Today I’m so glad to be talking with award-winning author and speaker — and my friend — Christina Crook. Christina’s book The Joy of Missing Out: Finding Balance in a Wired World has made her a leading voice on human flourishing in the digital age. Her commentary has appeared in publications and on programs globally, including The New York Times, Psychology Today, Times of India, NPR, and CBC Radio. Her speaking engagements have taken her to universities, companies, and conferences across North America. Christina’s work examines a relationship with technology and seeks a world that embraces weakness, recognizes the mess and fruit of relationship, and values embodiment. In short, she advocates for a human-centered future.
Christina, I’m so happy to have you on the show with me today. Welcome.
Christina: Thank you so much, Veronica.
Veronica: How did you first get interested in this area?
Christina: I got interested because I stumbled upon the communication program in Vancouver at Simon Fraser University in my early … I guess my late teens early 20’s. I stepped into my first Communications class and had that complete “ah-ha” moment that I had found my people. I had found the topic that captivated me. I just found the study of the ways in which communication has shaped cultures and shaped people to be incredibly fascinating. And we were at a time … It was ’98 …
Veronica: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Christina: Anyways, I’m dating myself now: 1998 — email was just sort of taking off at that time, and it was a really exciting and interesting moment to be looking at how our lives are being shaped by technology.
I loved what was happening, but I was also very keyed into looking more critically how things were shifting. Each time we adopt new technology it displaces something else, and I had moved from Vancouver to Toronto and all of a sudden all of my relationships were mediated … or 95% of my relationships were mediated in some way through the Internet. Where it hadn’t been the case before, living closer to family and friends. My habits changed drastically.
And realized that I wasn’t going through the effort anymore of reaching out to family and friends far away. I felt like I was keeping up-to-date with my people by scrolling through their Facebook feeds and having a general sense of what was happening in their lives.
So, I decided after quite a long process of discernment that I wanted to step away from the Internet to see what would happen to my relationships.
I was also realizing that I was beginning as a writer to not trust my own ideas. I was inputting a lot more than I was creating. So, I wanted to also see what kind of creative I would be without the Internet for a stretch of time. I actually unplugged for 31 days, and that was really the impetus for what became my book and became the work that I’m doing today.
Veronica: I remember in the early days of Twitter … it was soon after I had graduated university and my friends had scattered, as you do when you graduate. I had friends in Seattle. Friends in New York. Friends in London. And we used Twitter as a way to sort of share our lives with each other. I only had a short list of contacts on Twitter and we all had this sort of ongoing conversation in the day to day about what we were doing and how we were doing. What we were discovering post-university. And then I remember the rest of the world kind of filling in my Twitter feed and losing that direct communication with those people. And it just became much louder. The conversation just became thick all sorts of voices, and the way that I used Twitter changed. I resonate with what you’re saying about sensing in those early days a shift. Just thinking about how quickly that happened.
Christina: Mm-hmm (affirmative). I will say I was not keyed into it. In 1998 I didn’t think that email would even be a thing.
Christina: It takes us a while to really understand how technology works, its best uses. My husband jokes that if I only understood all the things that my iPhone could do it would make my life so much better. Who has time or the capacity to even understand the technology well enough before it takes on a new form?
Veronica: I think I heard one technologist, I’m trying to remember … It might have been Anil Dash, describe it as, sort of, technological literacy. Which I know can be used as a different term as well — it has different meaning. But, this idea that over human history we’ve had, as you point out, traditionally more time to kind of become fluent in a technology and integrate technology into our lives and that time is starting to evaporate. The pace of new things being introduce is kind of going faster and faster.
Christina: Yes. I think that is probably the core of the problem. It’s not a new phenomenon that advertisers and people are creating new products that are vying for our attention. They’re trying to hold our attention for the longest amount of time possible. You can just look at the feature in WhatsApp. It’s called a streak. Your listeners might be familiar with this. The more time you spend on WhatsApp you get to set a streak. And then they encourage you to stay on the platform for a certain amount of time to maintain your streak for as long as possible. What’s happening with teenagers is they’ll go away on a family trip and they’ll give their phones to their friends to maintain their streak.
There’s this gamification … it is absurd. It’s an absurd grab for our attention that does not ultimately align with our values or with our needs or desires.
Veronica: Yeah. It’s interesting, when you said streak I was like, “Oh I’m familiar with that even though I don’t use WhatsApp very often.” Because of the app Headspace, which you might have heard of. Somebody recently gifted me a free month of Headspace. It’s a meditation app it’s very accessible. But they use the streak idea as well. I recently built up a 14-day streak and that was pretty impressive to me. I was like, “I don’t know if I’ve ever meditated for 14 days straight before.” That would be an example to me of using exactly the same sort of dopamine loops — and little rewards to keep somebody connected to something. Except that this app connects me to a behavior that I want, that I intentionally want to cultivate in my life.
Christina: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Veronica: It’s coming back to a very common sense idea, and that is understand what it is you want for your life.
Christina: Yeah. We need an understanding of what our app wants. In the case of WhatsApp they just want your attention and they are not gifting you … You’re not getting an opportunity to really deepen your life experience. They just want to keep you held in this space. But we need an even deeper understanding of what we want. So, you acknowledging that you want to meditate. You’ve obviously chosen to be in Headspace for a reason. It’s imperative that we understand that the apps goal is not automatically our own personal goal.
And this leads into the wonderful work of Harvard researcher Susan David, who’s the author of Emotional Agility and she talks about social contagion. And this idea … It’s sort of synonymous with behavioral contagion, which is a type of social influence. It’s how when we follow the behavior exhibited by those around use, and just copy them. We think it’s … I keep harping on teenagers, sorry teenagers today, but we see our friends maintaining streaks on WhatsApp. That’s the normal thing to do. I should do it too. We continue in that space and behaving in that particular way. But she says … And adults to this in all types of ways and she’s got fabulous examples in her book. But the powerful idea that I discovered from her is that she says spending even 10 minutes a day asking ourselves, “What do I value.” Is enough to combat social contagion.
Veronica: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Christina: And that’s why articulating our values and our desires … Or like we said before, our wants are essential to flourishing in a digital space, in a digital age. Because we are bringing ourselves and our own desires and our own intentions to each of the apps and platforms that we are adopting.
Veronica: Yeah. It’s so interesting because as I listen to that I’m thinking about something Anil Dash, to quote him again, said about technology. He was saying the behaviors that we see amplified by technology are not new. Cyber bullying, it’s not the first time we’ve seen bullying. It’s just that what happens in his view with technology is the system effect kicks in and it’s multiplied and amplified.
Christina: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Veronica: I’m listening to you and I’m thinking, yeah social contagion. It’s not as though peer pressure for teens is new. Or this idea that “this is what the crowd is doing I want to fit in. I want to do it too.” But the network effect of social media apps does amplify that.
There’s maybe more than ever a need to understand the importance of cultivating a sense self. I’m going to read something from French thinker Julia Kristeva, and she was writing this in the early 90’s and she was talking about mass media. Which was sort of the big phenomena at the time. I remember growing up in the 90’s and everybody being concerned about the effect of mass media on the youth. And globalization, sort of, like the effect it had of just annihilating difference. And she spoke of the need to create what she called an “inner garden.” She says, “Living in a society of spectacle, we heal our wounds with images. The image has an extraordinary power to harness your anxieties and desires…to take on an intensity and suspend their meaning. Those who can or wish to preserve a lifestyle that downplays occulance as well as misery will need to create a space for an inner zone, a secret garden, an intimate corridor, or more simply and ambitiously put, a psychic life.” So by psychic life she’s referring to like a life of the mind or of the soul. At the time she was writing, it wasn’t so much the online culture that was threatening. It was the big media conglomerates who were kind of pushing a globalized consumer set of images
Christina: Mm-hmm (affirmative). It’s such an important idea and practice to create that kind of space. People, myself included, feel like they’re on a hamster wheel. It literally will feel like that. When I’m on Twitter it’s just like: “consume, produce, produce, consume” from the moment we wake up to the moment we go to bed. There’s an increasing longing for people to step off. A lot of what I feel like the conversations I’m having with people increasingly in the work that I’m doing. The problem or the opportunity is for making space for stillness and silence … Making room for the mental real estate for, like you’re doing with Headspace, for connecting to our values and connecting to who we actually are, because we have so many voices telling us who we are or should be all day long.
I think that’s probably the greatest reason why I think people need to take time to unplug from technology, is not because of the lack or the negative impact of technology. It is because of the need for ourselves to be separate. In order to make sense of and articulate what we want and what we value. In order that we can bring ourselves fully back to those spaces. In order to make the decisions that we need to make about the way we spend our time and the platforms we connect with. And connecting to all of the joy and goodness that is truly on the internet.
Veronica: Yeah. I love that you used the word joy. I know it’s in the title of your book, and I know we’ve had some conversations about trying to articulate the difference between joy, human flourishing, and delight in the way that the word delight is used in technology design. And it’s a little bit of an arbitrary separation, I’ll admit, the difference between joy and delight. But the word joy, it feels very fresh. And sometimes language allows us to have fresh ideas around things that can get just cliched.
Christina: Mm-hmm (affirmative). We’ve talked in advance of this conversation about the design principle … Designing for delight, which ultimately is keeping us users delighted just enough, to stay in this space, right? To hold our attention and keep us on platforms for as long as possible.
When I think of the word joy, I feel like it demands something of us. It calls us to engage fully. I’m going to read a tiny quote from Kierkegaard that says, “Joy is the present tense, with the whole emphasis on the present.” Joy is the present tense … And I’m actually getting this quote from a beautiful book of poems called Joy edited by Christian Wiman, and I’d like to also read a little bit of what he writes about joy. He says, “Joy: that durable, inexhaustible, essential, inadequate word. That something in the soul that makes one able to claim again the word ‘soul.’ There is no way to plan for, much less conjure, such an experience. One can only try to make oneself fit to feel the moment when it comes, and let it carry you where it will.”
And I think these emotions, these experiences are difficult to put into words because we are talking about these deeper soulful, soul-connecting experiences, which we all need in our lives in order to sustain us. But they’re difficult to nail down, but I think starting the conversation with making space, or I loved the word that you used a few minutes ago … The word cultivate, cultivating room, cultivating space, for the experiences when they come that we’re … When we’re constantly rushing from one thing to the next, there’s simply no room.
Veronica: Yeah, again, it seems like it’s reclaiming maybe our own pace as well as … There’s a lot around time, as we’re having this conversation I’m realizing. How much time, how you feel moving through time, these sort of experiences of being in time, and I know we’ve talked a little bit about how joy seems to be connected to feeling embodied. Being in our human state, which is not just sort of a brain connected to the internet, but that we have these bodies that are very much tethered to time and tethered to place, and that our tech can help us enjoy the time and the place we’re in or it can sort of make us feel … I think the word I used the other day was disassociated from where we are and the moment that we’re in.
Christina: I think it’s difficult because we’re constantly being pulled into another thing. We open up our laptops or we pull out our smartphones to do a particular task, and within two minutes, we’re on to another task that we did not intend for. This is the universal experience, and that simply doesn’t happen — at least it doesn’t happen nearly as often — when we’re just in the world, walking through the world. It’s not very often that I’m walking down the street to the coffee shop a few blocks into my neighborhood where I get hijacked just sitting on the sidewalk like twiddling my thumbs, like, “Oops, I didn’t mean to do that.” That’s constantly happening.
And so I think the challenge for enjoying joy in this space is exactly what you saying, is because we’re detached from time, because we lose time, often when we’re online. And also that experience of being embodied and really present to what’s happening around us, and I really love this conversation about joy and finding joy in the online space, as well as offline, because to villainize a technology that enables so much, like exactly what we’re doing right now … How could we ever do that? Of course there’s joy to be found here.
We’re using it really intentionally. We’re using it very intentionally right now, and I think that the more we can cultivate spaces online where we are using it the ways that we intend, we are using it in ways that align with our personal values and goals, We’re going to feel better at the end of our days, can I just say that?
That we are going to feel like we completed things, that we got into deep worth, that we’ll feel more satisfied. I feel like I feel more satisfied when I use the web with intention.
Veronica: Yeah. Yeah, I was thinking about the other day, I have a Google Home now in my home that somebody gave to me. And I was listening … I asked to listen to a newscast while I was making lunch, and my Google home played the newscast for me, and then at the end of it said, “That’s all for now.” And turned off. And it was such a strange, sort of startling experience, because I’m accustomed to sort of that “next up” feature that Netflix has or even my podcast player has of just moving right on to the next episode or similar content. And I found it to be quite graceful design to give the user what they asked for, and then give the user a break. And it’s things like that that will probably keep me using my Google Home, because I begin to feel like it’s not intrusive to my life and my home to my own goals with technology, if it’s respecting sort of just what I requested, and nothing beyond that.
Christina: That is incredible design. That is great design, I think. I would just love when I watched Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt tonight, if I could say to Netflix or type into Netflix, I’d like to watch two episodes, please.
Christina: And then, when those two episodes are complete, him or her say, “That’s all for now.” That would just be really nice. I’d love that feature. That’s a great feature.
Veronica: So I was interested at the very beginning of this conversation, you said the first thing that sort of sparked you to explore your relationship with technology was your relationships, and you felt that there were a couple people in your life that you had been close to but with sort of new channels of communication and connection, those people weren’t on those channels, and you weren’t as connected to them as before.
And I don’t know if I often hear people say, “I took an internet or a Facebook break because of my relationships.” I often hear, “Because of my state of mind.”
Christina: Because my head was going to explode, yes.
Veronica: Yeah, exactly, for my own wellbeing. But it sounds like relationship is actually what pushed you there.
Christina: I love this quote from Kim John Payne. That sounds like it’s the leader of Korea, it’s not.
Veronica: Someone else.
Christina: Someone else, who wrote a book called Simplicity Parenting, but he says, “With our time and attention, we give love.” And that’s just true. And if our calendars don’t reflect the time and attention needed to nurture what’s called a warm relationship, deep relationships, then we are going to be lacking for joy, because we have not put in the hard work of nurturing those relationships. We can’t love well in rushing. And we’re rushing. We’re rushing all the time.
Veronica: There is something that Andrew Fung, who’s a service designer at Domain7, articulated really well for me in a piece that he wrote recently, where he outlined that he believes our tech pushes us to skim, to judge, and to react. So again, this idea of, if you have a lack of time, those are the knee-jerk reactions that are useful, sometimes. We need to be able to skim, to judge, and to react, but they’re sort of fight-or-flight responses in my mind, right? They’re the quick emergency response.
And if we’re always in that mode, there’s going to be certain depth missing. And he makes the argument that we need to move from skim to study, from judge to understand, and from react to respond. And when I think about compassion and relationships and connection online, that last one really stands out for me moving from react to respond.
Christina: Mm-hmm (affirmative). I love Andrew’s suggestions. They’re wonderful.
It is so easy to judge. It is so easy to judge and to point a finger. It is so much harder to actually gain an understanding as to this person’s situation and why they acted the way they acted, all of that. And I think that really comes down to what kind of leaders do we want to be? What kind of leaders do we want to be publicly and personally within our organizations and also in the online space. And I think that slowing down and taking the time to really make space for a compassionate response, a thoughtful response, response that chooses compassion and study over reaction, is needed and rich and of great value.
Veronica: Yeah. I read the other day about an organization — I think they’re a tech startup called Boundless Mind. And I think I shared this with you in advance of this conversation. Which is this group of entrepreneurs who have decided to try to use habit loops and neuroscience and the effects of dopamine on our brains for good. So much like Headspace employs the streak idea to keep me doing a good habit. They’re experimenting with using artificial intelligence and sticky design to help enforce good behaviors or what are understood as desirable habits.
And this is a really interesting area to me, Christina, because it feels like yes, this is more what we should be leaning into is using technology’s draw and power for good, for good habits. But I’m still sort of I’m still sort of taken aback by the idea of intentionally using behavioral science — which again is not new to technology. Marketing has been using behavioral science for a while now to make stickier marketing campaigns. But using our neurology, the way that we’re made to even hook us into good habits. I’m wondering if that’s where we want to go or if there’s still something that’s slightly undermining of agency there. And I don’t want to be naïve about the role of technology in our lives and this idea that we’re just going to make it as boring as possible so that everybody really applies their agency.
But is there something a little bit disturbing or concerning about just taking the same techniques and applying them to what are understood as better behaviors?
Christina: You may be familiar with a person names Tristan Harris. He was the design ethicist at Google. Because he created basically a PowerPoint presentation, for lack of a better word, which he shared within Google about the fact that they were not designing ethically and began to advocate for a Hippocratic oath for designers within Google. And this got incredible mindshare within the organization and ended up with him being given this title of design ethicist at Google, probably the first and the last.
And to make a long story short, Tristan ended up leaving Google because he found that in fact he could not design ethically within the organization that at the baseline was designing for all of the reasons that we just discussed. Which for stickiness and for grabbing as much attention as possible using all of those neural tricks. And so, he left to found something that he originally called The Time Well Spent Movement. But has now been rebranded as the Center for Human Technology.
And one of the things that they’re doing is working with big tech who are finally showing up to this conversation to not … the Hippocratic oath has not really got a lot of pick up because that’s just a really complicated approach but you may have noticed or heard that at the most recent Google Developers’ Conference, they were talking about (“drumroll” sound), “the joy of missing out” from the main stage. And wanting to foster more digital wellness within their users. This is the direct impact of people like Tristan and the group that he’s organized around himself.
The shift is happening. It’s becoming … It has to happen, right? I actually love to hear people like Kevin Kelly talk about the internet being in its infancy. That actually makes me just exhale.
Christina: Isn’t it a bit of relief?
Christina: It’s so easy to be in it and think “is this it? Is this the best that we’ve got?” Because it just isn’t. We’re still in it. We’re trying to … Luckily, there’s enough people that are trying to do better. And that shift is happening.
It will probably move further in our direction which we can call a win, but ultimately it comes down to what we were saying at the beginning of the conversation, which is making enough space in our lives to understand and articulate our own values and looking at the online space and seeing where your values line up.
And this is a big piece of the work that I do which is examining different platforms. The platforms, we call them — not the worst offenders. But the places that you spend the most time. We want time well spent. Where are you spending the most amount of your time online? And is it aligning with your values? And when it is, that’s when you get to the end of your day feeling light and like you’ve accomplished things and you’re feeling joy because of the alignment there where we feel dissatisfaction and frustration is when those things are not aligned.
It requires that cultivating quiet and space to know what those are. Then, we can live more humanly. We can flourish in a digital world.
Veronica: I love that. It’s like taking inventory of what matters to you and then taking inventory of where you’re spending your time and making adjustments accordingly.
One of the encouraging trends I’m seeing is the shift to…we call it people-centric. People-centric design. And there’s a burgeoning understanding that if you use people’s attention just for your bottom line, just for your own gain, you might win in the short term. In the long term, you’re going to lose customers. You burn people’s trust and if people begin to feel like you are describing gross at the end of the day because of engaging with your company or your platform, they’re going to start ignoring. They’re going to start tuning out. You’ve seen the rise of ad blockers and platforms that allow for people to block input from certain platforms and certain advertisers. And I think companies are catching on to that slowly.
Christina: Yeah, I think consumption as an end goal for humanity is not exciting or inspiring. I think we find that suspect. That is consumption really all we’re here for? We’re made for more. We’re made for a connection. We’re made for meaningful work. We’re made for joyful, life giving experiences. And I think a thought that really keeps me centered on making great decisions around the way I spend my time is just thinking about the idea that what we feed will grow. That what we feed is going to be the thing that grows.
Christina, thank you so much for your time today and for exploring this topic with me. I feel like there’s just so much that could be explored here and I’m looking forward to seeing how you continue to explore it in your work. And I’m looking forward to bringing a refreshed and thoughtful lens to my own use of tech in my life just from this conversation.
Christina: Thanks so much for having me.
Veronica: Christina, if people are interested in your work and your coaching. I know you go into companies and do a lot of this really good work of assessing where our attention is going and how to experience more joy with our technology. Where can they find you?
Christina: Yeah, I would love if you would come and visit me online at ExperienceJOMO.com. That’s ExperienceJOMO.com.
Veronica: And JOMO is short for …
Christina: The Joy of Missing Out.
Veronica: I love that.
Veronica: And that concludes our episode for today. Thanks for tuning in. I hope you enjoyed today’s conversations and will join us for upcoming episodes as we continue to tackle the complex challenges we face as digital makers and simply as human beings in this technological moment in time.
You can find upcoming episodes at domain7.com/podcast where you can also sign up for our newsletter. You can find us on Medium at The Connection and follow us on Twitter, @Domain7. You can also drop us a line with ideas or feedback. Write me at firstname.lastname@example.org. And if you want to get in touch with my cohost Kevan, that’s email@example.com.
Thanks so much for listening.