Antoine Sakho, a product leader with over ten years of experience shipping award-winning apps to 100+ million users (he was Head of Product at Busuu, which was acquired by Chegg), is currently working with TwoPlus to support Mental Fitness in the DAO ecosystem. He recently joined Crypto, Culture, & Society to deliver a talk on the intersection of Web3 and mental health.
As we become all starry-eyed about the potential of Web3 tech, many of us find ourselves stepping back and asking whether it’s really all it’s hyped up to be.
Are we really better off?
Why bother if our collective well-being is taking a hit?
If the first thing we do in the morning is to check our Discord messages, and we’re not making meaningful steps to reclaim our attention, then are we really a part of a major technological shift? Or is the technological shift shifting us?
In the introduction to Antoine’s talk at CCS, he highlighted why he’s so passionate about this topic. Namely, he experienced burnout as a first-time entrepreneur after too many years of being online and available at all hours of the day. This wakeup call forced him to reflect on what happened, and to find ways to integrate greater self-awareness and self-care into his lifestyle and daily routines.
If something is a tool, it genuinely is just sitting there, waiting, patiently. If something is not a tool, it is demanding things from you… and we’ve moved away from having a tools-based tech environment to an addiction manipulation-based tech environment. Social media isn’t a tool waiting to be used; it has its own goals and its own means of pursuing them by using your psychology against you.”– Tristan Harris
Most Web2 products suffer from adversarial design because their fundamental business model is audience-as-product. This means that these companies’ goals are diametrically opposed to ours. Where they win (i.e. maximizing time on site), we lose (i.e. decreased mental health and overall well-being). With such a gross misalignment of incentives, how can we possibly justify giving up so much of our lives to these platforms?
Web3 offers hope because it gives us the tools to intentionally architect novel incentives. Doing so gives us greater capacity to build tech tools starting from core principles of ethics, connection, and well-being as opposed to maximizing profit for a few shareholders.
Every time they post something on a social media platform: Will you get likes (or hearts or retweets), or will it languish with no feedback? The former creates what one Facebook engineer calls “bright dings of pseudo-pleasure” while the latter feels bad[ly]. Either way, the outcome is hard to predict, which as the psychology of addiction teaches us, makes the whole activity of posting and checking maddeningly appealing. - Adam Alter
The problem with social media is that the best engineers in the world are using leading-edge scientific research on addiction to optimize time on site.
Antoine described a practical scenario using The Hooked Model as a frame.
The trigger that gets us to open the app is a red push notification.
Then as we take the action of opening the app, we receive a reward of seeing all the likes, comments, and engagements on our post.
Which then causes us to invest in the app by replying to comments and interacting with the app, which then leads to more triggers in the future and makes the app as sticky as possible. And so it ever goes.
These product engineers are using tried and tested psychological research, dating back to 1948 when psychologist BF Skinner discovered that intermittent rewards were much more addicting than consistent rewards. This is why technology ethicist Tristan Harris describes our phones as slot machines. We never know when we’re going to be rewarded with a hit of dopamine from our notifications, which causes us to check our phones even more often — and to become even more addicted to them.
In 2020, Jean M. Twenge conducted an eye-opening study on the link between mental health and technology use. She discovered that there was a sharp spike in depression, self-harm, and suicide attempts among teenagers beginning in 2011 (which directly correlates to the rise in smartphone ownership amongst teenage groups). Twenge also discovered that the amount of time in front of a screen was a strong determinant of well-being, where heavy tech users (i.e. over six hours a day) were twice as likely to have low well-being as opposed to light tech users (less than two hours a day).
On top of all of this, tech has downgraded our human capacities in general. We have shorter attention spans, are feeling increasingly isolated as a population, our sensemaking is breaking down and turning into polarized mud-slinging contests, and so much more.
This begs the inquiry, what type of world are we moving towards?
An ideal solarpunk-esque world, or more of a cyberpunk dystopia?
As described by Cal Newport (author and popularizer of the term), Digital Minimalism is:
A philosophy of technology use in which you focus your online time on a small number of carefully selected and optimized activities that strongly support things that you value, and then happily miss out on everything else. The so-called digital minimalists who follow this philosophy constantly perform implicit cost-benefit analyses. If a new technology offers little more than a minor diversion or trivial convenience, the minimalist will ignore it. Even when a new technology promises to support something the minimalist values, it must still pass a stricter test: Is this the best way to use technology to support this value? If the answer is no, the minimalist will set to work trying to optimize the tech, or search out a better option.”
As Antoine shared this quote and the principles of Digital Minimalism with CCS, he then proposed some ideas on how to use tech in more humane ways. His suggestions include:
It’s obvious to us that physical fitness is good for physical health, but what would it look like to begin creating mental fitness regimens to support our mental health?
Zooming out and asking what components make up a functioning DAO operating with maximum well-being, we see that mental health is at the center of everything. Without mental health, everything else suffers.
According to Antoine, mental fitness is composed of two main buckets.
There are two questions we must ask ourselves if we are to create the more Humane DAO world that our hearts know is possible. How do we actually rewire our brain towards more optimal states? And how do we enhance our attention, awareness, and thinking?
This may include:
But it’s up for experimentation. There’s tons of growing room for what better cognitive capabilities training may look like, especially en masse.
How do we process complex inputs, both internally and externally? What does it look like to adequately respond to the intricate signal that is always being relayed to us through our psycho-social-emotional bodies?
Some approaches to this may include:
But all of these suggestions are up for debate as well. Just as we’re breaking into the Web3 world, the world of psycho-social-emotional protocols that enhance well-being and integrate with our digital lives is also ripe for disruption.
It all starts with the individual. We must ask ourselves:
What am I doing on a daily basis that is meaningfully transforming my well-being?
During/after what activities do I flourish most?
We shape our tools, thereafter our tools shape us. — Marshall McLuhan
Ontological design is the design discipline concerned with designing human experience. It does so by operating under one essential assumption: that by designing objects, spaces, tools, and experiences, we are in fact designing the human being itself. - Daniel Fraga
Our environments shape us in profound ways that we’re only beginning to understand. As we process this insight we can become more aware of the magnitude of the task at hand. The technological environments that we create will have effects orders of magnitude higher than we could ever imagine — they will shape the fundamental psychology, emotional landscape, social interactions, and identities of entire generations to come. What could be more meaningful and impactful than that?
Just as the Greeks invented the social technology called democracy and it influences how we organize and go about life in such fundamental ways that we just call it normal, the normal of the future is being architected by the current collective tech revolution and the narratives that we craft around it.
We all know how overwhelming DAOs can be. Just think of the hundreds of Discord channels that are always active on dozens of different servers. As we architect a more ethical and humane future for the world of DAOs, we must begin brainstorming ways to encourage peace and rest in these new organizations.
There are times and places for DAOs to slow down. With the always-on nature of DAO communications, slowing down, taking the weekends off, and perhaps building in time off between seasons will be utterly essential for the full flourishing of the collective.
A lot of Web3 is built on scarcity – think NFTs. When we think of “abundant” in this context, we can apply it to taking the time we need to check in with each other. How can we develop channels, calls, and support networks so that each and every one of us feels comfortable sharing our more vulnerable moods and emotions? How can we hold space for others to do the same?
Bringing in playfulness will balance the over-serious and transactional dynamics of DAO work. Sure we’re all working together, but it’s important to bring in the silly icebreakers, the time to shoot the breeze, and the space to explore our edges.
How can we begin to think about moving beyond Discord DMs and facilitating more face-to-face Zoom calls to bring in the human component? We’re all seeking connection and sometimes the goals of Web3 are being sabotaged by the isolating nature of tech. We must architect human connection into the code of our organizations.
Some ways we can do this include holding more in-person meetups, hosting retreats for the Core DAO Operator team, creating city-based channels for people to find the others near them, hosting sharing circles, scheduling more 1-on-1’s with each other, and finding ways to provide mentorship or peer support. But that’s just the beginning.
DAOs aren’t going away. If we don’t think critically about how we’re building them we may end up right back where we started — overworked, overwhelmed, and out of touch with our humanity.
Let’s build the more beautiful world our hearts know is possible, together.
Crypto, Culture, & Society (CCS) is a learning DAO focused on building liberal arts for crypto. Founded in 2020, CCS has grown into a full-stack educational initiative hosting workshops, electives, and other programming for its members. The CCS community includes technologists, creators, community builders, educators, and lifelong learners. You can keep up with CCS on Twitter, Substack, and via the Society Journal.
Special thanks to Miru for the art and Tasha Kim for the graph design that accompanies this post. And to Tom White for editorial support.