What is the meaning of life?
Search me, but where cosmic queries are concerned, here’s a new one: If humans are becoming as easily manipulated by digital impulses as are robots, is that a form of evolution or devolution?
We marvel at the onset of artificial intelligence (AI) as if it’s right around the corner. It’s not. It’s here, painting each of us into a corner of our own making.
In almost every digital device we touch, artificial intelligence is modifying our behavior and our thought process. It is directing our lives, as if we are the robots, and AI is the master of our universe. If it is, it’s because we let it be.
Tristan Harris cautions that having beeps, pings and bites of music summon us to stop what we’re doing and read a text, answer an email, or view a social media post—in other words, disrupt our normal flow of activity—is a slippery slope. He should know. Mr. Harris was a “design ethicist” at Google, one of an army of brainiacs deployed in what he calls “the race for our attention.”
He points to such seemingly innocent conveniences as autoplay to illustrate how Facebook, YouTube (owned by Google) and Netflix, to name three of today’s media monoliths, exert an iron grip on our precious time, and on our brain waves.
Netflix, says Mr. Harris, sees its three biggest competitors as Facebook, YouTube… and sleep.
After all, if you’re not conscious, how can you consume more of its content and less of the other guy’s content? What’s escapist entertainment to you is a cut-throat business to them.
Imagine how tedious binge-watching “Orange Is the New Black” would be if you had to manually press play for each successive episode instead of letting the next episode self-start. Autoplay is autocratic: “You will continue watching this, irrationally, until you are getting sleepy, v-e-r-y sleepy...”
Tristan Harris says it’s no coincidence that much of what we see in our Facebook feeds is edgy and politically charged. Facebook moderates the feeds, which is to say it is the conductor whose baton orchestrates our social media lives.
As with the kind of job Mr. Harris and other design ethicists are hired to do at Google, the objective of the Facebook puppet masters is to stimulate the stem of the brain. It’s the oldest vestige, known idiomatically as “the lizard brain,” because it controls primitive survival instincts. It rules our aggression and fear. It’s the part of our gray matter that is stimulated by such emotions as outrage.
Facebook’s “outrage feed,” as Mr. Harris calls it, is an effective way for it to keep people scrolling, scrolling, scrolling down the river of provocative posts. It sucks you in, and before you know it, a half-hour has elapsed, after which guilt kicks in as a rude reminder that you have done nothing particularly productive or fulfilling during those 30 precious minutes.
The ultimate influencers of the information age are the design ethicists at Google, Facebook, YouTube and Netflix who know how we think and are using that data to map our decision-making process as we stare blankly into screens—reverting to an infantile state of being hypnotized by a mobile in motion above the crib.
In a more malevolent mode, cautions Mr. Harris, “You can precisely target a lie directly to the people who are most susceptible,” and he goes on to say, “because this is profitable, it’s only going to get worse.” Otherwise known as the real fake news.
One way around becoming robotized— rhymes with de-humanized—is to become ascetic, at least where technology is concerned. Borrow a page from Calvin Newport, a professor of computer science at Georgetown University, and author of the book “Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World.”
Those who regularly correspond by email with Mr. Newport know not to expect quick replies. It may take him days to answer because the work at hand comes first. Granted, he’s hardcore down the line. Instead of filling our brains with endless distractions, Professor Newport counsels us to “quit social media and practice being bored.” I think he’s on to something.
In his TED Talk (which is where I learned of the insights you’ve read here), Tristan Harris says he studied in the “persuasive technology lab” at Stanford University, where students like him are taught “covert ways to get people’s attention.”
The result, he says, is that “a handful of people working at a handful of technology companies will steer what a billion people are thinking today.”
Don’t believe it? That’s because they don’t want you to…
Bruce Apar is chief content officer of Pinpoint Marketing & Design, a Google Partner Agency. Its Adventix division helps performing arts venues increase ticket sales. He also is an actor, a community volunteer, and a contributor to several periodicals. Follow him as Bruce the Blog on social media. Reach him at email@example.com or 914-275-6887.