In his initial letter to stockholders in 2012, Mark Zuckerberg said that, "Facebook was not originally created to be a company. It was built to accomplish a social mission -- to make the world more open and connected."
Zuckerberg, like most tech entrepreneurs today, believe in harnessing the power of technology to be a force for good in the world. With the rise of Facebook and social media, we've been granted an unprecedented ability to express our thoughts, ideas and experiences; sharing our words, sounds and images with family, friends and even strangers.
This mission of connecting people together has a massive potential to improve welfare, and that is certainly a noble intent, but it could also come at a cost.
Aside from our collective addiction to our smartphones (studies show we use our iPhones 80 times a day), research shows that as we grow more dependent on technology, our intellect and social skills weaken. In fact, with just the mere presence of our smartphones, our ability to focus on a task and solve problems decreases. According to a UCSD study, the closer our phones are to us, the more our brainpower decreases (also called "brain drain" by the researchers).
As we learn more about the affect that technology has on us, the notion that the connectedness afforded by technology could be more harmful to us than beneficial has stood out. Because most of our time is spent in the digital world (more than half of iPhone owners said that they couldn't imagine life without it), this research poses interesting questions about our future relationship with technology.
Changing the value proposition
Many companies with digital roots today create most of their business value by designing digital experiences that suck us in. While many of them have a genuine interest in improving our lives, the way Zuckerberg once did, their reward is unfortunately tied to how long they can keep our attention.
The good news, however, is that some of today's tech entrepreneurs have found ways to create value by minimizing the time spent interacting with them--companies like Clearcover, which aims to make buying car insurance more seamless.
According to Kyle Nakatsuji, co-founder of Clearcover, the national insurance industry spends $6 billion a year on advertising campaigns and building digital real estate designed to fight for our attention.
Unlike other insurance companies, however, Clearcover's platform connects to a network of digital channels to appear only when you're doing something insurance-related like in the process of buying a car or comparing prices on quotes, rather than nagging you with apps and emails about something you otherwise care very little about.
"If you've gotten an auto loan online, you've already provided a lot of information that's pertinent to car insurance as well," said Nakatsuji. "We take that information, run it through our algorithms and dynamically generate an acquisition experience that has all the information we know and highlights the fields we still need."
In that regard, the company uses technology to understand context; leveraging your data to know when to stay out of your way when you're not thinking about insurance. By cutting out the operational costs, the benefits to us are more than just cheaper car insurance, it's liberation from the shiny new apps and websites other insurance companies create to pull us in.
While Clearcover's vision and mission isn't necessarily tied to reducing our dependency on our devices, it is certainly evidence that technology companies can achieve success by doing so; without a stronghold on our eyes and thumbs.
Sustainable business = protecting our minds
Of course, we've already seen how sustainable and responsible practice has impacted a company's bottom line: with the growing trend of corporate social responsibility, consumers have demonstrated their power to get businesses to be environmentally and socially friendly by endorsing those that are and boycotting those that aren't. In addition to protecting the environment, and protecting our social and civil rights, why can't sustainable business also include protecting our minds?
As the research continues to shine a light on the negative impact of technology on our lives, perhaps the future generation of tech entrepreneurs (or the next wave of Zuckerbergs) will have their success tied to our mental well-being, not just our attention. Eventually, before you know it, you'll be asking to speak to the manager for a refund on your time and attention.