Does it seem to you that politics has gone crazy? Why must people be bombarded with bizarre psychological warfare messaging before elections or after school shootings? Does it seem to you that a few giant companies are getting between you and your friends, or you and your family members? Why must everyone be subjected to behavior modification methods and addictive designs just because they want to look at photos of their friends and families? Why must you be treated like a second-class citizen, who has no privacy, while some of the biggest fortunes in history are collected by very private billionaires who make their money from your data? The reason is that the internet was accidentally designed to support them instead of you. That was a big mistake that must be corrected.
So, what can you do? Don’t be part of the problem. If you are lucky enough to be able to do it, then delete your social media accounts right now! If you want to tell your friends why you are doing this, here are a few helpful arguments:
You are losing your free will.
There was a time when you had to be in a specialized - and unfortunate – position to be subjected to sneaky behavior modification. It might have happened in an interrogation room, in a cult, in an abusive relationship, or at best if you had volunteered to be a subject in an experiment behind one-way glass in the basement of the psychology building on a college campus.
Now it’s done all the time by your smartphone, your smart speaker, or some other device marketed as being “smart.” Indeed, what’s called Artificial Intelligence is mostly being applied, thus far, to manipulating people.
A vast amount of data is collected about you, moment to moment, including your facial expressions, the way your body moves, who you know, what you read, where you goes, what you eat, and your likely susceptibility to assorted attempts at persuasion. This data is then used by algorithms to create feeds of stimuli – both paid ads and unpaid posts – that are designed to boost your “engagement” and increase the effectiveness of “advertisements.” (The honest terms would be “addiction” and “behavior modification stimuli.” Indeed, Facebook executives have written that they deliberately incorporated addictive techniques into their service.)
Advertising was previously a mostly one-way street; the advertiser sent forth the ad and hoped for the best. But now you are closely monitored to measure the effect of what is called an ad so that a personalized stream of a stimuli can be incrementally adjusted until the person’s behavior is finally altered. Most of you are now living in automated virtual Skinner Boxes.
Social media is making you into an ***hole
It’s at least conceivable that a society could survive even as reality-based commerce and politics are gradually supplanted by a race to see who is best at sneakily tricking everyone else, but we aren’t even fortunate enough to live in such a society. Our present scheme of mass manipulation has a built-in bias towards negativity that will destroy us if we don’t dismantle it.
In old-time behavior modification experiments, a subject might have been given positive or negative stimuli in the form of candy and electric shocks.
On social media, positive stimuli conveyed might include being retweeted, friended, or made momentarily viral. Negative stimuli include the familiar occurrences of being made to feel unappreciated, unnoticed, or ridiculed. Unfortunately, positive and negative online stimuli are pitted against each other in an unfair fight.
Positive and negative emotions have comparable ultimate power over us, but they exhibit crucially different timing. Positive emotions typically take longer to build and can be lost quickly, while negative ones can come on faster and dissipate more slowly. It takes longer to build trust than to lose it. One can become scared or angry quickly, but it takes longer for the feelings to fade.
Those who use social media to exert influence – whether human or algorithm - are a little like high frequency traders, constantly watching results and adjusting. The feedback loop is tight and fast.
The sour and lousy consequence, which no one foresaw, is that the negative emotions are the most often emphasized, because positive ones take too long to show up in the feedback loop that influences how paying customers and dark actors use these services to manipulate ordinary users and society.
Social media is making politics impossible.
Social media can be used to destabilize a region or a country, but it can’t at present be used to strengthen a democracy. Recent examples, such as Russian information warfare aimed at destabilizing Crimea, support that thesis. The present-day online experience is biased to elevate paranoia, xenophobia, and the most irritable voices. Social media enabled the Arab Spring but was even more effective for ISIS. It propelled Black Lives Matter but was even more effective for a resurgent Klan/neofascist movement.
Quitting social media is the most finely targeted way to resist the insanity of our times.
Our strange situation was not conceived as an evil plot; it is a giant and tragic example of nasty unintended consequences resulting from good intentions. Originally, the idea was to reconcile the desire of tech culture to make everything free with our worship of hero entrepreneurs like Steve Jobs. The advertising business model was the only way to have it both ways. But Moore’s Law, which dictates that computers keep on getting faster and cheaper, caused advertising to turn into behavior modification.
The companies running the biggest behavior mod operations are taking steps to curb the worst actors who have been taking advantage of their power. Facebook, Google, and other companies are trying to suppress foreign information warfare units, criminal gangs, hate groups, and so on, and they should be applauded for that. But overall, the effect is like what happened during alcohol prohibition. The companies are breeding ever more effective and ugly shadow organizations – a criminal underground - that casts a shadow over the world through armies of fake people and other sneaky schemes.
We cannot improve the system without changing the business model entirely. It might sound radical or bizarre to suggest that we should pay for services like Google or Facebook, or that someone with a popular post should be paid for it, but it is a perfectly natural idea.
Look what happened in the television world: services like Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu, and HBO explored a direct paid model that had not been available before the internet. What happened? The paid model not only worked; it fostered what is often called "Peak TV."
A similar transformation must occur around services like social media and search, or any service where what is called artificial intelligence is now being deployed to manipulate people. The user must become the customer. We will then enjoy “peak social media” and “peak search”; There will still be bad actors in a more sensible digital world, but they won’t have a red carpet rolled out for them. We cannot survive if our newly digital civilization continues to be based on the premise that whenever two people wish to have contact, that can only be financed by third parties who wish to manipulate them.
Adapted from TEN ARGUMENTS FOR DELETING YOUR SOCIAL MEDIA ACCOUNTS RIGHT NOW by Jaron Lanier, published by Henry Holt and Company. Copyright © 2018 by Jaron Lanier. All rights reserved.
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