There is growing concern that as well as addicting users, technology is contributing toward so-called “continuous partial attention”, severely limiting people’s ability to focus, and possibly lowering IQ. One recent study showed that the mere presence of smartphones damages cognitive capacity – even when the device is turned off. “Everyone is distracted,” Rosenstein says. “All of the time.”
But those concerns are trivial compared with the devastating impact upon the political system that some of Rosenstein’s peers believe can be attributed to the rise of social media and the attention-based market that drives it.
Drawing a straight line between addiction to social media and political earthquakes like Brexit and the rise of Donald Trump, they contend that digital forces have completely upended the political system and, left unchecked, could even render democracy as we know it obsolete.
…One morning in April this year, designers, programmers and tech entrepreneurs from across the world gathered at a conference centre on the shore of the San Francisco Bay. They had each paid up to $1,700 to learn how to manipulate people into habitual use of their products, on a course curated by conference organiser Nir Eyal …author of Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products.
…He explains the subtle psychological tricks that can be used to make people develop habits, such as varying the rewards people receive to create “a craving”, or exploiting negative emotions that can act as “triggers”. “Feelings of boredom, loneliness, frustration, confusion and indecisiveness often instigate a slight pain or irritation and prompt an almost instantaneous and often mindless action to quell the negative sensation,” Eyal writes.
…[Harris] explored how LinkedIn exploits a need for social reciprocity to widen its network; how YouTube and Netflix autoplay videos and next episodes, depriving users of a choice about whether or not they want to keep watching; how Snapchat created its addictive Snapstreaks feature, encouraging near-constant communication between its mostly teenage users.
…The techniques these companies use are not always generic: they can be algorithmically tailored to each person. An internal Facebook report leaked this year, for example, revealed that the company can identify when teens feel “insecure”, “worthless” and “need a confidence boost”. Such granular information, Harris adds, is “a perfect model of what buttons you can push in a particular person.”
Tech companies can exploit such vulnerabilities to keep people hooked; manipulating, for example, when people receive “likes” for their posts, ensuring they arrive when an individual is likely to feel vulnerable, or in need of approval, or maybe just bored. And the very same techniques can be sold to the highest bidder. “There’s no ethics,” he says. A company paying Facebook to use its levers of persuasion could be a car business targeting tailored advertisements to different types of users who want a new vehicle. Or it could be a Moscow-based troll farm seeking to turn voters in a swing county in Wisconsin.
…[Marcellino] is now in the final stages of retraining to be a neurosurgeon. He stresses he is no expert on addiction, but says he has picked up enough in his medical training to know that technologies can affect the same neurological pathways as gambling and drug use. “These are the same circuits that make people seek out food, comfort, heat, sex,” he says.
All of it, he says, is reward-based [behavior] that activates the brain’s dopamine pathways.
…[Williams] noticed he was surrounded by technology that was inhibiting him from concentrating on the things he wanted to focus on. “It was that kind of individual, existential [realization]: what’s going on?” he says. “Isn’t technology supposed to be doing the complete opposite of this?”
…Companies to depict the world in a way that makes for compulsive, irresistible viewing. “The attention economy [incentivizes] the design of technologies that grab our attention,” he says. “In so doing, it privileges our impulses over our intentions.”
That means privileging what is sensational over what is nuanced, appealing to emotion, anger and outrage.
…[Williams] stresses these dynamics are by no means isolated to the political right: they also play a role, he believes, in the unexpected popularity of leftwing politicians such as Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn, and the frequent outbreaks of internet outrage over issues that ignite fury among progressives.
All of which, Williams says, is not only distorting the way we view politics but, over time, may be changing the way we think, making us less rational and more impulsive. “We’ve habituated ourselves into a perpetual cognitive style of outrage.”
…“The dynamics of the attention economy are structurally set up to undermine the human will,” he says. “If politics is an expression of our human will, on individual and collective levels, then the attention economy is directly undermining the assumptions that democracy rests on.” If Apple, Facebook, Google, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat are gradually chipping away at our ability to control our own minds, could there come a point, I ask, at which democracy no longer functions?