What is the most dangerous problem in our world today? I argue it is not drugs, war, mass shootings, growing global divisions/unrest, global warming, or even a nuclear North Korea. What problem could possibly be bigger than those? How about the control of the minds of almost every person on earth.
Hyperbole? A growing group of top-tier developers, social media executives, technologists, military threat analysts, and researchers don’t think so. They are increasingly quitting or raising red flags of how dangerous the ground has become. Many have banded together, appearing on Ted, NPR, Wired, 60 Minutes, and many other forums – founding a movement called “Time Well Spent”
So what are they saying:
I want you to imagine walking into a control room with a 100 people hunched over little dials that will control the thoughts and feelings of a billion people. This might sound like science fiction – but it actually exists today. I know because I was a design engineer at Google in one of those control rooms deciding how to ethically steer people’s thoughts. What we don’t talk about is how a handful of people at a handful of technology companies, through their choices, will steer what a billion people will think today. – Tristan Harris
Still not convinced?
Several recent foreign elections, as well as our last presidential election, demonstrated the very probable reality that elections can now be swung, influenced, or even won by last-minute internet scandals and social media barrages. Facebook, Google and Twitter appeared before congress to answer for their complicity in Russian election hacking. How are we to run elections in the future if social media scandal or outrage can be created instantly and overnight by just a few people anywhere in the world while remaining anonymous?
How much faith do we put in systems in which as few as 2 developers, with any motivation or ethical goal, can run simple bots designed to exploit the algorithms of social media sites such as Reddit and ensure they have top visibility while silencing any dissension. Results which have been repeated and published over and over again.
Facebook publicly apologized for running experiments on users by filtering what they saw. Other Facebook employees admitted to regularly silencing political voices they did not agree with.
Others have written books about how they have engineered complete social media campaigns based on creating public outrage and then capitalizing on it. With teams as small as 5-10 people and budgets of only a few thousand dollars, they successfully generated campaigns that appeared in every national news outlet and made hundreds of thousands of dollars by posting and then counter-posting social media blitzes. All purely fabricated and designed to sell a product. They caution that the same techniques could be used for any purpose or end.
How about new agencies that are increasingly replacing staff with bots that scour social media and then generate the news stories you read? Or bots that can generate custom news stories based on what it knows about you? Look at job openings for reporters at most major news sources. Requirements for new reporters have more to do with how to manipulate search hits than actual reporting.
There is growing and increasingly proven evidence that heavy use of social media sites and always connected phones is linked to higher rates of depression, anxiety, and other psychological issues.
Video game loot boxes have been called gambling by some that are now seeking to regulate them.
All this isn’t a call to take down Facebook, disband Google, destroy smart phones, or riot in the streets. What is a call to do is to think deeper and awaken to our vulnerability to manipulation and the potentially destructive emotional and relational forces of our technology. Most of these systems were initially created without thought to how pervasive, and vulnerable to manipulation, they could become. Their dramatic success and pervasiveness has now revealed the danger of these vulnerabilities. Devices designed for convenience are now becoming dangerously absorbing.
TimeWellSpent points out that these vulnerabilities are being exploited because they’re combined with user interfaces that use techniques of positive reinforcement and operant conditioning to keep us constantly checking, re checking, and glued to them. If they are absorbing all our attention, then they are also absorbing our thinking.
While this wasn’t as big of an issue when connectivity was limited by physical access, but in an all-the-time, 100% connected world, we must pay attention to these forces.
Time Well Spent outlines some paths forward on their website:
- Design new products, devices, and core interfaces to protect our minds from constant distractions, minimize screen time, protect our time in relationships, and replace the App Store model of ‘apps’ with a marketplace of tools competing to benefit our lives and society.
- Enact legislation that enforces humane business models. Models that address the purposeful use of unhealthy positive reinforcement or operant conditioning to monopolize attention. Examples: gambling like loot/reward systems in games, etc.
- Bring attention and start public discussions that make consumers aware and able to recognize the difference between technology designed to extract the most attention from us and technology whose goals are aligned with our own.
- This is one in my wheel house: Educate and empower engineers and technologists to build products and business models that improve society while also become advocates against ones that ruin society. Talented employees are the greatest asset of technology companies – and the ones companies are most afraid to lose. They can become powerful advocates if they recognize their collective power.
While Time Well Spent spends its time on a few ideas relating to our social well-being, I would add a few more based on the idea that change comes from within:
- It is increasingly researched and documented that people who are heavy users of social media are much more prone to psychological problems such as depression, sadness, and unhealthy evaluation of their lives. Some good questions:
- How many times in a day do you check social media (Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, etc)? Be honest.
- Can you go to the bathroom, wait in a coffee line, sit at a stop light, or any other waiting task without checking Facebook, Twitter, text messages, or playing a mobile phone game? How do you feel if you don’t – unsettled, irritable, anxious?
- How much time are you spending each day checking social media? Be attentive to your usage and add it up. Is it more time than what you spend with a loved one, exercising, learning, or growing as a person?
- Can you have a whole meal with a loved one, spouse, family, or friend without checking your phone? How’s the quality of your relationship with that person compared with 5 years ago? Are you using digital distraction to avoid relationship growth/deepening?
- US News media sources are increasingly consolidating under a few giant media conglomerates. News stories and writers are increasingly only evaluated by the number of clicks they get – not to inform or educate.
- Do you know the bias of your news outlet? EVERY news outlet has a bias and reputation – discover it by googling ‘news bias chart’ and start your research.
- If you currently read a more ‘biased’ news source – can you go to a source at about the opposite side of the scale to read the arguments there or does it just cause you overwhelming emotions?
- Do you double-check with news sources outside the US like BBC?
- Do you have a healthy disbelief of the news you read until it has been fact checked by numerous sources and time – or are you a slave to immediate emotional ‘outrage’? Can you read a story that is designed to generate outrage and separate your emotional response from the facts? Can you avoid obvious click-bait articles with outrage inducing titles?
- In the past, ‘Sex sells’ was the mantra. Today it is ‘Outrage sells’. How often do you read the news and become a mindless bot that re-tweets/re-posts/up votes/spreads your outrage – often without waiting to see if there is any truth, waiting for evidence to be vetted, or recognize that many of these articles are commentaries designed to get clicks – not invite informed, constructive solutions?
- How often are you involved in constructive discussions that recognize the shared humanity in the other, is informed by peer-reviewed scientific data, and designed to create positive environments that encourage the generation of positive outcomes vs ones that are confrontational, destructive, or designed to humiliate/degrade/defeat those that don’t agree with you?
- Do you promote critical thinking skills?
- Can you critique your own viewpoints and even the stances you agree with? Can you see both the good, and the wrong in them – or are you unable to see any failings in the things you believe – sure they are infallible?
- Do you almost always/immediately believe what your political party, favorite star, favorite politician, musician, comedian, or news source tells you to be true? Can you question them or what they say?
- Do you understand basic logical fallacies and argumentative techniques? Can you recognize when an article or person is using them on you? Can you call out people – even those aligned with your viewpoint – for using them and being intellectually lazy or even manipulative/deceptive?
- Are you more interested in being right and shutting up dissenting voice or are you focused on your shared humanity with them, the fact we come from many different backgrounds that weren’t equally privileged, and that the argument/belief is a separate, changeable thing from the inherent value and beauty of the person?
- Can you hear things designed to elicit outrage and not be swept up in the emotional appeal? Can you suspend belief long enough to get facts. When the facts support action, can you take actions that actively create a positive environment for change, or do you resort to violence, intimidation, posts designed to incite angry responses, or threats?
- How long can you go without checking the digital world?
- Do you cultivate quiet times in your day? Are there times you let yourself be quiet, without video, music, or constantly checking texts/news/post streams?
- When was the last time you let yourself get bored. Boredom is linked to creative and imaginative thinking.
- If you are a person of faith, do you spend time in prayer or meditation every day? Even a fraction of the time you spend on social media?
- Have you ever gone on a weekend/vacation in which you don’t turn on a single digital device or check email/threads/texts/etc?
My hope for the new year is that we all become better citizens by becoming better human beings. That starts within our hearts and with how we choose to spend our time. How do you want to spend your time this coming year?