Bruce the Blog

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

Yorktown

Are We Protecting Our Environment?

January 17, 2018

When a developer tells us that his or her plans will not cause any negative environmental impacts, should the town automatically accept their statement? Or, should the town review the developer’s statement to make sure that the town’s interests, and the interests of its residents, are protected?

If the answer to this question seems obvious, then Yorktown has a problem. A serious ...

Cigarettes, Drugs and Border Patrol

This is from the website Rare: “Seattle has decided to impose a 1.75 cent per ounce tax on all sugary beverages within the city with the hopes of raising a $15 million revenue stream that it will use for programs to help people ‘have better access to fresh fruits and vegetables,’ as Seattle station KIRO 7 explains. The price of Gatorade Frost Variety Pack at Costco, usually ...

Facing My Mortality

I couldn’t have been more than 5 years old when my parents took me to visit my third cousin, Anthony. On the way to the house, I had some concerns because my parents told me that Anthony was “very sick.” When we arrived, I was startled to see his shaved head. I just wasn’t sure how to act. He quickly put me at ease with his gregarious personality and friendly nature. He ...

Talkin' 'Bout Our Generations

People try to put us d-down (Talkin’ ’bout my generation)

Just because we get around (Talkin’ ’bout my generation)

Things they do look awful c-c-cold (Talkin’ ’bout my generation)

I hope I die before I get old (Talkin’ ’bout my generation)

—Peter Townshend (The Who)

I’ve become obsessed of late with generations. Well, what ...

A Post-Apocalyptic House Cleaning

I’m usually pretty good about keeping track of what’s in my fridge. But over the course of a few weeks, the food containers seem to multiply and take over. By the time I get around to realizing that some items have been in there too long, the contents of the containers way in the back of the refrigerator either look like a science experiment gone awry or a refrigerated toupee.

This ...

Strategies for Test-Taking

Dear Dr. Linda,

Jenny, our smart, wonderful 10th grader, is in a state of panic because of her midterms. Last year, she did horribly on them and then she did just as poorly on her Regents and other finals. She did great in elementary school and middle school. She even does well in all her classes in high school, but scored in the 70s on last year’s midterms and finals.

The sad fact is ...

Demolishing Murphy's Is a Mistake

January 11, 2018

To the editor,

It is a shame that the rustic and pleasant Murphy’s Restaurant will be demolished, along with the handsome trees and shrubs that make outdoor dining in the garden a joy from May to October.

The replacement, a brick office building surrounded with blacktop, will be both less attractive and less kind to the environment, since blacktop creates heat and the trees that now ...

Upcoming Events

Sat, January 20, 10:00 AM

Muscoot Farm, Katonah

Nature Walk at Muscoot

Home & Garden

Sat, January 20, 10:00 AM

Jefferson Valley Mall , Yorktown Heights

Yorktown Indoor Farmers Market

Food & Drink Health & Wellness

Sat, January 20, 12:00 PM

Club Fit, Jefferson Valley

Yoga for Women with Cancer

Health & Wellness

Lagonia Joins Justin Veatch Fund Board

January 11, 2018

The Justin Veatch Fund is proud to announce that Yorktown attorney Sal Lagonia will be joining its board of directors. Lagonia, who was re-elected to a third term as Yorktown justice in November, has a keen interest in working with teens and has served on the board of directors of Student Assistance Services Inc., the Westchester County Youth Board and chaired the Yorktown Recreation ...