Who Are the Real Robots?

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.

Sign Up for E-News

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 bapar@pinpointmarketingdesign.com or 914-275-6887.

The opinions expressed herein are the writer's alone, and do not reflect the opinions of TAPinto.net or anyone who works for TAPinto.net. TAPinto.net is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information supplied by the writer.

TAP Into Another Town's News:

You May Also Be Interested In

Sign Up for E-News


The Hatch Act and Immigration Updates

This is for information purposes only. So, when you see headlines like the recent “Kellyanne Conway cited for two violations of the Hatch Act,” you will have a working knowledge of what it means. First off, what is the Hatch Act? This has nothing to do with Orrin Hatch, senator from Utah. Simply put, it states one cannot advocate for or against candidates while serving in an official ...

There Is Always More to the Story

If you are getting your information from CNN, MSNBC, The New York Times or others in the mainstream media, you would think the Russians are no good dirty scoundrels, colluding with Trump to steal the election from the rightful heir, Hillary Clinton.

The leading Democrats in New York are all on board with this scenario, as are Democrats representing states across the country. You have heard ...

The ‘Feminist’ President ... Ha!

Incredibly, it wasn’t until 1987 that Congress finally acknowledged the part women have played in the great movements of American history, declaring March to be National Women’s History Month.

And each year since, as March rolls around, U.S. presidents have stood at the lectern, extolling the virtues of American women. In President Trump’s statement, released last week, he ...

To Harrison, L'Chaim!

At long last, the smile of spring approaches, as an angry winter recedes into good riddance. Our spirit is ready to be re-charged. Damn the power outages, full speed ahead!

For my wife, Elyse, daughter, Elissa, and me, this otherwise exuberant time of year brings a confusion of mixed emotions. In 2003, on the opening day of spring, March 20, which happens to be my birthday, our 15-year-old son ...

Anytown USA's Reality TV Show

Nowhere is the raw power of our Constitution’s First Amendment more earnestly practiced than in thousands of town halls across the land every time a citizen steps up to the podium to say his piece.

That also is where reality television can be seen at its rawest, as town meetings are televised to the local populace. All the familiar production values of reality TV are there in full color: ...

When It's Not OK to Ask If Everything's OK

There is this thing that I do that annoys the heck out of my family. Well, to be honest, there are a lot of things I do that annoy the heck out of my family, but I am thinking of one thing in particular.

Whenever someone is in the bathroom for what I determine to be an abnormally long period of time, I stand outside the bathroom door and yell,


I ...

I'm All Pumped Up

This time last year, I struggled with my New Year’s resolution to go to the gym.

This year, I have made significant progress. I am going to the gym on a semi-regular basis. And by semi-regular, I mean, I go often enough that I actually remember where it’s located between visits.

The bad news, however, is that my workouts are just, how would you say it? Lame. Yes, they’re ...

Upcoming Events

Sat, March 17, 7:30 PM

First Presbyterian Church of Yorktown, Yorktown Heights

Concert March 17: Songs of the Heart and the ...

Arts & Entertainment


Sat, March 24, 2:00 PM

South Putnam Animal Hospital, Mahopac

PCDOH Free Rabies Vaccination Clinic

Health & Wellness

Sat, March 24, 2:00 PM

South Putnam Animal Hospital, Mahopac

PCDOH Free Rabies Vaccination Clinic

Health & Wellness

Safety Is Schools' Top Priority

March 14, 2018

To the editor,

[Editor’s note: The following letter was sent by School Superintendent Anthony DiCarlo to Mahopac families and the school community.]

We are all saddened by the tragic events that took place in Parkland, Fla., several weeks ago, Mahopac’s collective thoughts and prayers for healing and strength are directed toward the families and students of Parkland.

I want ...