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Silicon Valley Blues

In giving more time and attention to bad things online, we attract algorithms which make us depressed and insecure. In thinking the rewards of social media outweigh the costs, we gamble this isn’t true.

Jaron Lanier, pioneer in the field of Virtual Reality, tech philosopher and scientist at Microsoft Research has undergone a conversion. Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now (Penguin, 2018) is characteristically pithy and makes uncomfortable reading.


He is quick to say every person must decide for themselves how they engage with social media, if at all. Lanier is a liberal, and it shows: there is no sense that people should be coerced into giving up social media or made to feel bad for continuing. He is realistic enough to know that most will carry on, but if it lay in his power, he would deconstruct the whole model to destroy the pernicious and barely understood power of algorithmic advertising. He calls this edifice BUMMER: Behaviours of Users Modified and Made into an Empire for Rent.


Most of us know that what we do on social media is being used and sold on by the platform to advertisers and others who wish to change our behaviour. The reach and influence of Russian troll farms are only part of the problem. Adaptive algorithms which make incremental changes to themselves to get more profitable results for advertisers are changing us and hooking us. And we don’t know it.


As Lanier says:


When an algorithm is feeding experiences to a person, it turns out that the randomness that lubricates algorithmic adaptation can also feed human addiction. The algorithm is trying to capture the perfect parameters for manipulating a brain, while the brain, in order to seek out deeper meaning, is changing in response to the algorithm’s experiments; it’s a cat and mouse game based on pure math. Because the stimuli from the algorithm don’t mean anything, because they genuinely are random, the brain isn’t adapting to anything real, but to a fiction. The process – of becoming hooked on an elusive mirage – is addiction. As the algorithm tries to escape a rut, the human mind becomes stuck in one.


Confused, kind of? Me too. And there lies the problem. We are dimly aware that stuff is going on behind the scenes as we talk to one another but are so far behind the curve of understanding that we could remain forever so. For societies which laud the value of free speech and minimal interference from the State into matters of personal liberty, we have unwittingly allowed life-modifying surveillance by tech companies that the East German Stasi would have swooned over. And as we reflect on this, it still doesn’t make much difference to our behaviour either because we think the rewards outweigh the costs or because we believe we are impervious to manipulation. But what if they don’t and we aren’t?


A strong body of academic shows that in a contest between positive and negative feedback, the latter wins out in its depth and endurance. Fear and anger rise quickly within us and take longer to dissipate. If someone says something nice to us, the feeling evaporates much quicker than when they criticise or attack us. We give bad emotion miles of air space in our brains. As someone said: an encouraging word is like Teflon; it just won’t stick. A spiteful comment is like Velcro; we can’t prise it off.


In giving more attention to bad things online, we attract the algorithms which attach to us and accentuate the problem by stoking more stuff to depress us, make us insecure and divide us more sharply from those who think differently to us.


This is only one point that Lanier makes in a thesis that takes in the undermining of truth and politics in social media, the erosion of empathy, the loss of economic dignity. He finishes with its latent attack on the soul.


His book is an entertaining read, and not simply a jeremiad, because of the demotic and trenchant way he says good and compassionate things, unlike many of the populists at work today.


Will it change the world? Probably not. But there are signs a backlash has begun against the tech companies which for two decades have somehow been seen as a different kind of business - hip, young, cool, value-driven – when they are ruthlessly governed by the profit motive too. Why we thought otherwise is a mystery. This would matter much less were the grip of Silicon Valley on how we live and form relationships and communities only as strong as traditional industries have been in the past. But it is proving vast, year on year.


In Philippians 4, St Paul says:


Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.


We should wish one another God-speed on this one. For the moment we close our Bibles and unlock our smartphones, this calling faces a huge challenge.



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