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© Robert Sommers 2018

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Welcome to the machine

This week ex Facebook honcho Chamath Palihapitiya was the latest cybermogul to sound the clarion call about the potential darker side of social media.

He said that social media is “eroding the core foundations of how people behave” and that he feels “tremendous guilt” about creating tools that are “ripping apart the social fabric.”

Oh, and by the way you are being programmed.

“You don’t realize it, but you are being programmed … but now you got to decide how much you’re willing to give up, how much of your intellectual independence,” he warned the audience. He said he didn’t want to be programmed himself, emphasizing he “doesn’t use this shit” and his kids are not allowed to use “this shit” either—also recommending that everyone take a “hard break” from social media.
“The things that you rely on, the short-term dopamine-driven feedback loops that we have created, are destroying how society works: no civil discourse, no cooperation, misinformation, mistruth,” he said. 
This follows a recent similar warning by Sean Parker, Facebook's founding President.
"I don't know if I really understood the consequences of what I was saying, because [of] the unintended consequences of a network when it grows to a billion or 2 billion people and ... it literally changes your relationship with society, with each other ... It probably interferes with productivity in weird ways. God only knows what it's doing to our children's brains."
"The thought process that went into building these applications, Facebook being the first of them, ... was all about: 'How do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible?'"
"And that means that we need to sort of give you a little dopamine hit every once in a while, because someone liked or commented on a photo or a post or whatever. And that's going to get you to contribute more content, and that's going to get you ... more likes and comments."
"It's a social-validation feedback loop ... exactly the kind of thing that a hacker like myself would come up with, because you're exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology."
"The inventors, creators — it's me, it's Mark [Zuckerberg], it's Kevin Systrom on Instagram, it's all of these people — understood this consciously. And we did it anyway."
I wrote about dopamine feedback loops very recently and actually also mentioned the pernicious little buggers several years ago when we were talking about game design, complulsion loops and intermittent rewards.

I will try and keep this short. We are being reprogrammed by the machinery and it is not just in the arena of social media. We are changing our patterns of behavior, often solely for the benefit of the machine. Walk past or linger too hard in the doorway of a restaurant or establishment and you will be instantly asked by your phone to submit a critique to so and so evaluating your experience. For the good of the team. Do you ever find yourself online reviewing out of some misdirected sense of guilt?

Text somebody and watch your phone suggest specific language in which you might respond to the person you are communicating with. And sometimes you take the bait because it is so much easier than using your own brain. Have you ever found yourself altering sentence structure for brevity because of a Google or Siri suggestion? Do you think it is okay or appropriate to have an artificial intelligence modify your speech or communication patterns? Or expect continual feedback?

Doesn't it seem weird when your Calendar or Linked In asks you to send birthday greetings to a person you have absolutely no personal relationship with? When the machine starts coercing you into unsought or requested relationships?

Mention a far off land in an email or god forbid, phone conversation with a friend and watch as you suddenly get flooded online with travel brochures and hotel deals from the remote archipelago. Because the pipeline operators know everything about you, when, why, who with and how often? Your life is being strained, digital bit by bit. What are the great benefits of this enormous privacy intrusion again? So corporations can sell you stuff? 

I can't leave my office without getting a prompt from Google Maps telling me exactly how far it is to my home doorstep. Thirty eight years, I know. Thanks.

Exactly who needs this shit?

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We live in a society in which spurious realities are manufactured by the media, by governments, by big corporations, by religious groups, political groups. I ask, in my writing, 'What is real?' Because unceasingly we are bombarded with pseudo realities manufactured by very sophisticated people using very sophisticated electronic mechanisms.
Philip K. Dick
I don't Facebook or Tweet but I am one of the last remaining dinosaurs still actively blogging. How quaint. I put a lot of photography on Google +. My dopamine drive is probably coursing stronger than most of my peers. I am plainly a whore for hits. Look at my pictures, listen to my music, read my crap.

As any lonely artist will tell you, there is nothing like an audience. Hits and likes are like a drug. Digital heroin. But who says that any of my happy accomplices are actually qualified to critique? How many social media contacts do you ever really get to know, at least in the old sense of the word?

Why am I investing so much time sharing with these people? Is cyber popularity a vacuous charade, does it have a larger utility that I am somehow missing, beyond sheer numbers, the 20 million people that Google says I have interacted with, on some tertiary level, before they pulled the plug on the metric anyway? Is this really the proper forum to get personal affirmation and validation?

Plato and Socrates came up with a term called Thumos or Thymos. Google it. It really has no exact translation in English but is roughly akin to "Spiritedness." It signifies human passion. It is also attributed in the study of human psychology to the human need for recognition. Thumos was one of the twin horses, along with Eros, that drives the chariot of the human psyche around. And Fukuyama coined a term for thymos at its worst, Megalothymia. As in, "stoopid" and excessive need for recognition.

With the immense universe of available social media, shouldn't we consider the downside of these exhaustive feedback loops? Is the Cyberworld taking over your tangible universe, your relations with real flesh and blood?

We need to be careful, be ready to jettison the new toolset before it totally rewires our own limbic systems.


I was listening to some programmers talk the other day and the subject of free sites and content came up. And one of the talking heads mentioned an axiom that was so profound and accurate. If it (the content) is free, than it is invariably the end-user (you) that is actually being sold.

8 comments:

Anonymous said...

I'm sure that I'm not qualified to say this, but that was a great blog post.

shawnintland said...

+++++
Agreed!

Bengt Erik Eriksson said...

Agreed!

Bengt Erik Eriksson said...

A right on the spot post!

island guy said...

I don’t Facebook or Tweet either, but certainly get sucked into the internet way too much. Gardening and soil building keep calling to me, maybe it is a survival instinct. Luckily, my professional activities are very removed from anything resembling what you descibe so well. I also turn off location/hectoring/tracking parts of my phone platform as much I can - and turn them off again after every update and reboot.

Blue Heron said...

Thanks everybody. Bengt, it is such a pleasure to see your comment. You are the exception to my rant, a kindred cyber friend and great artist that I truly admire even though we are a world apart.

Blue Heron said...

I am with you Island Guy, admire your tenacity.

Anonymous said...

Forget to sign it. Max