Spoiler alert! You can see the first part of my commentary on this documentary here.
The Magicians Reveal their Tricks.
Tristan Harris (Google’s former design ethicist) explains how he learned at the Stanford Persuasive Technology Lab about the vulnerabilities of the mind, which most people, regardless of their education level, don’t know much about. Thus, by using all the knowledge of the psychology of persuasion and building that into technology they turned tech geniuses into behavior change geniuses.
Technology is thus not very different from magic. Like the magicians, the tech geniuses fool users and make them see what they want them to see, in this case do what they want us to do. The phones and social media work, then, like the slot machine creating a dependency in light of an expected reward. There is the assumption, though that all people with phones are addicted to them. Is every person who goes to Vegas an inveterate gambler?
According to Jeff Seibert, a former Twitter Executive, photo tagging (notifications) is one of those tricks that turn people into salivating dogs (not his words). He poses the question, why does not the email notifying that you have been tagged contain the photo already? Allegedly companies like Facebook dialed up on that feature to have people tagging each other all day long. And here I wonder once more, does every user tag other users? Does everybody react to the tagging as it is expected? From my personal experience the answer is no.
However, Sandy Parakilas (Facebook former Operation Manager), compares us with lab rats, zombies that mechanically respond to the growth tactics designed by tech engineers and who, unlike the lab rats that are used to find cures for diseases, we are just used for our own prejudice and keep ourselves looking at ads so that a lot of people make a lot of money. I find the conclusion simplistic, even if it does apply to lots of social media users. I wonder what the percentage of people who buy what’s advertised via social media is. It is a good thing, though, that this possibility is put in these terms (some people may be in need of a wake-up call).
And here enters one political issue that will surely cause controversy: elections. Shoshana Zuboff (Harvard Business School), author of “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism,” argues that through social media’s manipulation interested parties can make people vote and vote for the option they want people to. If that is the case, it is my humble opinion, the blame is on those zombie voters, not on the tech industry. Voting has been one of the most transcendental social and personal obligations for me. One I have used when I am convinced I can help achieve something with it and one I have withheld when I do not see the point of even trying, either because my option does not stand a chance or because there is no decent option to vote for. Voting should be a conscious act and if there are people out there who can be driven by some social media magic trick, that is a real pity.
The narrative I see emerging here is that the manipulation tools of social media are the new God. If you act it is because of them; if you don’t, it is too.
Sean Parker (Facebook former President) provides some exaggerated dramatic gesture that make me doubt the sincerity of the whole mea-culpa. According to him, all the inventors, creators, understood consciously that they were “exploiting vulnerability in human psychology”, but did it anyway. Even though I know that legislation on cyber crimes is still in its infancy and much in uncharted territory, I wonder what the consequences have been for all these geniuses who, for the first time in human history, have acknowledged the criminal consequences of their inventions and are warning people openly not to use them. I wish we could have seen this with the inventors of alcohol, cigarettes, cars, weapons, drugs, video games, television, you name them. For better or worse, this is unprecedented.
Harris then contrasts social media with bikes. Unlike bikes, which are tools waiting to be used, “social media has its own goals and it has its own means to pursuing it by using your psychology against you.”
The generalizations continue when it is affirmed, even if jokingly, that the only two choices are whether you check your device before you pee in the morning or while you pee in the morning. I know plenty of people who have to be reminded they have smart phones, so that they can, please, check their messages. I think that there are plenty of people who have used phones and computers in the same way they have used their bikes.
However, Anna Lembke (Stanford University School of Medicine) asserts the addictive nature of social media: “Social Media is a drug”, based on the idea that biologically, as a species, our need for connection (socializing, mating, propagating) will find the perfect addiction in a tool that optimizes human connection.
In my view, what the film shows is a dysfunctional family placed as a mirror where all families are supposed to see their reflection, without any kind of human connection, whose members, except for the oldest daughter, can’t help eating with their phone in one hand, and have nothing to talk about when deprived of their toys. When the mother asks for conversation topics and the father offers to talk about some extremists who have been protesting, she immediately censors the topic. I think this is very important in the movie. As the film progresses the male teenager who is shown as addicted to the phone because of a love interest becomes progressively involved in politics and it is that “addiction” and its consequences what triggers the main tension in the film. It is as if they suggest that the addiction for political reasons is more dangerous and that is the main reason we should stay away from social media, which for some would mean to stay away from political involvement.
Dr Lembke herself admits to have problems fighting her kids because of how much time they spend on their phones. So, if someone with a PhD in Addiction Medicine can’t keep her kids away from their “digital pacifier,” as Harris calls it, poor us! I think there are still plenty of people in the world, who despite having been exposed to this technology and having had to use it for different reasons, have been able to draw the line that separates what really matters in human relationships and you do not need a PhD to do that. Raising kids is about authority, love, and clear ground rules. If kids don’t like your home’s rules, then they can claim premature independence and show themselves and the world what they are made of, and with their own resources make use of their time as they see fit. That may sound like a tough parental philosophy,but it helped raise healthy generations.
Chamath Palihapitiya (Facebook former VP of Growth) explains how we are rewarded with likes, etc., and “we conflate that with value, we conflate it with truth, and instead what that really is is fake brutal popularity,” which in the short term “leaves you even more (and admit it) vacant and empty than you were before.” I think we have all witnessed the devastating effect of this brutal popularity contest on teens, but again, where is our responsibility as parents/guardians? It would be irresponsible to put all the blame on the machines as if we were mere projections or holograms, unable to operate changes in the physical world.
The most dramatic and undeniable aspect of the documentary has to do with the stats (which in Venezuela we will never know) involving teens and pre-teens attempts to harm themselves and actual suicides. Generation Z, which started using social media in Middle School and in some case even before, is obviously “more anxious, fragile, and depressed.”
The issue here, in my opinion, is not so much social media and its corporate model, as the documentary argues, but family values and structure.
Now, if these services are killing people or making people harm themselves and others, and this confession is coming from the very inventors of the services, shouldn’t they face some consequences?
They are calling for regulations, but we know the history of governmental regulations. Governments cannot and should not regulate families, and for me this is what is at stake here. Families are central to the solution of the problem. No government regulation alone will do much if families keep doing what they have been doing, which according to the movie, is leaving their kids to their own devices.
It is pathetic to see a kid in a room full of sport shoes and soccer balls he does not longer use because he can’t conceive a life outside the screen of a phone. What is also pathetic, especially for a documentary, which usually aims at looking at different views of the issue, is to see so few alternative views (only about 20 seconds, around minute 44:30). The film is extremely one-sided.
For decades we have been told that we have merely used a fragment of our brains’ capacity. In the next section I comment on the documentary’s next conflicting argument regarding our brains’ capacity to discern and fight the goals of the A.I. and engineers whose goal is to manipulate us.
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