Humans vs. The Algorithm

I had in my mind to write about many different topics. But I just saw “The Social Dilemma” on Netflix. There are few things that I read or watch that seem to be a big connection in my effort to somewhat understand our world. But this is one of them.

Attention Economy

When we think of humans vs machines, the mind conjures up a Terminator-like scene of men fighting against cyborgs. After watching “The Social Dilemma” I realize that our existential battle against technology is already here. Instead of fighting robots, we are fighting for our attention.

Social media companies make money off of our attention. Yes, indirectly they make money off of “advertising”, but advertising only happens when we are consuming media. So the true product that is being sold to corporations is our attention. This is fine in a sense. We pay attention to media, and then companies make money by suggesting what we might like.

The problem is that we have no control or regulation of how our attention is bargained for. Some could argue that it is up to the individual to protect their attention. Indeed it is! But there is a reason why we censor what goes on billboards (and some counties don’t have them at all); it is to protect the vulnerable, namely children. Marketing for vaping has revived the teen nicotine addiction.

Just as importantly, we get recommended more of what captures out attention. Bad news, fake news, and conspiracy theories are enticing. It is estimated that these types of sensationalized news travel six times faster than regular news. Each of us becomes an echo chamber, not knowing that many of the views and beliefs we hold are such because we are getting recommended (read: fed) most of what we consume based on the attention and interaction we give media.

Retaking Control of our Attention

Now that we are aware that we are in the “wild wild west” of the attention economy, there are certain steps we should take to protect ourselves and our loved ones. Most importantly, we have to self-monitor our use of social media. We would like to believe that we can exercise self-control when using social media, but the mechanisms used to capture our attention and to keep us maximally engaged play on our reward circuitry. We may even be “addicted” to social media. Delete your favorite social media app and watch yourself reach for your phone out of habit to check notifications.

Secondly, we need lawmakers who are aware of the myriad ways social media has infiltrated our democracy, and are willing to take action. Seeing as how the average age of a senator is 62.9 (?!?!) years old, we need younger people to take the lead on this. Only someone who understands the technology and its effects on people can effectively do so. Common sense legislation is needed to protect children (and adults) from social media addiction. Not many people argue that having some level of regulation on cigarettes is a net positive to society. Of course, you can never completely stop someone from “using”, but simple measures can be put in place with great collective benefit.

Lastly, we need to have a talk about fake news. This insidious media has blood on its hands. We need to have a collective vision for truth in our society. This is not the same as “silencing dissenters”, rather we need to take fake news to court, just as we would any other person or entity that threatens our safety.

As we continue to look into ways to live healthier and happier lives, I have no doubt that the attention economy will be getting a lot of attention in the coming years.

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