As the former CEO of Mission Bit, I was a passionate advocate of bringing coding education to every public school student across California. We involved community leaders, idealistic college students, seasoned educators and some of the largest education funders in the Bay Area to support our cause. To this day, I don’t know the first thing about coding, but that didn’t stop me and my team from introducing the learning opportunity to over 3,500 students during my time running the organization.
While no one is denying that technology can be a powerful tool for learning and other societal imperatives, the unintended consequences have shaped a new slew of research regarding the public health concerns of technology addiction.
As a public education policy maker in San Francisco, much of this conversation has focused on the harm our children face with social media and their cell phones. I share the urgency for our children, but we have to start looking in the mirror (or the selfie camera function on our phones).
Many of us have developed an unhealthy dependency on our technology devices and various web services. We no longer run the technology, the technology has programmed us.
How often do you reach for your phone to check if it’s there? When was the last time you left it home for the day on purpose? Is it the first thing you reach for in the morning? Do you stare at it during your morning commute, while waiting in line, when you’re on the toilet?
I am guilty of all these behaviors and I’ve already made several efforts to reduce my technology dependency. A few years back, I closed all my social media accounts and unsubscribed from Netflix. I have since reopened Facebook and Twitter, but no longer use Instagram. I pretty much replaced Netflix with YouTube and started to binge on audio books instead of streaming countless hours of music on Spotify. I started to feel anxious when I waited to get a response from a woman I was dating. I found myself texting and responding to emails while driving. I am proud of reducing my web application usage, but I found other distractions to take its place. I have more work to do.
Many of us suffer from these behavioral dependencies and that is what the technology is designed to do. In Cam Newport’s book, “Digital Minimalism,” he presents the intentional efforts technologists have made to ensure our web services were addictive. These features made internet tycoons among the richest people on earth. They’ve managed to convince a large swath of the general public that we need these services to grow our companies, connect with our loved ones, and stayed informed. Social media use is so pervasive that we’ve convinced ourselves that the non-users are the ones with the problem.
There is a benefit to solitude, in person conversation and having uninterrupted time with nothing planned. Newport presents a 30-day challenge where you don’t use your non-essential technology. After reading the book, here is what I am going to stop using for the next 30 days.
The iPad: Its only function for me is entertainment and text messages. When I feel like going on it, I will read a book, call a family member or go for a walk. I will be leaving it with a family member to help keep me from grabbing it in a moment of weakness.
No Cell Phone at Night: From the hours of 9 p.m. to 7 a.m., I will turn off my cell phone during the week and over the weekend, I’m only at a handful of places over the course of the week or weekend. In the event that there is an emergency, my close family members will know how to get a hold of me.
No Social Media: I have been building a team to support my “Cook on Monday Morning” efforts and work on the school board. I will be relying on them to use my social media accounts if needed, but I will not be logging on for a month.
Why take these measures?
I don’t get any minutes back in life and it is deeply troubling to me that programmers are designing ways to take them from me, while making record profits.
If that wasn’t enough of a reason, I want to write a book, learn Spanish, gain greater proficiency in Muay Thai and meet my fitness goals, schedule more time at community events, have more in person conversations with the people that I love, read more education policy and focus on my options as it relates to running for office next year.
We need to reduce our reliance on non-essential technology and our cell phones more generally. For what we’ve gained in terms of scalability and the democratization of people to produce content, we’ve lost something critical to how we relate to ourselves and the world around us. My goal is to spend the next 30 days taking a break from these devices in serving of reconnecting with others in a more substantive way. My hope is that you would read the book and make the same considerations.
Stevon Cook ’08 is a fourth-generation San Franciscan and graduate of the public schools. After Williams, he returned to the Bay Area, where he’s worked in education, politics and business. Currently, he serves as president of the San Francisco Board of Education, to which he was elected in 2016. He previously served as CEO of Mission Bit, a nonprofit focused on ending generational poverty through coding education. These days, Stevon does consulting work for nonprofits and corporations focused on growth, leadership development, diversity in hiring and policy work. His blog (where a version of this article first appeared) and podcast may be found at stevoncook.com.