On their faces, slot machines are kind of dumb. You pay money to pull a lever, and most of the time all you get is a few seconds of spinning icons. But then sometimes, you win a little. Very infrequently, you win a ton.
Percentage-wise, it's a losing scenario. If your goal is to make money, statistics say that you won't.
But if you've ever actually sat down at a slot machine before, you know that the logic of the above paragraph can get slippery once you win a few spins. Your brain chemistry can start to shift. This is how you can end up spending more money at a slot machine than you originally planned.
And that's the whole business model of the slot machine section of a casino: give enough small wins to keep people pulling levers.
So given the above, let me ask you a question: What percentage of your total annual income would you be comfortable allocating to slot machine spending?
That's probably a stupid question for you. Did you say 0 percent? .01? .1 percent maybe if you're a hardcore casino enthusiast?
It'd be silly to spend much more.
So here's the thing: social media, email, digital entertainment, messaging apps, and the 24 hour news cycle operate in really similar ways.
Instead of your money, you give them your time and attention and energy. This is why it's such a better brand of slot machine. Money feels finite. You see the balance in your bank account. It's a number that grows or shrinks. But time and attention feel infinite. You don't know your total amount. It's easy to push things off till later.
Instead of variable financial rewards, digital media give you all kinds of other prizes.
- For social media, you get varying amounts of likes, retweets, followers, friends, streaks, hearts, smileys, or frownies.
- For digital entertainment, you get varying amounts of thrill, plot progression, character development, or laughs.
- For news, you get varying amounts of information, importance, insight, or outrage. (Ever find yourself reading about a topic you really don't care about, just in case it might teach you something?)
- For email, varying amounts of messages.
Instead of needing to go to the casino to pull the lever, digital media can follow you everywhere. Never be bored again! (If that's not a direct quote from Fahrenheit 451, it's certainly a close paraphrase.)
Here's my point: if our goal is to be smart or wise or useful or engaged, a default approach to the digital world won't get us there. We're going to need to be smarter than default. Just as the prudent person who wishes to gamble only enters the casino with a predetermined amount of money, so the prudent smartphone or social media or email user only uses these things under certain constraints.
I'm really serious about this. There are too many parents and kids and adults and seniors sitting at slot machines, idling their lives away one thumb swipe at a time.
Next time: an experiment for helping us see what online stuff we need and what online stuff we don't.
Thanks to Cal Newport, whose book Digital Minimalism was so good that I read it on a recent plane ride, cover to cover. Newport introduced me to the slot machine language of Tristan Harris, former Facebook engineer and current head of an organization called Time Well Spent.