The virtual die has been cast.
Has our incessant need for convenience and entertainment led us blindly into an existential crisis?
It’s hard not to roll your eyes at the notion that reading a scrolling news feed is really an act of submission to some nefarious force. Sure we accept ‘terms and conditions’ while barely registering a word of the fine print because of our thirst to stay connected, so we can play Fortnite with people from all around the world.
It does raise the question, “what are the motives of Silicon Valley tech giants?” Surely, rational adults believe that it isn’t altruism because four hours of video games and social media checking isn’t in anyone’s best interest.
“The big tech companies think we’re fundamentally social beings, born to collective existence. They harbor a deep desire for the atomistic world to be made whole. By stitching the world together, they can cure its ills.” (Foer, 2017)
They’re after our attention.
Attention is the commodity that drives Silicon Valley. Tristan Harris, a former Google employee, explained to 60 Minutes, “It’s not because anyone is evil or has bad intentions. It’s because the game is getting attention at all costs.”
The attention economy is “an internet shaped around the demands of an advertising economy.” (Lewis, 2017). Advertisers pay for these free services. Ramsay Brown, a cofounder of Dopamine Labs, tells 60 Minutes our, “eyeballs are what’s being sold.”
Harris claims cell phones are “slot machines,” and he’s not wrong. Our phones tap into what’s called “variable rewards,” meaning the possibility of disappointment makes it potentially addictive.
Loren Brichter, the man behind the “pull-to-refresh”, says smartphones are useful but addictive. “These are not good things. When I was working on them, it was not something I was mature enough to think about.” (Lewis, 2017).
We’re hooked: we interact with our phones 2,617 times a day.
Okay, we reside in a state of constant distraction, but how is this a crisis? It’s not nuclear war after all.
Without getting philosophical, our concept of free will may be at stake. “Their [tech monopolies] devices and sites have collapsed privacy; they disrespect the value of authorship, with their hostility toward intellectual property.” (Foer, 2017).
Harris warns we’re all susceptible, “All of our minds can be hijacked. Our choices are not as free as we think they are.” (Lewis, 2017). Brown likens it to being “part of a controlled set of experiments…happening in real time.”
Yikes, large tech companies are monetizing our distraction. Is this for our entertainment or convenience? The problem is every little bit of information, however innocuous it may seem, is collected, stored and used to tailor content specifically for you.
Before you feel flattered and go, “aw-shucks, all this for little old me,” remember why you receive all the articles and panda videos you can’t seem to resist. Advertisers want you to download that app or buy that new pair of jeans.
Engagement is the industry euphemism for commandeering our eyeballs. The more we click—the more we engage—the more information is stored on us—the more our thoughts and leanings are reinforced.
As newspapers and news organizations struggle to stay solvent, the more indispensable pandering to the attention revenue becomes. “As news media outlets have come to depend heavily on Facebook and Google for traffic—and therefore revenue—they have rushed to produce articles that will flourish on those platforms.” (Foer, 2017).
James Williams, an ex-Google strategist, worries that this economic model “privileges our impulses over our intentions.” He feels this has the twin effect of making us more impulsive and less rational. “The dynamics of the attention economy are structurally set up to undermine the human will…the attention economy is directly undermining the assumptions that democracy rests on.” (Lewis, 2017).
Franklin Foer, author of World Without Mind: The Existential Threat of Big Tech, wrote in the Washington Post, “Our ideas about the competitive marketplace are at risk. And the proliferation of falsehoods and conspiracies through social media, the dissipation of our common basis for fact, is creating conditions ripe for authoritarianism.”
What can be done? It would be beyond naïve to suggest Apple or Google is going to willfully change its business model when it’s the wealthiest business in the world. Big tech is the big tobacco of the twenty-first century.
We need to understand why it is potentially dangerous to thinking and mental health and take steps to regulate the industry for our good. After all, competition breeds creativity and innovation, and innovation leads to the next thing we can’t live without.
Campanile, G. (Producer) (2017, April 9). What is “brain hacking”? tech insiders on why you should care. [Interview transcript] CBS News. Retrieved from https://www.cbsnews.com/news/brain-hacking-tech-insiders-60-minutes/
Foer, F. (2017, September 8). How silicon valley is erasing your individuality. The Washington Post Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/how-silicon-valley-is-erasing-your-individuality/2017/09/08/a100010a-937c-11e7-aace-04b862b2b3f3_story.html?noredirect=on&utm_campaign=newsletter&utm_medium=email&utm_source=offscreenmag_com&utm_term=.78f76c6ddb0a
Lewis, P. (2017, 10/06; 2018/9). ‘Our minds can be hijacked’: The tech insiders who fear a smartphone dystopia; the google, apple and facebook workers who helped make technology so addictive are disconnecting themselves from the internet. paul lewis reports on the silicon valley refuseniks who worry the race for human attention has created a world of perpetual distraction that could ultimately end in disaster. The Guardian (London, England) Retrieved from http://link.galegroup.com.libraryproxy.quinnipiac.edu/apps/doc/A508326586/AONE?u=a13qu&sid=AONE&xid=6564b60e