Our favorite social disease
Get off the grid: The Social Dilemma argues that social media controls us more than we even suspect.
Our favorite social disease
THE X-PAT FILES - Scott Garceau (The Philippine Star) - September 20, 2020 - 12:00am

Ever feel like you’re part of a matrix, driven to do things every waking moment by your cellphone?

Well, you are! And if you need convincing, Netflix’s The Social Dilemma offers scary proof.

This little docudrama — mixing interviews and dramatizations — just might scare you into unplugging your phone and dropping off the grid altogether. It was one of the hottest watches in the Philippines this past week — ironically leading some, reportedly, to cancel their subscriptions after watching it.

When even Kim Kardashian-West, the doyenne of the selfie lifestyle, cancels her Instagram and Facebook accounts over “hate speech,” you know something’s up with social media.

In The Social Dilemma, we hear from half a dozen Silicon Valley types who have grown disenchanted with all the apps and features they helped design over the years for Google, Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat, Reddit and the like. “I was the co-creator of the Facebook Like button,” confesses one, sounding like he’s in a witness protection program, “and I’m very concerned.” These design features are so insanely addictive, their designers hesitate to let their own children use them on social media. That alone should raise all kinds of red flags.

Built into all these apps are sneaky little tricks to get you checking your phone constantly for notifications and likes — algorithms that constantly monitor and model your responses and online activity until they’ve designed a virtual avatar of you (yes, you!) so they can figure out how to keep you clicking and clicking and clicking.

Tristan Harris, former design ethicist for Google, now co-founder of the Center for Humane Technology, comes on with the most moral hand-wringing: “Is this normal? Or have we all fallen under some kind of spell?” he kept asking himself while developing features for Gmail. “Is there no one in the industry trying to make this less addictive?” (This guy’s really old school; he actually finds email addictive, for crying out loud).

Oh, sure, the interviewees point to some positive effects of social media — helping bridge family members, helping medical patients find organ donors, etc. But now they seem basically freaked out by how their popular features have led to a self-gratifying feedback loop, fed by clicks, likes and push notifications.

Push notifications are those annoying pop-ups that you allow your phone to send you on the regular: little news niblets to keep you engaged in “what’s going on in the world,” but actually carefully tailored to your viewing history, your preferences and buying choices, even your political leanings.

Then there are the notifications telling you that somebody “liked” something you posted. That has, effectively, the same effect on the brain as crack cocaine, triggering dopamine receptors to want more, more, MORE!

According to Harris, because of the design choices made by some 50 designers — most of them 20- to 35-year-old white guys from California — “some two billion people worldwide now have thoughts they didn’t intend to have because Google designed notifications to make them wake up feeling that way.”

Apparently these Silicon Valley guys studied something called “Persuasive Technology” at places like Stanford. They basically learned how to alter people’s behavior using psychological triggers that deliver non-stop incentives to keep clicking, over and over again. (Harris likens it to magicians who perform tricks that we sit watching in amazement, because our brains don’t understand how we’re being manipulated.)

That compulsive, addictive behavior would be bad enough. But The Social Dilemma shows how such manipulation is actually the only product that social media delivers. Our nonstop demand is the end product. The demand leads us to spend more precious time online, clicking on sites and ordering stuff. We drive the economy with invented wants and manipulated impulses — or rather, we line the pockets of corporations that rely on social media technology to jack up our desires, and our spending. As Dr. Shoshana Zuboff, author of Surveillance Capitalism, puts it: “We now have a marketplace that trades exclusively in human futures — just like pork bellies, or oil. And we are those futures.” Yup: our marketable hides “have earned those internet giants trillions of dollars, making them the richest companies in human history.”

So we have become, in a very real sense, the batteries in The Matrix.

I used to think of algorithms as simple coding formulas, constantly updated or rewritten by humans. It’s more insidious than that. Enormous links of algorithms in huge data-collecting computers are self-evolving, improving as they gather more info on us, mapping out virtual simulations through our search histories and selections online. The next scary, logical step? They become smart enough to push those choices. How many times have you seen ads pop up for some item you searched for in a totally unrelated website, days ago? Did you wonder how? Those algorithms are now all communicating about us across various platforms, trading notes behind the scenes.

(This is a bit unnecessarily dramatized in The Social Dilemma by actors playing a family gradually being torn apart by social media, and actors “playing” the linked algorithms, predicting a teen’s social life, and radicalizing his politics by “suggesting” amped-up blog rants for him to watch. Honestly, it’s scary enough without the bogus reenactments.)

Another negative effect of social media is a huge spike in teenage depression and suicide, which The Social Dilemma argues is caused by online comparisons with models in filtered photos, leading to warped self-perception among teens. But it overlooks other depressing factors, like the COVID crisis itself, economic factors, and other media out there.

The bigger reveal here is that not just purchasing choices, but political choices can be predicted and manipulated by social media. That’s because these algorithms tap into our online patterns to decide which topics will pop up in a specific region’s Google searches or personal YouTube feeds. It’s all catered to your worldview, so no wonder we all live in self-sealed political bubbles!

Viewing recommendations tend to lead you down “rabbit holes” of information, insulating you from other, contradictory opinions. It’s the kind of thing that led NBA star Kyrie Irving to insist that the earth is flat — because he saw it on YouTube.

The increased political polarization that results is by no means accidental; it’s a design feature. “From the point of view of watch time,” says former YouTube engineer Guillaume Chaslot with a note of despair, “this polarization is extremely efficient at keeping people online.”

If that isn’t enough to make you throw your phone under a speeding MRT or EDSA bus, consider the last presidential race here in 2014, fed by Facebook info wars; or the US election of 2016, fueled by Russian disinformation troll farms. “If you are a political leader who wants to control your population,” notes one gloomy analyst, “there has never been a more effective tool than Facebook.” One example is Myanmar, in which the military and other bad actors used the highly popular app to manipulate public opinion against Rohingya Muslims, leading to mass killings, rapes, and a huge refugee crisis. Expect more to come, as tech companies such as Facebook continue to resist conducting any personal moral inventory.

The big picture of The Social Dilemma is chilling, and hard to shake: those who watched The Matrix may have laughed about humans being reduced to Duracells, feeding an A.I. alien takeover. Well, in a real sense, social media has made us an energy source: our clicks, our purchases, our likes and relentless engagement directly fuel endless layers of capitalism — from the stuff pushed on Instagram, to the pop-up ads on our Facebook threads, to the political jargon we gravitate towards.

We are the batteries driving this digital matrix. And it’s very, very real.

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