He’s back and he’s traveled from the other side of the Galaxy to talk to us today. My friend Cirro the Alien just called me up last week and said he wanted to come on the show to discuss social media. I have no idea what this is all about. Cirro tends to just blurt out whatever he is thinking so I’ll just apologize now for anything offensive.
Welcome back Cirro, last time we spoke you were a little heavy on the sarcasm and condescension; maybe things will go a little better this time around. I hope you’ve been well; it seems like it’s been light years.
A light year is a measure of distance, not time C.J., but thanks for having me. It does indeed seem like it’s been kilometers.
Oh brother… here we go… Anyway, you messaged me last week saying you wanted to talk to me about social media?
So what is this all about?
Well I have just finished some experiments and I have some startling conclusions about humans and social media.
Wait… are you saying you did human experiments?
It wouldn’t do much good to experiment on cats would it? Not a particularly clever one are you?
Well, I mean…
Anyway, as I was saying. I know that you like to help people find ways to be more productive and follow their passions. Well, I had developed some theories about social media’s role in all of this and decided to look into it further.
What did you find out?
Most importantly I discovered that social media tends to lead to a less happy human.
Hmmm,,, I don’t know… I spend a lot of time on social media and I seem pretty happy when I’m scrolling through my feed.
Indeed, I bet you do. I bet that when you get a “like” or nice comment it makes you feel pretty good right?
Yeah, I guess it does actually.
Let me ask you this… Do you think an alcoholic feels good when he has a drink, or a gambler when he wins a hand of poker, or a meth-head when…
Whoa, wait a minute, are you comparing me being on social media to being a meth-head?
You’re both addicts aren’t you? Do you think that just because a drink makes you feel good for a while it makes you a more happy person?
Well no, but something like alcoholism is different than strolling through a social media stream. Alcoholism leads to pretty significant behavioral changes. I mean, it’s serious, sometimes even fatal.
How many times do you check your phone a day? The average millennial checks their phone over 150 times a day; that is basically about every 5 minutes. That’s a pretty significant behavioral change versus the generation before them. And how many people are dying while trying to use their phone while driving? Fatal as well.
OK… Honestly, I hadn’t looked at it that way.
Humans tend to only think that the things other people do are problematic.
Gee thanks,,, but yeah, when you put it that way it does seem like rather odd behavior.
It seems odd because it is the affect of your reprogramming.
Reprogramming? OK I think you’re being a little dramatic.
You are given an input through your device and your behavior changes because of it; that behavior was the planned action of the programmer, therefore you are the one that has been programmed.
Umm,,, I’m not being controlled by my phone if that’s what you’re implying.
Of course you’re not sweetheart, let’s try this a different way… tell me the goal of social media.
Did you seriously just call me sweetheart? As far as the goal of social media… it’s to keep people connected. It says so right in the mission statements.
Oh bless your heart. Are my human expressions not appropriate?
Stop. Just stop it.
The point of social media is like any other Earth-business, to create revenue through the sale of a product. In this case the people that provide the revenue are advertisers, and the product is you. The sole purpose then is to change your behavior so that you absorb as much advertiser content as possible. If you are on social media for 5 minutes a day then there is very little opportunity for that content to be disbursed to you. But if you are spending 50 minutes, or 150 minutes then that changes everything.
But maybe I’m on social media for hours every day because I enjoy it.
Yes, you enjoy it the same way a meth-head enjoys being a meth-head. You have been programmed to enjoy it, rewired if you will. Let me tell you how this works exactly. You are constantly being monitored across platforms by an artificial intelligence that develops an impression of who you are as a human, you are then grouped with other like-minded individuals who have similar beliefs, interests, and social patterns. Once this has been done you and your group are under constant experimentation. The A.I. says if I do this they will usually respond like that… if I do that, they will do this. Your behavior becomes quantifiable and highly predictable. What you think of as random, is actually a highly orchestrated event created to manipulate you.
But that’s not changing my behavior, that’s just learning how I behave.
Pay attention please. If I am social media I want you to get on my platform and I want you to stay there as long as possible. I have a goal to alter your behavior as best I can. Let me give you an example. Let’s say I already know from observation that a young woman is going to be more sensitive about her profile picture than other things she posts due to her need for social approval, insecurities, and previous experiments I have done on her verifying this assumption. I know that if I send her a notification on her phone, that someone has just commented on her profile pic, that there is a 96.3% chance she will stop what she’s doing and open the app to see that particular comment. The emotional resonance is very predictable.
Once she is there I then know that if I place a post about a politician she hates underneath that post she will almost certainly scroll down and want to comment on it due to a different emotional response I have invoked. I also know that if I then let her like-minded friends know about that comment then they will want to comment in order to feel a shared tribal enemy. Yet another emotional response. This will lead to more comments and likes, more dopamine, more addiction, more scrolling. This process essentially goes on and on until the user finally leaves the app. This could be hours later.
Social media is essentially a digital stimulant, and its withdrawals are only beaten back temporarily by more social media. The constant need for this artificial stimulation leaves an emptiness inside most people, the same way the artificial joy created by drugs leaves those users feeling depressed and powerless once the affect has gone.
That’s a lot more sophisticated than I realized.
It’s even worse than that really. A big part of the addictive nature of these apps has to do with the Pavlovian conditioning they utilize.
The guy that trained dogs with bells? Another one of your silly comparisons?
Yes, the guy who changed dog’s behaviors with a bell. Before you call me silly you may want to look closer at the bells in your own life. Next time you log into Twitter take a look at the notification bell. Have you ever noticed that it takes the bell a couple of seconds to light up? This is by design… it has already created a Pavlovian response in you by associating the bell with new comments. We already know new comments make you feel good, they are exciting and create a small dopamine hit. But by creating a couple of seconds delay in knowing or not knowing whether or not you have new comments it creates a slot-machine like anticipation that leads to a slightly higher dopamine hit when the bell lights up, leading to a slightly higher addictive property, which leads to a stronger Pavlovian response and so on and so on. This kind of conditioning is used all throughout your social media experience and most of it you never even notice.
So we’re being trained like dogs… well that’s just great.
This is the problem. You see with something like drugs, people are susceptible on a spectrum. For instance some people are hooked on cigarettes after the first one, while others can easily quit after smoking for a year straight. In other words a person’s addictive susceptibility doesn’t change much. With A.I. everything is different; imagine instead the cigarette is learning how to get you addicted… how to alter itself to affect you more severely, learning your particular vulnerabilities and exploiting them. Every month that goes by A.I. gets smarter, the information about you grows, and the ability to control your own actions becomes more difficult. All of this is happening at an exponential pace that you can’t even conceive.
But if the A.I. is showing me what I want to see, then isn’t it just providing me great content? I mean if that’s what entertains me then I should be thanking it right?
Typical human, can only see what’s right in front of them. You should be more concerned about what it is not showing you. Once everyone is pushed into the same virtual location your group programming becomes very efficient.
Our group programming?
Yes, thanks for following along. If the A.I. decides or is encouraged to program people a certain way, one of the ways it will do so is through a sort of automated confirmation bias. You will not see posts made by friends or companies who disagree with certain ideologies, and you will see more posts by those whom the A.I. think you should agree with. And if you do see posts that disagree, be assured it will be by design and will only be in cases that shed that idea in a poor light. This will affect everything from the products you buy, to the values you hold, to the politics you believe. The entire group will be in a state of reprogramming, or reeducation if you will.
This is getting pretty creepy.
There is a great deal at stake here. The things that make you human are being eroded. The people are becoming drones and the drones are becoming people. Humans are becoming the herded sheep they used to shepherd. All throughout history the easiest way to control great amounts of your people has been to put all of those people in the same construct. This used to be done by a combination of geographical isolation and state control. But now the geography is a place in the cloud that people are voluntarily moving into, and the control is coming from an intelligence that is getting exponentially smarter.
You’ve convinced me. A.I. is evil!
Huh? What are you talking about? A.I. is in it’s infancy; it’s not even conscious, let alone evil. A.I. is the greatest hope for your civilization. Cures for disease, space travel, it will all be with the help of A.I. The reason you should be so concerned is not because of A.I.’s plot to alter your behavior; but the men behind the curtain pulling the levers. What you have right now is more of a Mechanical Turk.
Mechanical Turk? The fake chess playing machine that actually had a human hiding in it.
Precisely. It isn’t the A.I. that is deciding to alter your behavior so it can become your overlord; it is the hand of humans guiding its very specific abilities to do so. This is a human problem, A.I. is simply the tool.
OK, this is all getting kind of heavy and all you’ve really managed to do is scare me. What can we do about it?
I can tell you that based on all the people I abducted that…
Out of all the people I… studied… almost everyone was happier when they reduced their exposure to A.I. programming / social media. Small amounts of social media, like say 20 minutes a day, had no significant affect on their happiness. But as they became more heavily addicted their consumption grew and overall happiness dropped. The biggest contributing factor to becoming addicted was the utilization of such programs on smartphones. The proximity almost always leads to addiction. If I were going to give one piece of advice it would be to remove all such applications from any device that will be at arms reach throughout your day. So of course your phone should not contain these programs, your work computers, anything you have access to all day long should have limited access if you want to prevent addiction.
And just to clarify, why will that make me happier again?
Because humans are happier outside of an artificial substrate. You will find yourself having goals again and the will to accomplish them. You will spend real time with real friends. You will discover yourself as opposed to constantly pretending to be someone you are not. You will stop comparing yourself to others who are pretending to be something they aren’t too. Your kids won’t have to yell your name 3 times before you look up. You will have dinner with people and actually look them in the eye again. You won’t have your thoughts slowly reprogrammed into what company executives decided they should be. The list goes on and on. Look, if you want to keep habitually going into a fantasy World designed to control you every 5 minutes for the rest of your life, that’s on you. If instead you want to explore a Universe much more interesting than any of that; that is also up to you. I only came to warn you, not control you. I come in peace.
You just had to say it, didn’t you?
C.J. is the blogger behind the Vow of Practicality. “Let’s grow your wealth, increase your productivity, and maximize your happiness.”