, that’s a really good one. And we used to have a country house that was so far in the country there was no internet, which was fantastic. And we would go there and we’d bring friends, and there’s nothing. So everyone’s phones would just stay in the cars in the car park. And we would just be in this house, and we’d being having fires and jump in the river and everything. And you’d forget about all that stuff, and then you’d realize that your habits are like short loops. These habits are just like check, check, check, check. Then it starts to go into a long loop of talking to people and thinking about deeper things. And so that was really helpful. And then we sold the place, and then now its just short loops again.
LG: Then your next place had Wi-Fi.
Rollo Wenlock: Exactly.
LG: There went that.
Rollo Wenlock: Just gone crazy again.
LG: How many times a day, while you’ve been here at Code Media, would you say that you’ve checked your phone? If you had to guess.
Rollo Wenlock: Probably 12 times an hour, I would say. What is that? Once every five minutes.
LG: Wow, okay.
Rollo Wenlock: I would say so.
LG: Is that standard? Or are you any less engaged in it because you’re talking to people?
Rollo Wenlock: I think it’s pretty standard because it often buzzes, and I’ve got quite a few things happening at the same time which I need to relate back to.
LG: We need to talk about your notifications and your app tics and everything else. I’m going to encourage you to not get the smart watch.
Rollo Wenlock: But then … because the joy with the watch is that you don’t have to take your phone out and engage with it. You just go, boring, boring. Like, oh I need to do that thing. Blah, blah, blah. You know? That would be fine.
LG: All right, final question. Do you think that the responsibility is on us, as the tech consumers, to be more, I don’t know, sort of self-controlled around our tech devices? Or do you think that the companies who make these products should be considering our so-called addictions?
Rollo Wenlock: Well, I mean, that’s an interesting point. If you think about it through a different lens, if you think about food. Is it on McDonald’s to not make food that’s literally bad for you? Or is it on the consumers to not go, “I’ll be a person who just goes to McDonald’s all the time.” You know? I think it’s actually on the user. People can make whatever they like. And then it’s up to the user.
But I don’t know, you just have to be really clear with what it is. You know, I think social networks should potentially come with warning signs. Like, “This is an addictive product, you’re going to get into a thing here, something is going to happen to you.” They obviously don’t yet, but it’s all still kind of new and frothy. So I think there’s a little bit of that.
LG: Okay, I’m back from running around.
KS: Okay, good, you’re just in time for the ad break. We’ll be back in a minute with more from the Code Media conference, but first we’re going to take a quick break for a word from our sponsors.
KS: We’re here at the 2018 Code Media conference, and now I’m going to do something that will probably backfire on me. I’m going to set Lauren Goode loose, once more, on the unsuspecting attendees — who pay us to be here — to ask them more questions about tech addiction. Lauren, take it away.
LG: You know they paid just for this?
KS: I doubt it. They paid to get away from it. New revenue stream.
LG: Once again, I’m at the Code Media conference in Huntington Beach. It’s a little noisy here, but that’s because we just got out of another great session. And I’m speaking right now to Cham, otherwise known as Chamillionaire. He’s a musician, a rapper and now a social video entrepreneur. Thanks so much for joining us here.
Chamillionaire: Thanks for having me.
LG: So, do you consider yourself addicted at all to devices, apps, social media stuff that we use every day?
Chamillionaire: I’d be lying if I told you I didn’t have three phones in my pocket right now.
LG: Wait, what? How do you have three phones? What phones are they?
Chamillionaire: Okay, I’ve got an Android phone, I’ve got a iPhone, and I’ve got another iPhone, which is a testing device.
LG: Okay, so I see you have an iPhone. That’s an eight plus? Or is that a seven plus?
LG: Six plus. Okay. And then that one is …
Chamillionaire: Is a testing device. And this is the one I talk on. Android.
LG: So deep down, you’re an Android guy, because that’s the one you talk on?
Chamillionaire: Naw, naw, not really.
Chamillionaire: I like them all for different reasons. You know?
LG: Okay. So, I mean, do you have a hard time tearing yourself away from multiple devices?
Chamillionaire: The entrepreneur side of me says yes. You know, because it’s very difficult for me to stay as productive as I like to be and to accomplish as much as I like to accomplish in life without these devices. Like, I was just telling Mark, while we were sitting in there, while listening to another session, that I feel like I’m not productive when I’m sitting there watching somebody speak, because I know that there’s these emails happening and people need me to approve things, people need me to look at things, and every second that passes is more time that I have to spend later doing it. I know that’s bad, but.
LG: What are the apps that you can’t live without?
Chamillionaire: One of my favorite apps is call Pocket. I love Pocket because it helps me be productive. It helps me learn a lot. I get to save articles for later. I get to listen to articles and podcasts and stuff while I’m at the gym running. It’s just productivity for me, so I love it. It’s a very simple app. And I know people might expect me to say something else, but Pocket is my favorite. You know? If I saw the founder of Pocket right now I would ask him for his autograph, or her.
LG: I happen to be an Instapaper person myself, but I appreciate the Pocket love. There are a lot of people on The Verge staff who like Pocket.
Chamillionaire: I have both of them, actually. Pocket is what I use for articles that I read like every day. And Instapaper is what I use for articles that I’m like, I have to save this because of the founder, I’m gonna need this later.
LG: So when you feel like you need to take a break, is there something you have trained yourself to do to give yourself that break?
Chamillionaire: I think I’m better at that than most people, because I don’t consider myself really addicted. That sounds like something an addicted person would say. But what I do is, I challenge myself a lot of times. Like, one time I challenged myself to not eat any meat, any red meat. And I haven’t ate red meat for like years, maybe like 10 years or something, right?
I challenged myself to stop drinking caffeine. I used to drink Red Bulls all the time, and I haven’t drank caffeine in like, I can’t even remember. You know what I mean? I always do things like this, so when it comes to things like setting down my device and not being too attached to it, I can always go on these little fasts. You know, where I’m like, okay, I’m not going to do this for a while, and I just do it. It’s kind of easy for me to just turn it on and turn it off.
LG: So what’s the longest you’ve gone without your phones?
Chamillionaire: Well now that’s a different question, because it gets a little bit tough. Because if I wasn’t a founder of a company, I could easily put it away. I don’t use Instagram like that. My friends always hit me and say, “Hey, how come you don’t follow me?” because I follow nobody. I don’t want to follow anybody, I don’t want to see what you got going on. I don’t use it the same way people do. I use Facebook, but only to update fans, so I don’t really communicate with people on it.
I’m not really as social as most people think. As a musician you’re supposed to be, right? You’re supposed to use all these devices to connect to people. I’ve never commented on anybody’s, under anybody’s post on any … Facebook, anywhere. You know? So I don’t really think I’m as tied into the grid as everyone else, really. You know?
LG: So your detox method is not to get rid of the devices, it’s to stop using the apps, basically. You’re okay having them … it’s like having the pack of cigarettes in your pocket, but you’re okay not smoking the cigarettes.
Chamillionaire: I didn’t even think about it like that. That’s actually pretty bad. Yeah, I guess you could say that. Now, if you ask me if I could keep the devices completely away? Maybe it’s a FoMO thing. I’d be feeling like I’m gonna miss out on something. You know what I mean? But it’s not like fun stuff. It’s not like I think I’m going to miss a HQ Trivia game or something like that. I think I’m going to miss, like, an important email from people that need me, because unfortunately, in my life there are a lot of people that can’t continue with theirs without me making some kind of approval. They need me to make decisions, so if I put these phones away, then how do I do that? Do they send me snail mail? Do they tie something to a pigeon’s leg? Like, what happens? What do I do? So I do it for other people, I’m doing it for the benefit of them.
LG: Johana Bhuiyan of Recode. You are the senior transportation reporter for Recode.
Johana Bhuiyan: Yes.
LG: Do you think tech addiction is a real thing?
Johana Bhuiyan: Absolutely, because I literally will have TweetDeck pulled up on my desktop, and then I will pick my phone up and then open the Twitter app. I am perpetually checking Twitter and Instagram on every single surface that I can check it on. And so I think tech addiction is really real. There are times I feel like I have to look at something, and I can’t just not do something with my phone or with the computer screen.
LG: You can’t just be.
Johana Bhuiyan: Yeah. And I think that’s terrible. I literally have iPhone pinky. I’m showing it to you. I can’t really show it to the people who are listening, but it’s crooked. Like there is literally a dent in my pinky, because I’m always holding my phone. I think this is … that’s scary. It takes multiple generations for evolution to really kick in, and yet, here we are.
LG: With a crooked pinky.
Johana Bhuiyan: Yes.
LG: Do you think tha, that’s because of the way you use apps and your devices? Or do you think that things have been designed in such a way that we, as mere mortals, can only succumb to their addictive nature?
Johana Bhuiyan: I think a little bit of both, but obviously you know this as well, it’s part of our job to be connected to Twitter as much as we are. And I was a fool. When I downloaded the Twitter app, I had to turn on notifications for a number of people that I write about, to do my job. But it also keeps pulling me back into the Twitter app as a result of that, and it creates this sort of never-ending cycle.
With Instagram as well, it’s like they’ve created this feed of stories that you’re not gonna get if you just scroll through, so you’re sort of drawn back into the app, to go through every single person’s stories. And I’m a really nosy person, which is why I’m a journalist. And, I care about what my friends are doing. So I think there is a very … they’re very intentional and deliberate about bringing you back in, because it’s good for their business. I don’t that it’s malicious, but it certainly is created to get you back to the app.
LG: Do you think that it’s certain pockets or demographics or age groups of people who are feeling this pain more acutely than others? Someone else on the podcast said that they think it’s because of … we work in media and tech, and we live in certain cities where people are tech savvy, early adopters. San Francisco is a great example. Do you think that’s part of it, or do you think this is widespread?
Johana Bhuiyan: I do think it obviously contributes. And I think that, I as a reporter, I’m checking my phone way more than my other friends who aren’t. But at the same time, my parents just really got Facebook and they are always checking it. More so than I even expected them to. They were never really on their phones before that. So I think it still has the same effect. Just given, one, that you have the time, but two, you have access to that app. I think that we weren’t always like this. There was one point where we were sort of brought into those companies or into those apps. And then we eventually became addicted to it. So I think it’s not limited to certain demographics.
LG: What do you do when you need to take a break?
Johana Bhuiyan: So I did this … I’ve been doing this for a few years now, and I originally didn’t really pay attention to it. But, more and more, because I literally have been on the record being, like, I have been tired for the last five years and my vision is going. I have a weird crooked pinky. There are all of the detrimental things.
LG: You’re too young for this, Johana.
Johana Bhuiyan: I know. There’s always like these very clear and tangible signs that are like, “Johana, stop being on your phone.” So I try to abide by this a little more. But I do automatic “do no disturb” at 10 pm, which is not really great when Kara Swisher is trying to call you. But, whatever. I do answer still, when it’s Kara Swisher. But yeah, so I do automatic do not disturb at 10. It turns off at seven am. And then it also … my screen goes down, and I just put my phone, like not on my bed, not near me. And I just try not to touch it. I mean, I used to do this just for — by separating — just for work.
So when I worked from home, I would only work in a specific part of my apartment. So that part of my apartment is like the work part. That was in order to make sure that I was very productive in that place, but now it’s actually sort of the opposite. Where I wanna make sure that the part of my apartment that I relax in, sleep in and have personal time is very personal, and not on my phone, completely disconnected.
LG: What do you think is going to happen in the future, five years from now, from having this conversation? Are things going to be tightly regulated? Are we all going to be more immersed and more addicted than ever? Where do you think this is going?
Johana Bhuiyan: Well if you’ve watched “Altered Carbon” you’ll see that it’s going terribly. I was having a conversation today with a bunch of people about AR and VR and one person was like, “Yeah, you’ll eventually be in a situation where you’ll just look around and there’s all this information coming out.” And I think that’s great. Like superimposed onto the real world, I think that that could serve a purpose.
But that could be easily used in a negative way. And that could also be … There is certainly a situation where that could just be too much information, that you’re just gonna be constantly connected. Literally, people want to put computers on your face. So I think that is a little too immersive for me. And as much as I think the technology is incredibly fascinating, it’s crazy that we’re at this point right now.
With Magic Leap today they were saying you can still sort of engage in the real world while having this screen on your face. And that to me is scary. As much as you’re still … you’re not closed off from the world by wearing this headset. You’re still connected to something. Why can’t we just be humans and pick up a screen when we need to pick up a screen?
LG: Yeah. Or if we’re sitting around watching an NBA game with friends, why do we need multiple digital screens in front of our faces?
Johana Bhuiyan: Exactly. And you also look like a dork.
LG: The End. Thank you so much, Johana, that’s all I needed. Our future: Dorky.
Johana Bhuiyan: Yep.
LG: Now, I’m speaking with Dan Unger. He’s the founder and CEO of SRFR. That’s surfer without the vowels, as one does. It’s a video platform, a mobile video platform?
Dan Unger: That’s right. We make it easy to actually stream videos from your phone to your TV.
LG: Okay, sounds like an AirDrop competitor.
Dan Unger: Yeah, but without the hardware.
LG: Some people say that they feel addicted to their devices and they can’t put down certain apps, like Facebook.
Dan Unger: Absolutely.
LG: Do you ever feel that way?
Dan Unger: Oh yeah. And it’s somewhat ironic, I know, or hypocritical that I’m focusing our business on mobile. But, the more that people can be away from their phones, the better. And it’s, yeah, absolutely addictive. So I used to work at Yahoo, and Disney, as well. And, we would know there were certain products and stories that are more clickbait. So if you do something on Kim Kardashian, it’s going to get a million clicks immediately. That clickbait, I think, has really turned into where the mobile experience is. Where everything … you’re going down the rabbit hole all the time, of looking at Instagram and Facebook and Snapchat and any sort of topic, crazy things that the White House is doing, and so you get into these. And it’s hard to stop. To me, it’s the modern-day clickbait.
LG: It sounds like what you’re describing is the deluge of information, or an information rabbit hole you can’t get out of, rather than specific features, maybe, that keep you engaged. Like, do you think it’s the content? Just using Twitter as an example. Is it the content itself on Twitter, or is it the way you’re looking for those “Likes” and those hearts and all that?
Dan Unger: Yeah. I think it’s a combination. I think it’s … what I’ve found, is that there’s less and less content that is being pushed to me that’s actually relevant. There’s content that providers will know that I will click on, because whether it’s a salacious headline or notification or the immediacy of, you know, let me be jealous of my friend in Costa Rica right now. There’s all of those pushes.
So it’s less about, “Okay, here’s some new music, Dan, that you might enjoy.” Or, “Here’s a great restaurant that just opened up and that we think you’ll love.” So for me, I think it’s the content that’s getting pushed that is less and less relevant for me, and more and more, almost, marketing in that way that isn’t necessarily relevant.
LG: Right, it might be annoying.
Dan Unger: At times.
LG: At times.
Dan Unger: I generally don’t get annoyed, but yes.
LG: What do you do when you need to take a break?
Dan Unger: Ooh. Well, I do have a cocktail in my hand, so you can’t see that on the audio podcast. But, no, I have tried very hard to create time for myself. And just as an example, at this conference, at Code Media, the two things I’ve done, by far the most amazing are waking up early this morning to go surfing with you and 15 other people that I otherwise didn’t know. That was just amazing. It’s absolutely the best way to wake up and start your day, let alone have to go to a conference afterwards. Finding things like that that are me outdoors, away from my phone, away from other issues, is a great way to go, for me.
And the second thing was, I tried SUBPAC for the first time. It’s a tactile audio music meditation service, which I’d actually used … We took our son last week to an IMAX VR. And they actually have those. They provided it to him. So when you’re in there and you’re running through Evolution, you’ve got this pack on that’s following the music. I didn’t realize at the time, that it’s these guys. But this was 45 minutes of just amazing, close your eyes, meditation, great music. Things like that are amazing to me, and I’m going to try to do more of that.
LG: I’m very excited to be speaking with Maire Walsh. She is the SVP of digital technology at Enterprise Ireland, which is the VC arm of the Irish government. Thanks for being here.
Maire Walsh: Oh, it’s a pleasure.
LG: Thanks for coming all the way to Code Media in Huntington Beach.
Maire Walsh: I love Code Media. It’s actually one of my favorite conferences.
LG: So do you ever consider yourself addicted to technology?
Maire Walsh: Definitely. Actually, my latest addiction — and this is really not new — but podcasts. You know, I’ve been listening to them for many years. So, radio, voice. I’ve always been a huge fan of that. But lately what I’m finding, when I wake up in the middle of the night, I say, “Oh, I’ll put on a podcast.”
One that I’ve listened to, as of late, is something called Desert Island Discs. And it’s this podcast from the BBC Four, and it’s interviews with mostly famous people in different fields and they pick their eight favorite tracks. And they talk about their story and it’s this journey about their eight favorite songs. And then at the end, they pick their most favorite song and the book that they would bring on a desert island.
LG: Are you using this to fall asleep?
Maire Walsh: Yes.
LG: Okay, and does it work?
Maire Walsh: But I will also listen to it when I’m making dinner at the weekend for friends. So I have it on constantly, because now they have all the archives from over 75 years. And I can listen to John McEnroe. I can listen to Noel Gallagher who … when I was growing up, I loved Oasis. So it’s like this plethora of amazing people that are just talking about their life.
LG: I have to say, you’re the first person to say that they might be addicted to podcasts. But that doesn’t sound like necessarily a bad thing. One of the other people we spoke to for this podcast, Dan Unger, when I happened mention to him, in conversation, that I listen to podcasts sometimes to sort of discharge, take myself away, he said, “Well, that’s just experiential, so that’s okay.” It’s not really that push and pull that you have with other applications, or services that you feel sort of compelled or forced into using.
Maire Walsh: I don’t know if I totally agree with that, because I feel so much, in like some odd way, some odd passion right now around podcasts. Like, so if I wake up and I’ve had this weird sleep and I don’t sleep properly, I listen to a podcast. But then also if I wake up at 5 am — and I don’t normally get up until 5:30 am — I’m annoyed if The Daily is not … like they might be a little late. I’m like, “Oh my god, it’s not here. So what am I gonna do for the next half hour? Oh God, should I do something else? Oh, I might have to read something.” Which, I was always a huge fan of reading and media and magazines. Like when I was a teenager I’d spend my pocket money on magazines. I loved media, and for just some reason voice and how it can be so impactful. And right now, that’s my huge addiction.
LG: That doesn’t necessarily sound like a bad thing, I don’t think. I mean, we’ve heard comparisons of this tech to cigarettes and alcohol and worse. So to say you’re really into podcasts sounds like something you’re passionate about.
Maire Walsh: I am passionate about it because, you know, it makes me more informed. Anytime we’re properly informed and we feel like we’re getting our news from proper sources — and they’re sources that I trust, that’s really important to me. Like if I want to look for tech coverage, I go to Recode. If I want to look for news news, it’s the New York Times, it’s the Guardian, it’s the Washington Post. Like there’s these brands. And I think that’s why media brands are so important.
LG: What do you do when you need to take a break?
Maire Walsh: Lap swim.
LG: Another vote for water sports.
Maire Walsh: I don’t know, I love to cook. I love to … even when I’m cooking I now listen to podcasts, which drives my partner crazy, because like, oh my god, do we have to listen to another podcast that’s streaming over huge speakers in our kitchen. Yeah, so it may not be best for relationships. Music may be better, sometimes.
LG: To be addicted to podcasts?
Maire Walsh: Yeah.
LG: Thank you so much for speaking with us.
Maire Walsh: Thank you, my pleasure.
LG: Okay, so I managed to find Kara at this crazy busy conference. And we’re talking to Sophia Amoruso, who is the founder of Girlboss. Host of the Girlboss podcast.
One of the thing’s we’re asking attendees at Code Media this week is about their addictions, compulsions, obsessions to their tech devices and apps. Do ever feel like you’re addicted to tech, and if so, how do you break the habits?
Sophia Amoruso: Yeah, I do feel like I am, as Kara’s scrolling through her phone.
LG: She is, and she does this all the time during the podcast. If she ever sounds distracted, everyone, that’s why.
Sophia Amoruso: Oh gosh, what do I do? I’ve downloaded a bunch of apps that track how much time I’m using my phone. There’s one called Moment, I think. Has it changed my behavior? No.
LG: Is there anything that does change your behavior?
Sophia Amoruso: Not really, no. I’m kind of always on my phone. I wake up and look at my phone. I drop it on my forehead. I carry it to the kitchen with me, it’s like my baby blanket.
LG: Do you ever go to places where you don’t have service?
Sophia Amoruso: Yes, and I keep checking my phone, even though there is no service, hoping there will be service. It’s just like something I’m always reaching for. It’s like an appendage at this point. It’s like I know where it is at any given time and I want to be reaching for it.
KS: All right, I’m going to give you one choice. You have to get rid of your cellphone, your car or your dog?
Sophia Amoruso: I have three dogs.
KS: All right, one of them.
Sophia Amoruso: My cellphone.
Sophia Amoruso: I drive a Range Rover.
LG: That probably has like CarPlay or something.
Sophia Amoruso: Yeah it does.
LG: What is the app on your phone that you feel you couldn’t live without? The thing you check the most?
Sophia Amoruso: I use Inbox, which is the Google Gmail inbox. Email is where I spend most of my time.
KS: Okay, you have to give up one app, Inbox or Instagram? Which one is it?
Sophia Amoruso: Instagram.
Sophia Amoruso: Because I make more money from my Inbox.
KS: Okay. Good answer.
LG: Good answer.
I’m here now with Joe Hyrkin. He’s the CEO of Issuu. It’s a digital publishing platform for, I guess for the modern age?
Joe Hyrkin: Sure, we like the modern age.
LG: Thanks for being here. So do you ever consider yourself addicted to technology?
Joe Hyrkin: Yes. I find it’s actually really hard to put down. I’m checking news to see what’s going on in the world. I find it increasingly … given what we’re doing, which is providing a platform for content creators to connect with an audience that … I’m regularly looking at content that’s on Issuu that our publishers are creating, that our readers are reading. That then gets me sort of down rat holes of going to other platforms as well and seeing what’s going on. So yeah, between all the social media and texting and communicating with friends, absolutely.
LG: When you need to take a break from tech, what do you do?
Joe Hyrkin: So I go for walks a lot. I try to have as many walking meetings as I can. Our office is in downtown Palo Alto, so I get out of the office. And probably two or three times a day, I’ll do half hour to hour-long meetings, walking like that, so that’s one thing.
I journal. So I actually get real pens and real paper and write down my thoughts. And I try to do that. I don’t do it daily, but I try to do it a few times a week, at least. I find that the practice of writing more helps me actually synthesize things that I’m thinking. And doing it without my phone next to me is really good.
I meditate in the mornings. Again, not every morning, but most mornings. I try to unplug. The problem with things like meditation is, I’ll do it early so then I still have plenty of time to get back on to the phone, right?
LG: Right. When you go for walks, are you leaving all of your devices behind?
Joe Hyrkin: If I go for walks with people, I’m device free. But I really try, when I’m with people, to be device free, if I can, at least one on one. If I’m going for walks by myself, I’ll start and then …
I have two children, and my older son is in college. We communicate a lot through texting. So he’ll text me, I’ll text him back. He’ll show me a link, I’ll see that link, and it’s like … what I find that’s seductive about social media in general and content in my devices is, there’s this fake sense of connecting with another human being by looking at the stuff I get sent. And so it’s like, I’m saying that I’m connecting with you, but actually what I’m doing is looking at whatever it is you sent me, that sort of thing. With my kids, I tend to be digitally connected with them in a lot of ways. We try to have things like put our devices down for meals and things like that, but it’s hard.
LG: That’s not going to work when you’re taking pictures of your meals, right?
Joe Hyrkin: That’s the thing, enough is enough at a certain point. And I keep reminding myself, the news will be there. The news will be there in half an hour. The cycles … I think, I feel like we get seduced, thinking that the cycles are much faster than they ever have been. I think what we end up with is … I don’t think that the cycles are that much faster, I think there is lots of the same kinds of content coming in about the same topic. And so we’ll look at different viewpoints and so that can be just as addictive, as well.
LG: In the news business we call those “hot takes.” But yeah. Why do you think it is that this idea of tech addiction or obsession is really prevalent right now? I mean, we’ve all had these devices now for a decade or so. We’ve had apps for a while. We’ve used social media even prior to that. Why do you think we’re all talking about this now?
Joe Hyrkin: I think it’s sort of like the first early phases of it have run its course. So we spent maybe the last 10 years with smartphones. Also, the seduction of, I can get access to anything I want at any time, and I love that. And I think, at least for me, I’m spending more time thinking, “Well, how about just using it as a tool to be more efficient or to communicate more effectively?” Do I need it to control everything that I’m doing? And then just thinking about … I think it’s a generational shift, so there are lots of people who have been having devices now for 10, 15 years, and have kids. I think for me, it makes me think about what their entire lifespan is going to be like attached to these things. I think the generational shifts make a difference.
I think we’re just starting to look at interesting elements of having a screen in front of our face all the time. When does the research start around what it’s doing to our brains, what it’s doing to communication. Maybe part of it is people are starting to think about the impact of that kind of interaction. And at the end of the day I think people are … I think the essence of us, as people, is to connect with each other as human beings. Right? While the technology is great and it’s really fun, there’s nothing like being with people.
That’s why the conference business still exists, actually, right? I think it’s really interesting that things like Code Media and Recode and all the events that are happening, there’s only more and more and more of them. Yeah, you could watch it, but there’s nothing like actually connecting with another person, and I hope we never lose that.
KS: Some of our loyal readers and listeners also chimed in on Twitter and Facebook, and here are some of their responses.
Steve — oh, I can’t pronounce this name — Steve Kaschinske: “Delete Facebook.” All right, that works.
LG: That’s his advice? “Delete Facebook,” he says on Twitter.
LG: Jane Beard wrote to us.
KS: Yeah, I know Jane.
LG: She said, “Turning off notifications wasn’t enough for me. I have to put somewhere that makes it a pain to get to. Like in the basement. It’s crazy but it helps.”
LG: Have you ever put your phone in the basement?
KS: I have been leaving my phone behind a lot. I leave it in restaurants all the time. I think my mind is talking to me, like secretly, my subconscious. I’ve been leaving it a lot. I left it in an airport.
KS: Maybe I have some mental disease.
LG: Did you flush it down the toilet at the airport?
KS: I’ve done that before, but not lately.
Anyway. Chris Pirillo: “Stop buying gadgets and computers. Worked for me.” Well okay Chris, that’s our job. We can’t do that. Bad advice from Chris Pirillo.
LG: I knew someone was going to say it at some point. I needed a laptop that works. Unfortunately. Fortunately?
Bridget McGraw: “Do what Kara Swisher did. Go offline completely for a week.”
KS: That said, I did climb to the top of the Mexican mountain and found a cellphone signal. I think I talked to my kids. I did, I did it.
LG: Also, you took photos. I saw on Instagram.
KS: I did, I took photos. That was later. I put them on later. When I landed, when I was in Puerto Vallarta.
LG: So you weren’t doing Instagram Stories or Snap Stories?
KS: No I didn’t. I was not on Twitter, except for once Johana Bhuiyan texted me, it got through. And she said you gotta tweet my great story about Uber drivers, which I did.
LG: Oh yeah.
KS: I did that. That’s it. I feel okay about that.
KS: And then when Louie wrote about how he hated the new Snapchat. I did do that one.
KS: Just two tweets in a week, that’s pretty good for me.
LG: Two tweets in a week is really good.
KS: Anyway, next one?
LG: Simone Stolzoff said that, “Wrote a little on this last week. I’ve been turning off notifications, deleting addicting native apps, and using accountability tech like Freedom. Oh yeah, and putting pressure on companies to change their ad-supported biz models.”
KS: Well, sorry, Simone.
LG: I don’t think ad support is going away, but what you said earlier about things being designed to get you into that endless feedback loop, we know it’s happening.
KS: Yep. I would give a lot of attention to bothering Google and Apple about this. The way they design their screens, it looks like candy. It’s a candy store. Interestingly, Nellie Bowles just wrote this piece in the New York Times about moving your phone to grayscale, which it turns everything gray. And I got to say, I don’t ever want to use the phone when it’s in grayscale.
LG: It’s left visually unappealing.
KS: Its complete … it’s less. Its fascinating how your mind immediately just doesn’t want to touch the phone, which is interesting.
LG: Yeah, I do think for younger generations that’s like, oh god, it looks like a newspaper.
KS: Yeah, I know. But it worked.
LG: It’s terrible.
KS: It could start and take some of those apps that aren’t utility apps and put them in folders. Like, start them there, so that you don’t just see them. Like, you don’t go to Uber all the time, except when you want a car, right? Or you don’t go to the weather [app] except when you want … you don’t endlessly look at the weather. So any utility app should be on the front screen, everything else should be shoved somewhere else.
LG: That’s an interesting idea. I kind of believe more in freedom of choice, being able to just put things where you want to. But I think the onus is on you, as the consumer, to put them in places that make sense to you. Like, I have a folder that’s just titled “Essentials.” And that’s where all of my essentials are. That’s where I keep Slack, I do consider Twitter an essential for our job, it’s where my mail app is, it’s stuff like that. You know, my password manager. That’s the one I try to open the most. And then I put all the social apps on the second page.
KS: I don’t think so. I think like, hand everybody fried food and sugar and not tell them that it’s bad for you. No, I think people can’t. I think there is some element of responsibility on behalf of the tech companies to do it too.
LG: So you’re in the “ban jumbo soda” category.
KS: I’m not a ban it, no, I don’t like that. But I’d say, “This is really bad and you’re fat. And you’ll probably die of heart disease.” He banned it. But I don’t think you should ban it. I think you should tell people what the consequences are. Very clearly. Very labeled. Very much … and then they can ignore them at their will. But at least say here’s the three things you could do to stop it. And they should put them … I think they could put them in places and redesign these screens in a way that isn’t quite so appealing. They’re like candy. They’re like your colors. We’re a bunch of idiot birds that like peck on these things. Anyway.
LG: I look forward to these changes going into effect when you are mayor of San Francisco.
KS: I don’t want a mommy state, but I want to warn people. They should know, sugar or anything … we’ve gotten used to it with cigarettes, so why can’t we get used to other things? Those warnings were important. Doesn’t stop you from smoking, it doesn’t say don’t smoke, it just says if you smoke this, you might — probably will — die of lung cancer. You could die of lung cancer. I think that’s good. Big skull on it, with an ax.
LG: I think we both agree that we believe in more information.
KS: More information. Transparency.
LG: Is a good thing.
KS: Yep, absolutely. And don’t fund studies that you seek or don’t really have your name on.
KS: Things like that. Anyway, we’ll see. I’m sure it’s not going to be … I’m sure someone will say I want a mommy state. But well, actually, a mommy state wouldn’t be so bad in some cases.
LG: You heard it here.
Don’t you always say that San Francisco is like an assisted living for millennials?
KS: Yes, so it’s different. That’s a whole different thing. That’s a different thing. They’re just like, “Give me my massage, immediately,” at home. So you’re followed by a hand-delivered Kombucha shake. That’s a very different situation. I think we need to put a stop to that immediately.
LG: Well, thank you to all of our attendees for sharing their insights and thoughts this week at Code Media.