Two Weekend Reads

Here are two things I think might be worth your time to read (next?) weekend.

Delete Your Account Now: A Conversation with Jaron Lanier

Harper Simon talks to Jaron Lanier about his book “Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now”. I particularly found his discussion of social media and social justice near the end particularly fascinating

So can we talk a little bit about the social justice or activism aspects of social media? Aside from taking selfies, self-promotion, and communicating with friends, the main justification people have for being on social media is that it enables so much community activism and social justice.

Yeah. A lot of people have felt that using social media is a way to organize for mutual betterment, whether it’s a social justice movement or other things. You’re absolutely correct: in the immediate sense their experience of that is authentic. I think they’re reporting on real events. The problem, however, is that behind the scenes there are these manipulation, behavior modification, and addiction algorithms that are running. And these addiction algorithms are blind. They’re just dumb algorithms. What they want to do is take whatever input people put into the system and find a way to turn it into the most engagement possible. And the most engagement comes from the startle emotions, like fear and anger and jealousy, because they tend to rise the fastest and then subside the slowest in people, and the algorithms are measuring people very rapidly, so they tend to pick up and amplify startle emotions over slower emotions like the building of trust or affection.

And so you tend to have the algorithms trying to take whatever has been put into the system and find some way to get a startle emotion out of it in order to maximize its use for addiction. What we call engagement should be called addiction and then behavior modification. And so you tend to have this phenomenon where there will be, let’s say, a social justice movement of some kind; it’s initially successful, but then the same data is instead optimized to find whoever is irritated by that social justice movement. Those irritated people are introduced to each other and put into this amplifying cycle where they’re more and more agitated until they become horrible. So, you start with the Arab Spring, but then you get ISIS getting even more mileage from the same tools. Or you start with Black Lives Matter and you come up with this resurgent bizarre racist movement that had been dormant for years. And this just keeps on happening.

So the problem is that when people say, “Oh, we use social media for social justice,” they’re typically correct. And yet in the longer story they’re really vulnerable to a far greater backlash than they would have gotten if they used another technique. At the end of the day, it’s hard to say whether they really benefited or not.

There are flourishing communities of marginalized people on social media, who say very clearly that they find comfort, solace, and companionship in these social media communities. I think there’s a good argument to be made that there are people who absolutely have benefit hugely from social media.

Yet, Lanier’s point about the callous amorality of engagement driven algorithms, and how they foment conflict feels like an accurate description of own experience on Twitter. I feel the siren song of these engagement driven algorithms regularly; perhaps the one that I wonder most about is Pocket, just due to the nearness of my work (Pocket is owned by Mozilla, my employer).

I have tried to reduce my own use of social media. Yet, I will ultimately post this blog post to my social media accounts; This is because I know so many people for whom social media is the only way they know things happen. Most of my friends won’t have my blog in an RSS reader; I’d be lucky if they would occasionally drop in. What does this mean? I don’t know. I’m a slave to the machine?

Another Technological Tragedy

A couple of months ago a neighbourhood in Massachusetts exploded, seemingly out of nowhere. I remember reading some of the original coverage on it, but neglected to ever return to the subject to discover the root cause. In the linked piece, Brian Hayes writes a fascinating mini-history of gas, and discusses the cause from the NTSB report.