Hacking Problems, Not Minds

February 20, 2018

You probably shouldn’t be reading this article. Chances are there is a friend you haven’t seen in a while you would enjoy meeting for lunch. You could clear your head with a hike in the greenbelt. Or you could go to the Continental Club and be yet again surprised at how many good bands there are in Austin you’ve still never heard of.

But now that you’ve kindly given us your attention, we’d like to make it worth your while. And maybe see if we can make you even just a little bit happier for your effort.

The evil in our pocket

In a recent article, “How Evil is Tech?”, David Brooks, New York Times columnist and author poses what may be one of the central questions of our time: Is tech making us happy?[1] He highlights in particular the ways in which tech companies use “hijacking techniques” to get us addicted to online activities which can undermine our happiness: Netflix pushes us on to the next movie or episode.

                Snapchat rewards friends who snap each other daily. Social media sites create irregularly timed rewards so we check our phones for some burst of social affirmation. 

The evidence against the tech industry in this respect appears damning. Passive users of Facebook have demonstrated dramatic declines in well-being over time.[2] Since the advent of the smart phone, teens spend much less time working, dating, and hanging out with friends. Eighth graders who spend 10 or more hours a week on social media are 56 percent more likely to say they are unhappy than those who don’t.[3]

Rather than freeing us up to do the things that bring us happiness and fulfillment, tech has in many instances become ruthlessly efficient at robbing us of our scarcest resource: attention.

That’s right, attention. Not money, you say? At least not in relatively affluent areas like Austin or other large urban areas. Once basic needs are met, the effects of money on our well-being rapidly taper off. This can be described in terms of a “hedonic treadmill” in which the more big-ticket consumer items one has the more one wants. And the more possessions we own, the more these things begin to own us.[4] Our possessions require more of our finite attention which then can’t be spent on the things which actually bring us happiness.

Please, don’t give us your attention

So then, how can technology help us to focus our finite attention on those things that will make us happy? David Brooks offers us his take: “Imagine if instead of claiming to offer us the best things in life, tech merely saw itself as providing efficiency devices. Its innovations can save us time on lower-level tasks so we can get offline and there experience the best things in life”[5]

And here is where we can see the magic. From the relatively effortless electronic filing of taxes to never having to walk across the soul-deadening expanse of a mall parking lot, we have already seen some of the true potential of technology to improve human lives. The best technology companies and applications make extremely efficient use of our time and graciously let us focus our attention elsewhere.

It is on this that our company PreFix has relentlessly focused since our inception. Homes are the largest possession most of us own. Our singular goal is to free our customers from the demands of maintaining them so they can spend more time on the things they value. Everything we do is built around this.

We don’t make customers fuss around with apps or hardware – all our technology is behind the scenes. They text, call or email us as they would a friend or helpful neighbor. We believe in the power of human relationships – all our homeowners have a dedicated home manager that lives in their community. Our model is built around trust and full transparency. If our customers trust us then they can spend their time on other things.

But enough about us. If technology can meet its true potential and give us our attention back, then what should we do with it?

Shared Experience

Thomas Gilovich, a psychology professor at Cornell conducted a 20 year study on how people allocate their money to make themselves happier. “Our experiences are a bigger part of ourselves than our material goods,” says Gilovich. “You can really like your material stuff. You can even think that part of your identity is connected to those things, but nonetheless they remain separate from you. In contrast, your experiences really are part of you. We are the sum total of our experiences.”[6]

And by experiences, Gilovich is not referring to social media-ready moments that invite and promote comparison. Rather, he is referring to those things that make us grow and develop as individuals like learning a new skill, traveling, seeing a concert or art exhibit or doing outdoor activities. They are active experiences which require our attention.

Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in his book Flow sums up how important attention is in crafting meaningful lives. “Each person allocates his or her limited attention either by focusing it intentionally like a beam of energy… or by diffusing it in desultory, random movements. The shape and content of life depend on how attention has been used. Entirely different realities will emerge depending on how it is invested.” [7]

At PreFix, everything we do is to help our members focus less on the things they own and more on the experiences that will make them happier. We have hacked your home to free your mind for the things that matter. This is what technology should do.

In the months ahead, we will share some of our collective experience to show you how to spend even less time thinking about your home and possessions. We will also share some of those experiences in our community that you may not have yet come across but we think you may find particularly meaningful. And we may offer just a little bit of commentary on how technology can truly make our lives better.

As with everything we do, we’re grateful for your attention. We promise to make good use of it.

[1] David Brooks. “How Evil is Tech?” New York Times. Nov. 20, 2017.

[2] Verduyn, P., Lee, D. S., Park, J., Shablack, H., et al. (2015). Passive Facebook usage undermines affective well-being: Experimental and longitudinal evidence. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 144(2), 480-488.

[3] Jean W. Twenge. “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?” The Atlantic. September, 2017.

[4] Arthur Brooks. Gross National Happiness: Why Happiness Matters for American and How Can Get More of It. (New York: Basic Books, 2008).

[5] David Brooks. “How Evil is Tech?” New York Times. Nov. 20, 2017.

[6] John Rampton. “7 Reasons Why Spending Money on Experiences Makes Us Happier Than Buying Stuff.” Entrepreneur. May 15, 2017.

[7] Miihalyi Csiksentmihalyi. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. (New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2008).

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