Taming technology

Opinion by Josh Cho
Jan. 17, 2017, 1:38 a.m.

I write best when something makes me angry. There is that moment when the fingers must touch the keyboard in some sequence.

But today the fingers touch the keyboard for a different reason. Disgust.

Today I am writing about something that disgusts me..

The object of disgust includes myself. And the very mobile device I have in my pocket.


I made the mistake a couple weeks ago of watching the new episode of “Black Mirror,” “Nosedive.” Whenever I watch something, I try to bring it back to real life and incorporate the wisdom therein.

But this time, it was impossible to not bring something back.

In the middle of watching “Nosedive” (about 40 minutes into an 83-minute episode), I paused the show, opened social media, started making the number of likes on my posts “invisible” (to me), almost considered deleting my accounts and went for a brief WTF walk.

Like those times when your mind is so blown that you need some time getting the parts back.

I am still getting the parts back. Going on social media feels weird now. But besides sharing the ooze of existential social crisis, let me catch you up on the story.

“Nosedive”’s protagonist is Lacie. She is a 4.2.

Her brother is a 3.7. Her oldest friend is 4.8, and the pickup truck lady is a 1.4.

People in this world always have this pink iPhone-9-looking device (PastelPhone). My friends joke about our phones never leaving our pockets, but, in “Nosedive,” the PastelPhone never leaves people’s hands.

Rating. That is the core function of PastelPhone. Rate people’s photos. Rate your interaction. Check their rating. Dress for ratings. Smile for ratings.

From one to five, how would you rate this person?

These are the choices PastelCitizens make. And the aggregate of these choices results in Lacie’s 4.2.


I won’t spoil further. The premise is simple. A rating system.

But knowing the rules of chess doesn’t mean you can play the game well. Knowing the premise doesn’t mean you feel the implications. Watching the show will make you feel visceral disgust at that pastel society and discomfort in noticing how we are already doing this.

When I watch “Black Mirror” (a near-future techno-dystopia), I always fear for what is about to come, in the next five, 10 years. But “Nosedive” didn’t just make me fear the future; it made me fear the present.

Uber. Yelp. Instagram. If you combine these three, don’t you get PastelPhone? Uber drivers treat you differently based on your rating. Yelp encourages rating restaurants, so why not people? We post to Instagram to get likes. And whenever we see an Instagram profile with a ton of likes, we become petrified with envy.


I remember a couple months ago becoming infuriated that this girl’s profile picture at a celebrity event got 500 likes. I don’t think this was jealousy — this was utter awe at how mindless these likes are.

Likes are political. When I like something, I am whispering to my friends to like it. Thus a mindless like is never inconsequential. It affects people.

And to see my near society respect this high-class association made me sick. I felt no disgust at people who liked those posts (they are my friends just wanting to catch up with people), but I didn’t know who to look to. The CEO? The engineers? The people?

What is here and now is that the attention economy is upon us. And we must do something about the screwed-up nature of the universal rating system.


Given all of this, I still don’t advocate unplugging. That is too extreme. The fundamental human desire to be connected is so strong that I have seen all those who unplug plug themselves back in. (And don’t be so harsh on yourself, dear.)

What we want is detox. A digital detox. Detoxification is getting rid of the toxins, not throwing the baby out with the bathwater. We want the good parts of technology.

Whenever I seek gray areas, I like to run the 80/20 analysis (also known as Pareto’s Law). From which 20 percent am I getting 80 percent of the benefits? I realized that one-on-one messaging was where I got most of the benefits. The generic feed of content, not so much — it has a high trash-to-gem ratio. When I wanted the gem, I mercilessly filtered the content so that the trash-to-gem ratio became low.


Technology is a wolf. Train it, put a leash on it, then perhaps it will serve you well. Don’t, then you will be the one being pulled.


Contact Josh Cho at joshcho ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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