Breaking the internet feedback loop

– by A.N. Turner –

You, me and everyone we know
We are drowning in a sea of free information. The Internet is in our businesses and homes, our bedrooms. An army of designers and data-crunchers spend their working lives figuring out ways to make us stay plugged in longer. Our desires are being repackaged by giant tech companies and then sold back to us under the guise of free content. It isn’t free. We are paying for it with intangible currencies that people are only now beginning to understand—our time, our privacy, our willpower, our relationships, and our futures.

The fortress of solitude
The titans of tech understand this too well. Satya Nadella, the CEO of Microsoft, writes: “We are moving from a world where computing power was scarce to a place where it now is almost limitless, and where the true scarce commodity is increasingly human attention.” The Internet feeds on our clicks, our likes, our friends, our followers. The more we consume, the more it consumes us.

Herbert Simon, Nobel Prize winner in economics, said it best: “What information consumes is the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.” We aren’t experiencing a wealth of information, but a torrential flood. And since our future currency is our attention span, we must find a way to higher ground, to a place where our most valuable resource is our own, or we will drown.

No time like the present
Young people are supposed to be taking control of their lives with unfettered access to information, but the opposite is happening. Digital media is preventing us from finding meaning or purpose. We are falling into a new age of alienation—from our work, from other people, from our very bodies. We’ve already witnessed the amoral, click-obsessed social networks and news aggregators hijacking our presidential election. With similarly dire consequences, millions of young people’s essential selves are being hijacked by this conscience-less machine.

And it is getting worse. The potency of the distractions—when complex algorithms dictate the content in your news feed, personalized content that is, once you see it, nigh impossible to avoid clicking on—make them severely habit-forming. In fact, entire industries are popping up, attempting to monetize the cracks in our resolve. New, increasingly immersive platform technologies like virtual reality and augmented reality are emerging. New temptations. New distractions.

Coders, thinkers, and designers have access to user data and ingenious ways of mining it. They have algorithms that reveal our urges, secrets, desires, political leanings, buying habits, reading habits, listening habits, watching habits. They know things about us we often don’t know about ourselves. The Internet is compromised. It exists to capture human attention, warp it, contain it, and then transmogrify it into profits. These methods of data extraction are only getting more and more canny and effective. As companies behind various forms of digital entertainment receive more data on user behavior, they are able to optimize their services to make them more psychologically appealing, reducing barriers to allow near limitless use.

We have to retool our relationships to machines. We have to exercise self-control now. It may sound like science fiction, but we risk an entire generation being subjugated by inescapable addiction. We risk Aldous Huxley’s nightmarish vision, where everything is permitted, pleasure is the only pursuit, sex is loveless, and temporary derangement is the major form of recreation. We are already living in a dystopian future; a brave new world is right around the corner.

Behind the emerald curtain
You are not a customer of Facebook, Snapchat, or any of the other social media websites. You are their chief product. This fundamental idea is key to understanding why social media websites work the way they do. If you learn nothing else, remember this.

Social media, like any other giant industry, has no conscience. The structure of the business is quite simple: keep users on their websites as long as possible, learn everything you possibly can about them, and then sell that information to other companies. The goal of social media websites is to keep you clicking; any human connection you might find along the way is incidental.

On Facebook, you are not a customer. You – your time, your attention, your friends, your clicks, your searches, your interests, your likes – are Facebook’s product, a commodity to be bought and sold.

We are our user data
Companies pay loads of money to have access to our data. Our data is our digital fingerprint, unique to us, revelatory. Companies mine our blogs, our video chats, our email. They sneak custom ads into our news feeds. They predict the videos we want to watch, the news stories that angle in our political direction. They have algorithms that predict the movies we want to watch, the music we want to listen to, the underwear that will make us look the best.

The online paradigm is predicated on human attention. Every website worth its salt is designed to keep you on that website just a bit longer. At its essence, the primary function of the Internet is to suck up your time, and, in so doing, create customer profiles for companies to sell to.

Our attention spans haven’t evolved to handle the allure, the seduction, or the overload. Horror movies, by way of a strange example, scare us because movies have only been around a hundred or so years; what we see on the screen tricks us into thinking that we are the ones in danger even though we’re safe at home on the couch.

The Internet does a similar thing. We feel connected to other people even though we aren’t; we’re safe at home, alone on the couch. News stories pop up and make us indignant; videos appear that make us laugh and cry. Book recommendations with the cheapest place to buy them pepper the edges of webpages. Movie previews of movies we want to see and didn’t know existed pop up inside our web browsers. This might sound like a good thing, but it comes at a heavy price.

We trade our personal selves, our internal lives, to social media websites, which convert them into pure profit. In exchange, we are given the privilege of being sold things. And with increased Internet speed and advancements in virtual reality technology, this is going to get a lot worse.

The current boom in entertainment technology— which will only continue to grow with the development of new technological platforms that provide more, and still more, stimulating entertainment—has grown in response to both the steep psychological costs of late-stage capitalism that it temporarily alleviates, as well as the abundance of free time that many people of privilege now have at their disposal. Robotics, automation, outsourcing—we are always looking for more free time, only to fill it with digital stimulation.

The scratch just makes a bigger itch.

A. N. TurnerA.N. Turner uses his extensive academic and professional knowledge to help people understand and improve their relationship with the Internet. At the University of Pennsylvania he researched the influence of technology, where he was motivated to uncover the truth of Internet addiction, particularly in young adults. His experience working at a marketing partner of Facebook, and other large Internet companies allows him to understand the manipulative tactics of online super powers, or rather super villains. A.N. Turner currently works in advertising technology in New York City.

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