Technology is a beautiful thing. For the past twenty-five years I’ve been striving to make tech work for us, because that’s the way it should be. Tech should free up more of our time, and give us more agency over our lives. Most of all it should be cool. I would never suggest that someone stop using a tool that meets the above criteria, but I think we can all agree that in the past decade social media has fallen short of all three.
By social media I mostly mean “Goobook,” though other apps like Twitter and Reddit can serve up their own versions of hell. I admired (but did not use) the original Instagram before it was more tightly integrated into its parent company’s advertising machine. I don’t know much about the other apps. I just say Goobook for short because it sounds funny and makes me smile.
In the big picture Goobook is probably in some rough period of early evolution, just as the mid-nineteenth century industrial revolution had its share of inhumane bumps in the road. One day the current tech will lead to something that serves us instead of the other way around. But to get there, I believe the ad-based model must go.
Time Is a Non-Renewable Resource
The most basic reason I don’t use Goobook or any of the other apps is because there are an infinite number of better things I’d rather do with my limited time on this earth. For example, nothing. Most people probably don’t remember, but doing nothing can be pretty cool. Some call it meditation. It works wonders for mental health.
In an ad-based business model social media uses machine intelligence and slot machine psychology to get us hooked. Like casinos, it wants the maximum amount of our time. It could care less about our mental health.
Netflix, as an example of the paid model, has some binge-worthy content, but it doesn’t care how much I watch as long as I pay my eight bucks per month. I’m happy to pay it for the value it provides.
Tricking someone to give up their time is not cool, considering it’s the only resource we can’t get back. In Michael Ende’s classic book “Momo,” a homeless girl with special talents fights back against time thieves, the sinister “men in grey”. Written in the Mad Men era, it’s a critique of consumerism and stress, but it might as well be about what’s happening today – except one hundred fold.
Please Take My Money Instead
Goobook has bragged to its customers (its customers are advertisers, grandpa) that it can make an active user feel any emotion and she won’t know why. We like to think we’re rational beings, but emotions rule the world. Emotions are also how advertisers sell things, and negative emotions work best. Nobody buys stuff they don’t need because they’re happy and self-assured. Positivity is the arch enemy of advertising, and Goobook is the most powerful ad platform ever unleashed on the world.
How does this digital trickery work? From a tech point of view it’s fascinating stuff. From a human point of view, not so much. Machine intelligence records micro movements and reactions of individual users over time. The machine cultivates a behavioral profile, until it knows exactly which of our emotional buttons to push. Tristan Harris, former design ethicist at Goobook, has some truly eye-popping examples of how “technology hijacks our psychological vulnerabilities”. Fortunately for us Tristan is now co-founder of The Center for Humane Technology, and spokesperson for the Time Well Spent movement, making him one of the most awesome human beings on Earth.
Goobook also likes to brag that their so-called services will always be “free”. Any complete, truthful disclosure of true intent would be hilarious. Imagine if new users saw this upon signing up:
“We’re not going to lie to you. We employ an army of psychologists and engineers who design revolutionary technology whose sole purpose is to get you addicted to our app. Given enough time, they will succeed. But don’t worry, we’ll never charge you a cent!”
Well I should fucking hope not. In fact I’m thinking Goobook should pay me and everyone else for being lab rats in this uncontrolled psychological experiment they’re performing on the entire world. Let’s take a quick look at the results so far. Since Goobook really took off ten years ago we’ve seen an astonishing rise in uncool.
Cavalier attitudes toward privacy led to the undermining of democracy (Cambridge Analytica, Brexit, the breakup of the European Union, and the rise of nationalism everywhere).
Journalism got monopolized. (All journalists are now “sharecroppers on the Facebook farm,” according to WIRED magazine), subject to censorship based on whatever its users want to see, and thanks to its negative feedback loop this means Disaster, Tragedy and Politics (which, let’s face it, is all the same category these days).
This has led to general grumpiness and negativity despite the fact that nearly every quality of life statistic has improved over the past forty years. The preceding statement is factual, but just the fact that we doubt it for a second is proof that the concept of truth has also taken a hit.
Binary “thumbs up / thumbs down” thinking has polarized society and has disabled our ability to think deeply about complex and nuanced issues – at a time when we need this ability the most.
There’s also a lot of growing interest and debate over the possible role of Goobook in the uptick of U.S. opioid use and suicide rates in the past decade, especially among teens. I was skeptical when I first saw an article on this topic, as I thought it could be that instead of Goobook causing depression, depressed people were drawn to Goobook. And Goobook-bashing had become so trendy that I wanted to keep an open mind. At first the accusation reminded me of my teenage years growing up in the U.S. Bible Belt, when there was a lot of hysteria over the supposed evils of Dungeons & Dragons and heavy metal. (I was a big fan of both, by the way, and look how well I turned out!) But now, compared to apps whose stated business intent is to systematically and subliminally manipulate the thoughts and emotions of billions of people using AI-driven addiction techniques, music and role playing games seem absurdly tame. Considering social media is most effective (for its customers) when its users are isolated and bummed out – and these happen to be the exact conditions under which drug addiction and suicide happen – it wouldn’t surprise me if there was a link.
The New Normal
Somehow we’ve accepted all this as totally normal, when just a few decades ago it would’ve seemed like dystopia on high. In 1984 I was in junior high school, and appropriately enough George Orwell’s famous book was required reading that year. Imagine going back to the 80’s and explaining to me that thirty-five years in the future there would be a system used by everyone, whose stated purpose was to addict people, and to tweak their emotions over time.
My teenage eyes would go wide. “Dude… The Ministry of Truth actually exists in the future? The government has taken control?”
His naiveté stuns me for a second but then I laugh, thinking of the recent congressional hearings with Goobook. “No, in the future the government is dumber and weaker than ever. Tech moves fast. Government is too slow.”
He’s confused for a moment but then recovers. “So it’s like Tyrell Corporation in the movie Blade Runner?”
“Ah, good reference. Something like that. Except the tech we have in 2019 is much less cool. That, and the big tech companies of the future all have headquarters in beautiful, cheery places, where all the employees believe they’re making the world a better place.”
“Why would they believe that?”
I ponder this for a moment, thinking of something that would make sense to him. “You know all those people in your school who think pep rallies are awesome?”
The teenage me nods knowingly, but then shakes his head in dismay. “How did all this happen?”
“It happened over a long time. People just went along for the ride and then they were hooked. Remember those freaky propaganda films on drug addiction they made you watch in class last year? It turns out there’s a science to addiction, and the people who implemented Goobook have got it all figured out. Like any addiction, it starts as a fun escape.”
“I’d never fall for that shit.”
“Don’t worry, you won’t. But everyone else will, so it doesn’t matter. It becomes the new normal, and that’s how the world around you will change.”
“Can anything be done?”
“Yes. Fortunately there are ways out.”
I mentioned Tristan Harris, who at the moment would get my vote for one of the most awesome guys on Earth. There are others, though. There’s a rising wave of smart thinkers fighting this thing like Momo fighting the men in grey. One way out seems to be paid prescription, because then the app would be serving us instead of us serving the machine. Goobook wouldn’t make as much money, at least not at first. But the paid model is sustainable and better for everyone in the long run. It’s a little like the early industrial days when companies went unchecked and polluted the environment in their quest to maximize profit at all cost. Goobook is doing the same thing now, except they’re polluting our hearts and minds. We need more awareness on this issue to get it cleaned up. I’ll do my part. Other champions of this effort are Roger McNamee (ZUCKED), Douglas Rushkoff (TEAM HUMAN), and Jaron Lanier. For the sake of more humane tech and a cooler future, I wish us all the best of luck.