The ‘social media revolution’ gave us Donald Trump and Brexit—and is making politics impossible.
least reasonable parts of our minds, on which a democratic public sphere depends. It speaks instead to the emotional, reactive, quick-fix parts of us, that are satisfied by images and clicks that look pleasing, that feed our egos, and that make us think we are heroic. But too often these feelings come at the expense of the deep thinking, planning, and interaction that democratic politics are built from. This doesn’t mean reasoned debate can’t happen online; of course it can and does. It means that there is a strong tendency—what media and technology researchers call an “affordance”—away from dispassionate debate and toward strong emotions.
He argues that we have lost the ability to think slowly, therefore making us more susceptible to irrational decisions.
In 2007 and again in 2008, Kahneman gave a class in “Thinking, About Thinking” to a powerful group of executives from companies like Google, Twitter, Facebook, Wikipedia Microsoft, and Amazon (he also gave another talk about “Thinking, Fast and Slow” at Google in 2011). Kahneman is well known for bringing public awareness to the distinction between so-called “System 1” and “System 2” thinking. System 2 is good old fashioned, actual, “slow” thinking, it’s “effortful, infrequent, logical, calculating, conscious.” System 2 is the kind of rational cogitation we like to imagine we do all the time. System 1 is “fast” thinking, fight or flight, “automatic, frequent, emotional, stereotypic, subconscious.” Facebook and Twitter are built on System 1, as is most social media. That’s why so many tech executives were at those master classes. And that’s what they learned there: How to craft media that talks to System 1 and bypasses System 2.
Golumbia describes this as a ‘revolution’
Those who celebrated the Facebook revolution and the Twitter revolution were celebrating the replacement of (relatively) calm reflection with the politics of reactivity and passion. This domination of System 2 by System 1 thinking is the real social media “revolution.” The question that remains is whether democracies have both the will, and the means to bring considered thought back to politics, or, whether digital technology has made politics impossible.
There is a war for your attention, and like all adversarial scenarios, the sides develop new countermeasures and then new tactics to overcome those countermeasures. The predator carves the prey, the prey carves the predator. To get a sense of just how far the state of the art has advanced since Farmville, fire up Universal Paperclips, the free browser game from game designer Frank Lantz, which challenges you to balance resource acquisition, timing, and resource allocation to create paperclips, progressing by purchasing upgraded paperclip-production and paperclip-marketing tools, until, eventually, you produce a sentient AI that turns the entire universe into paperclips, exterminating all life.
At a time when Facebook, Twitter and Google are grappling with an epidemic of political manipulation and fake news, Devumi’s fake followers also serve as phantom foot soldiers in political battles online. Devumi’s customers include both avid supporters and fervent critics of President Trump, and both liberal cable pundits and a reporter at the alt-right bastion Breitbart.
Jordan Erica Webber looks at how our data is being used to push political ideologies
Developers of platforms such as Facebook have admitted that they were designed to be addictive. Should we be following the executives’ example and going cold turkey – and is it even possible for mere mortals?
I used to look at the heads of the social networks and get annoyed that they didn’t understand their own sites. Regular users encounter bugs, abuse or bad design decisions that the executives could never understand without using the sites themselves. How, I would wonder, could they build the best service possible if they didn’t use their networks like normal people? Now, I wonder something else: what do they know that we don’t?
Hern shares his efforts to remove himself:
That is certainly how I feel about Twitter. I have tried to cut back, after realising how much of my time was spent staring at a scrolling feed of aphorisms ranging from mildly amusing to vaguely traumatic. I deleted 133,000 tweets, in an effort to reduce the feeling that I couldn’t give up on something into which I had sunk so much time. I removed the apps from my phone and my computer, forcing any interaction through the web browser. I have taken repeated breaks. But I keep coming back.
He also highlights what we are up against:
It is one thing to be a child with a protective parent keeping technology away from you. It is quite another to live like a technology executive yourself, defeating the combined effort of thousands of the world’s smartest people to instil a craving to open their app every day. I am not alone in struggling.
Along with Mozilla’s podcast on overload, they provide a useful provocation to go further on the topic.
Many people have unhealthy habits and dynamics in their life. Some are rooted in physical addiction. Others are habitual or psychological crutches. But across that spectrum, most people are aware of when something that they’re doing isn’t healthy. They may not be able to stop. Or they may not want to stop. Untangling that is part of the challenge. When you feel as though your child has an unhealthy relationship with technology (or anything else in their life), you need to start by asking if they see this the same way you do. When parents feel as though what their child is doing is unhealthy for them, but the child does not, the intervention has to be quite different than when the child is also concerned about the issue.
Parents don’t like to see that they’re part of the problem or that their efforts to protect and help their children might backfire.
In response, she suggests two things for parents to do:
- Verbalize what you’re doing with your phone’
Create a household contract
After reading this, I tried verbalising my actions and it soon becomes apparent when maybe the phone could go away.
Whether you like it or not, a data-based version of yourself exists out there, scattered among different databases as data points in massive torrents of big data. Data mining, algorithms and analytics processes are increasingly being put to work to know and understand you, and also to know and understand the wider populations, communities and societies to which you belong.
If benefits are gained by how we use social media then I would argue that the #IndieWeb has a lot to offer, as well as the movement to claim your own domain. This means that I am more mindful of my space and potentially decide how to share my data and information.
Audrey Watters asks the questions ‘who is telling the stories’ of the future and about research:
Where do these stories about the future come from? Like, how do we know about “what’s happening” and “what’s trending” in education? Who are the people who are telling us what the future of education or technology or education technology is supposed to like? Who tells these stories? Who benefits from these stories? Who funds these stories? Why do we find these stories compelling?
Clearly, in this case it is Facebook and this is a concern.
Along with creative developments in gaming, Facebook seems like a natural for measuring flourishing. Facebook has the audience, the capacity, and is building apps (applications) that speak to the development and measurement of well-being worldwide. Can well-being be monitored on a daily basis all over the world? Here’s a beginning: Mark Slee counted the occurrences of the term laid off in Facebook every day and graphed the count against the number of layoffs worldwide. Sure enough, they moved in lockstep. Not thrilling, you might think. But now consider the five elements of well-being: positive emotion, engagement, meaning, positive relationships, and accomplishment. Each element has a lexicon; an extensive vocabulary. For example, the English language has only about eighty words to describe positive emotion. (You can determine this by going to a thesaurus for a word such as joy and then looking up all the related words, and then counting the synonyms of all those related words, eventually circling back to the core of eighty.) The hypermassive Facebook database could be accessed daily for a count of positive emotion words—words that signal meaning, positive relationships, and accomplishment—as a first approximation to well-being in a given nation or as a function of some major event. It is not only measuring well-being that Facebook and its cousins can do, but increasing well-being as well. “We have a new application: goals.com,” Mark continued. “In this app, people record their goals and their progress toward their goals.” I commented on Facebook’s possibilities for instilling well-being: “As it stands now, Facebook may actually be building four of the elements of well-being: positive emotion, engagement (sharing all those photos of good events), positive relationships (the heart of what ‘friends’ are all about), and now accomplishment. All to the good. The fifth element of well-being, however, needs work, and in the narcissistic environment of Facebook, this work is urgent, and that is belonging to and serving something that you believe is bigger than the self—the element of meaning. Facebook could indeed help to build meaning in the lives of the five hundred million users. Think about it, Mark.”
I have written about Facebook elsewhere and do not want to go into that here. I wonder though if there could be a means of collecting and collating such responses, while still holding onto the data? Is this one of the compromises to the ‘internet of things’?