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.

How Social Media has Changed the Way We Feel (and what to do about it)

I can remember it clear as day. It was around the Spring of 2014. I was teaching in a high school when they suddenly started appearing…everywhere. Instagram and Twitter handles began popping up in the most annoying places (most annoyingly on desks and my class set of whiteboards). Within weeks, students were writing their handles everywhere for all to see. Of course the most popular students’ accounts began blowing up and the main topic of conversation (not math, to my demise) was “How many followers do you have?”

When Change Happens Quickly

Whenever change happens quickly, there are a number of consequences of that change that we cannot (and sometimes do not want to) see. When I reflect upon the massive change that social media has brought into our culture, I think one of the main consequences none of us saw was how it would affect our mental health.

Now, I’m not going to sit here and spout off any statistics, but it has been my experience that since the rise of social media, mental health has been a growing concern for young people (particularly adolescents). I’m not making a scientific case (yes, I know, the nerds will get angry), but it seems that social media has made us slightly more unhappy.

And I have a hypothesis for why…

You (and I) Probably are the 99%

You see, social media gives us eyes into the lives of others. Of course we follow our friends and maybe our Aunt, but the majority of people we follow and look forward to posts from are the 1%. Likely less. Something more along the lines of the 0.001%.

I’m no hater. Success should be celebrated. And any adult knows that any self-made successful person has paid a price to get there. But many young people don’t know that.

Imagine you are 13 (scary right?!?!) and all day you are surrounded by images of people, some who are your age, who by all accounts look like they are living extravagant lives. And of course, all of these glossy celebrities always have a success line a-la-Tony-Robbins about why their life is so glamorous (“Just work hard and be positive. Oh yeah, and buy my stuff!”). What are you going to think about yourself? Your prospects? Your ability to achieve a lifestyle even a fraction of what theirs is?

Adults can see that not only are the lifestyles of the rich and famous unsustainable for everyone to have, but we also see that all of their posts are a clever montage of only the best, most fabulous moments of their life. No celebrities post photos of themselves tripping up the stairs or spilling coffee on themselves on the regular, but we know these are the experiences that make up everyones extravagantly normal lives.

As adults we need to remind children (and ourselves) of what is truly important in life. Young people today are at risk for being swept away by materialism and hedonism (perhaps no more than any other generation). We need to temper these images of excess with a reinforcement of what really makes us happy, and encourage goals that are not only achievable, but healthy and attainable for all people (or at the very least all people in the Western world). In my assessment these goals would be financial independence, positive relationships, good health, and passionate work.

Don’t Forget the Fyre Festival

My wife and I have been glued to the television screen watching the Fyre Festival documentaries. I think this is the perfect example of how social media can damage our ability to stay connected with reality. Thousands of experience-hungry young people see their favorite celebrities and models posting about an amazing experience that turned out to be the exact opposite. In the process not only was a lot of money lost, but a lot of lives were irreparably damaged because a few people got carried away in the glitz and glam (and didn’t have a good accountant?).

It also teaches us another lesson. Glitz and glam are fine. I like to partake in luxury experiences from time to time myself so I am not one to judge. But…most of what makes those experiences awesome are things that we can have without paying thousands of dollars to go to Pablo Escobar’s island to do (good food, good people, music, entertainment, etc.).

In my estimation there is a serious case of cultural lag with regard to social media. I would not be surprised to see (in the near future) a good deal of legislation surrounding social media and its use. But, while we are still in the days of the “wild wild west” of social media, stay aware of how this cultural phenomena can seep deeper and deeper into our lives. Until next time…

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