Roger Marolt: We have seen the product, and the product is us
I listened to a serial podcast the other day while driving to LA. I mention the drive so that you don’t imagine me sitting around my house bath-robed, curtains drawn, drinking cold coffee stuck in a digital binge. One mental image leads to another and suddenly you picturing me living a productive life is shot. I want to make it clear I was not seduced by my laptop, socializing with my phone, or on a date with social media. It’s important to engineer an appropriate visual in this age where wasting half a day surfing the ’net is as cringe worthy as it is frequently endured.
The podcast was about social media and how it is designed for one overarching purpose — to keep us online for as long and often as possible. The business plan is to make it the most important activity in our lives. For some of the people interviewed, who admit to being fully engaged in Youtube for four, six, even 10 or 12 hours a day, the mission is accomplished, which has to be encouraging for social media engineers working toward the total captivation of free-ranging minds.
One haunting juxtaposition highlighted by the podcast is how we have been tricked into believing social media is an incredible service for us to remain relevant in this hyper-connected world. The truth is that we are the product that social media sells to big business. We rent our minds to it for free and they sublet our brains to all bidders seeking to exploit them. It turns out our undivided attention is incredibly valuable, just ask family, friends, teachers and employers who used to get most of it before we started giving it to Facebook, Instagram, Tik-Tok, YouTube and other cyber squatters.
We should have known, and probably did on some level of consciousness hidden below our computer screens, that nothing is for free. We must have realized there was a cost to unfettered access to sharing crap on the internet, and we should have known the harvesters of our lives’ details are getting paid by the hour. The more time we spend on our devices, the more profit they make and the more it costs us. Like fresh produce sold at market, parts of our very essence are being consumed.
The diabolical algorithms are what doom us. It is artificial intelligence developed to ferret out what we like to see and then put more of it in front of us to continue gorging. Whatever you are interested in, social media learns and will offer enticing suggestions to see more of it, each iteration of it growing more concentrated, exaggerated, salacious and fantastical enough to keep you clicking. The mind narrows. Desires are cemented. We are led toward becoming one-dimensional versions of ourselves.
It doesn’t discriminate. If you are politically inclined, for example, the algorithms are just as happy to lead you down a conservative rabbit hole as a liberal one. The result is that viewing morphs into a one-sided, self-directed perspective. The process is designed to feel like we are researching and discovering, but it’s all being run through a digital sieve with only our preferred flavor of mind candy getting through.
It is dark, but there is no inherit evil force at work, unless you believe capitalism is sinister. There is no conspiracy designed to purposefully brainwash the masses, even if that turns out to be the end result. It’s attention alchemy, turning gray matter into gold. If we get addicted to the process, it makes the profits easier to turn. The platforms only want our full attention. It’s bending minds for fun and profit. It beats robo-calling.
In theory, artificial intelligence algorithms could lead us to great things, like if we decided to finally learn the practical applications of calculus and begin clicking on videos about that. The problem is that we get tired working to understand complex things and social media can’t afford to give us breaks to stretch and contemplate, so they steer us to versions of what we already know.
In the end, our devices become the cabins that incubate our fevers. We become isolated and deprived of rational feedback that could pull us back from extremes. We end up ideologically divided. Here is where real danger lies. There are undoubtedly some early in seeing this digitally separating force as something to be magnified and manipulated toward the accumulation of power. Our president appears to be one of the pioneers.
Roger Marolt wonders why some trust blogs, that have never proved anything, more than major newspapers that have created legacies getting things consistently right. Email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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