Steve Jobs thought devices would become ‘a bicycle for the mind’–but their effect on our brains is similar to that of smoking and junk food

Read Time - 9 min

Steve Jobs thought devices would become ‘a bicycle for the mind’–but their effect on our brains is similar to that of smoking and junk food

It’s been 33 years since Steve Jobs talked about the personal computer becoming a bicycle for the mind. In those years, the advent of the smartphone and the mass adoption of social media have turned those bicycles into runaway trains. Americans spend more than four hours a day on their smartphones–and more than half say they are addicted to their device. In May 2023, the surgeon general issued a warning about the concerning effects of social media on youth mental health.

Most of us probably do not require such statistics to identify the phenomenon: Our own habits reveal that the state of digital well-being today is a grim one. There is a fundamental misalignment between human attention and intention when engaging with screens.

However, there is cause for optimism. Behavioral misalignment is not a new problem. As urbanist and philosopher Paul Virilio once said, “When we invented the ship, we invented the shipwreck.” And we have an unfair advantage–the very digital nature of the problem.

The universal challenge of behavioral misalignment

Behavioral misalignment–where our actions diverge from our best interests–is a recurring challenge across various domains. From the obesity epidemic spurred on by the mass introduction of processed foods to habitual overspending that came on the heels of access to easy credit, history is replete with examples of such misalignments. However, the trend in U.S. cigarette smoking provides a promising example of progress in society-wide issues of behavioral misalignment. In recent decades, the number of U.S. smokers has declined from around 40% to around 12%.

The downward pressure on this graph was driven by a number of efforts in concert:

  • Public awareness and education: The Surgeon General’s 1964 report on smoking’s health risks sparked widespread awareness, leading to extensive public health campaigns.
  • Policy interventions: Comprehensive legislation, including smoking bans in public places and stringent advertising restrictions, significantly curtailed smoking habits.
  • Cultural shifts: Over time, smoking became socially less acceptable, aided by changing media portrayals and public opinion.
  • Technological advances: The introduction of nicotine replacement therapies and digital tools for cessation support played a key role in helping smokers overcome addiction.

These same forces are coming into play in the fight for digital well-being. Increased awareness is giving rise to greater research attention that is deepening our collective understanding of the issue. The time has come for a parallel solution: technology that is just as good at protecting our attention as social media platforms are at exploiting it.

Our biggest advantage in fighting digital addiction

Imagine if you could write code that would make a donut increasingly heavier as you got closer to your calorie limit for the day. This is what we can do with devices. It is entirely possible to encode the practices of responsible device engagement in the same environment as the “addiction” itself.

We can deploy environment change at scale with no marginal cost to anyone who wants to change their behavior. That is an unfair advantage that smoking cessation, or health food campaigns have never had.

This is all the more important as the next generation of digital interfaces–Large Language Models, virtual reality, and Brain-Computer Interfaces–promise to bring the digital world closer to us than ever before with their promise to reduce the latency of communication between humans and devices. Our impulse to access the internet is now a reach to the pocket away, in the future, it will be one thought away.

As the space between stimulus and response shrinks the opportunity for platforms to exploit human attention will continue, unless we increase our own capacity to articulate and implement our attention preferences in these environments.

To do this effectively we focus on four key tenets:

  1. High-tech solutions for a high-tech problem: The best technology of our day must be leveraged as a force to protect attention rather than exploit it.
  2. Enabling moderation rather than abstinence: An outright war to remove technology from our lives is futile and unhelpful. We can develop integrated methods of moderating engagement that keep the tool while removing the distraction.
  3. Benefit-based content consumption: Up-skilling is a fundamentally different digital engagement practice than doom scrolling. We track the difference and let it inform ongoing protocols.
  4. Replacement behaviors (The “Better Yes”): In the same moment that you are enticed to scroll, we remind you of the more important things in life; like hiking in the mountains, deep conversations, and pursuing your life’s work.

As Austrian psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Victor Frankl put it, “Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space lies our freedom and our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our happiness.” It is time for technologists to help humanity reclaim that space.

This article originally appeared on

Related Posts

ready to eliminate digital distraction?

get started with clearspace today, for free


popular posts