Think List


18

September 19, 2020


Algorithms

About a year ago, I listened to an episode of Your Undivided Attention, a podcast from the Center for Humane Technology. I'd not heard of the CHT or their podcast before then. But I was familiar with the guest, the author Johann Hari, from his appearances on the Joe Rogan Experience, both of which, as I recall, were deep dives into depression, addiction, technology, human nature, connection, and other things super pertinent to our immediate time and lives. Likewise, in Hari's appearance on Your Undivided Attention, a hugely important conversation was had on many of these same topics. Each of these podcasts is well worth a listen from start to finish. But even a partial listen to just one of them would probably bear some nutrition.

The part of the conversation that stuck with me most, and that I still think about regularly (when questioning my own everyday actions and motivations) dealt with the distinction to be made between extrinsic and intrinsic motivations, and how the current social media model has all but trapped many of us in this damaging cycle of acting excessively and repeatedly on our extrinsic motivations.

Johann Hari: To me the deepest layer, I think, in terms of the tech crisis is what it's doing to our ability to construct meaning and goals that thousands of years, philosophers have said, "If you think life is about money and status and showing off, you're going to feel like shit." It's not an exact quote from Confucius, but that is the gist of what he said. But weirdly, nobody had scientifically investigated this until professor Kasser, who just retired at Knox college in Illinois.
Professor Kasser just did this such important research. So he showed everyone you've ever met, all humans are a mixture of two kinds of motivation. Let's imagine if you play the piano, I'm totally un-musical, but let's say you play the piano.
Tristan Harris: I do actually play it.
Hari: All right. Okay, well, there, you're a great example. If you play the piano in the morning because you love it and it gives you joy, that's what's called an intrinsic motivation to play the piano. You're not doing it to get anything out of it, it's just that is a thing that's ... That's an experience that is meaningful to you in that moment. Now, let's imagine you play the piano not because you love it, but in a dive bar that you can't stand, to pay the rent, or because your parents are massively pressuring you because it's their dream that you'll be piano player, or to post the clips on Instagram to impress a woman that maybe there are some piano fetishist out there. That would be an extrinsic reason to play the piano. You're not doing it because that experience has meaning, you're doing it to get something out of it further down the line.
Now all human beings are a mixture of intrinsic and extrinsic motivations, and should be. But professor Kasser showed a few really important things. Firstly, the more you are driven by external motivation, the more likely you are to become depressed and anxious. And secondly, as a society, as a culture, we have become much more driven by these external motives. Over time, I began to think of this as analogy with junk food, right? Everyone needs nutrition obviously or you'll die. And what junk food does is it appeals to the part of us that needs nutrition but actually poisons us, screws us up. In a similar way, I think of these extrinsic values, if they become too dominant, it's like junk values. It's like we're being fed a kind of KFC for the soul.
I think one of the tragedies about social media and its colonization of our consciousness in the current model, and I think what you say is so important about it's the current model not social media.
Harris: Not inevitably.
Hari: Exactly. Is that it is constantly jolting us towards extrinsic values.

My social media history is all over the map. I've been on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram. I've deleted my accounts. I've created new ones after a couple years had passed, then deleted those, then created new ones after a couple years again, then deleted those again. And so on. I could go on and on about all the reasons I felt so compelled to delete (and create) the accounts again and again. But I learned from answering my ESL students' questions about why I don't have (or why I deleted one of my) social media accounts, that there is a short, only slightly oversimplified, answer that I think suffices: Social media makes me sad.

I'd been off of all social media for at least a year or two when my wife and I started a small almond milk business earlier this year. It occurred to me then that I'd have no real choice but to make a Facebook page for that business. And making a Facebook page of course means first making an individual Facebook account. So I took the plunge again, but this time, I'm happy to say, without really sacrificing much of my time or attention to that great blue manipulative abyss.

I'd started Think List a few months before the almond milk business, with no intention of ever touching Facebook with it. However, in transitioning from my old newsletter to this one, I lost roughly 75% of my subscribers. Some of them were family members and old friends whom I haven't talked to in years, and who likely weren't reading the emails anymore anyway, so I guess that's to be expected. Others, I suspect, didn't want to resubscribe (or had already unsubscribed) because my writings immediately prior to the newsletter change were largely focused on challenging the harmful aspects of wokeness and cancel culture. And that's all fair enough. It is not my intention to force anyone to do anything, or to change the way anyone thinks. And I'm not just saying that. It's truly, truly not my intention. My intention is merely to present what I find to be important, interesting, rational ideas that I (admittedly subjectively) think are worthy of our collective time and thought right now. Your thoughts are your thoughts. Your conclusions are your conclusions. I want only for us all to have those thoughts, and to stay open and looking for those conclusions, even after we think we already have them.

If my aim here is to catalog those ideas that I (again, inevitably subjectively) feel are worth thinking about, then it follows that another of my aims would be to reach as many people as possible, even if it means venturing into terrain I don't in any way like (since that's where the people are), and even if it makes me more vulnerable to being sad. So Think List is now on Facebook. And I even paid money for advertisements. If you're reading these words now as a result of seeing one of those ads, I want to say thank you, and let you know that I'm aware that I've used Facebook as a tool to manipulate you into entering this particular zone of thought. But my intention is, at least in part, to counter some of the damage Facebook is doing to our culture and society and minds and kids and spirits and governments and so on. And if that requires using the platform as a tool against itself, which I think it does, at least currently, then okay, fine, and I guess godspeed to us all.

Shortly after creating the Think List FB page, I watched the documentary The Social Dilemma. I imagine most of you have already heard something about this. But I strongly encourage everyone who hasn't already watched it to do so. It is, in my opinion, required viewing. I watched it twice before attempting to show it to one group of my 12-year-old students, many of whom are already deep into their phone addictions. I was on the fence about that, considering their age and general innocence. But I ultimately reasoned that, if I had kids, I'd absolutely show it to them, so I gave it a go. After confiscating their phones, we made it through about 20 minutes, during which a few of them fell asleep, a few of them looked intrigued, and one of them said, "Teacher, it's scary." Mostly, though, they just looked uninterested. So I paused the video and asked them if they'd prefer to play a classroom game. The majority said yes. So that's what we did. But there remained those few intrigued individuals who voted to keep watching, and that was all the reward I needed. And it's not my personal reward. It's all of ours. Young, thinking minds. And really any-aged thinking minds. Any one of us being exposed to any one of the many ideas lurking in any one of our many blind spots. That's the reward. And that should be the goal.

Brian Leli, September 2020

The Social Dilemma

When I was at Google, I was on the Gmail team and I just started getting burnt out. Because we'd had so many conversations about what the inbox should look like, and what color it should be. And I felt personally addicted to email, and I found it fascinating that there was no one at Gmail working on making it less addictive ... And I was feeling this frustration with the tech industry, overall, that we'd kind of lost our way. I really struggled to try and figure out how, from the inside, we could change it. And that was when I decided to make a presentation, kind of a call to arms. Every day, I went home and I worked on it for a couple hours every single night. It basically just said, never before in history have 50 designers—20- to 35-year-old white guys in California—made decisions that would have an impact on two billion people. Two billion people will have thoughts that they didn't intend to have because a designer at Google said, "This is how notifications work on that screen that you wake up to in the morning." And we have a moral responsibility, as Google, for solving this problem. And I sent this presentation to about 15, 20 of my closest colleagues at Google, and I was very nervous about it. I wasn't sure how it was gonna land. When I went to work the next day, most of the laptops had the presentation open. Later that day, there was, like, 400 simultaneous viewers, so it just kept growing and growing. I got emails from all around the company. I mean, people in every department saying, "I totally agree." "I see this affecting my kids." "I see this affecting the people around me." "We have to do something about this." It felt like I was sort of launching a revolution or something like that ... And so it created this kind of cultural moment that Google needed to take seriously. And then—nothing.

Tristan Harris (Former Design Ethicist at Google, Co-Founder of The Center for Humane Technology), The Social Dilemma

When you think about how some of these companies work, it starts to make sense. There are all these services on the Internet that we think of as free, but they're not free. They're paid for by advertisers. Why do advertisers pay those companies? They pay in exchange for showing their ads to us. We're the product. Our attention is the product being sold to advertisers.

Justin Rosenstein (Former Engineer at Facebook and Google, Co-Founder at Asana), The Social Dilemma

That's a little too simplistic. It's the gradual, slight, imperceptible change in your own behavior and perception that is the product. And that is the product. It's the only possible product. There's nothing else on the table that could possibly be called the product. That's the only thing there is for them to make money from. Changing what you do, how you think, who you are. It's a gradual change. It's slight. If you can go to somebody and you say, "Give me $10 million, and I will change the world one percent in the direction you want it to change."—It's the world! That can be incredible, and that's worth a lot of money ... We've created a world in which online connection has become primary, especially for younger generations. And yet, in that world, any time two people connect, the only way it's financed is through a sneaky third person who's paying to manipulate those two people. So we've created an entire global generation of people who are raised within a context where the very meaning of communication, the very meaning of culture, is manipulation. We've put deceit and sneakiness at the absolute center of everything we do.

Jaron Lanier, (Founding Father of Virtual Reality, Computer Scientist), The Social Dilemma

No one got upset when bicycles showed up. Right? If everyone's starting to go around on bicycles, no one said, "Oh, my God, we've just ruined society. Bicycles are affecting people. They're pulling people away from their kids. They're ruining the fabric of democracy. People can't tell what's true." We never said any of that stuff about a bicycle. If something is a tool, it genuinely is just sitting there, waiting patiently. If something is not a tool, it's demanding things from you. It's seducing you. It's manipulating you. It wants things from you. And we've moved away from having a tools-based technology environment to an addiction- and manipulation-based technology environment. That's what's changed. Social media isn't a tool that's just waiting to be used. It has its own goals, and it has its own means of pursuing them by using your psychology against you.

Tristan Harris, The Social Dilemma

We curate our lives around this perceived sense of perfection because we get rewarded in these short-term signals—hearts, likes, thumbs-up—and we conflate that with value, and we conflate it with truth. And instead, what it really is is fake, brittle popularity that's short term and that leaves you even more, and admit it, vacant and empty [than] before you did it. Because then it forces you into this vicious cycle where you're like, "What's the next thing I need to do now? 'Cause I need it back." Think about that compounded by two billion people, and then think about how people react then to the perceptions of others. It's just a ... It's really bad. It's really, really bad.

Chamath Palihapitiya (Former VP of Growth at Google), The Social Dilemma

Gen Z, the kids born after 1996 or so, those kids are the first generation in history that got on social media in middle school. How do they spend their time? They come home from school, and they're on their devices. A whole generation is more anxious, more fragile, more depressed. They're much less comfortable taking risks. The rates at which they get driver's licenses have been dropping. The number who have ever gone out on a date or had any kind of romantic interaction is dropping rapidly. This is a real change in a generation. And remember, for every one of these, for every hospital admission, there's a family that is traumatized and horrified.

Jonathan Haidt (Social Psychologist at the NYU Stern School of Business, Author), The Social Dilemma

We Are All Algorithms Now

I think we’ve under-estimated just how deep the psychological damage has been in the Trump era—rewiring the minds of everyone, including your faithful correspondent, in ways that make democratic discourse harder and harder and harder to model. The new Netflix documentary, The Social Dilemma, is, for that reason, a true must-watch. It doesn’t say anything shockingly new, but it persuasively weaves together a whole bunch of points to reveal just how deeply and thoroughly fucked we are. Seriously, take a look.
The doc effectively shows how the information system necessary for democratic deliberation has, in effect, been jerry-rigged in the last decade to prevent any reasoning at all. It’s all about the feels, and the irrationality, and the moment, which is why Trump is so perfectly attuned to his time. And what’s smart about the documentary is that it shows no evil genius behind this unspooling, no sinister plot deliberately to destroy our system of government. One of the more basic motives in American life—making money—is all you now need, the documentary shows, to detonate American democracy at its foundation.
For Facebook and Google and Instagram and Twitter, the business goal quickly became maximizing and monetizing human attention via addictive dopamine hits. Attention, they meticulously found, is correlated with emotional intensity, outrage, shock and provocation. Give artificial intelligence this simple knowledge about what distracts and compels humans, let the algorithms do their work, and the profits snowball. The cumulative effect—and it’s always in the same incendiary direction—is mass detachment from reality, and immersion in tribal fever.
With each passing second online, news stories, graphic videos, incendiary quotes, and outrages demonstrate their stunning utility to advertisers as attention seizers, are endlessly tweaked and finessed by AI to be even more effective, and thereby prime our brains for more of the same. They literally restructure our minds. They pickle us in propaganda. They use sophisticated psychological models to trap, beguile, outrage, and prompt us to seek more of the same.
Alternative views, unpleasant facts, discomforting arguments, contextualizing statistics, are, with ever-greater efficiency, filtered out of what our eyes can see and our minds absorb. And what we therefore believe becomes more fixed, axiomatic, self-reinforcing, and self-affirming. We become siloed into two affective tribes, with dehumanization of each other deepening with every news cycle.

Andrew Sullivan, The Weekly Dish, September 2020