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Power to the people: how breaking free of algorithmic chains is the only way to end our digital stupor

When Bob Dylan sang The Times They Are A-Changin way back in 1964, he had no idea how profound his lyrics would one day be. 

When people find the very breath they’re taking monitored and analysed without their knowledge, you know times are indeed changing. 

These revelations were reported in ProPublica in 2018 and describe how Americans with sleep apnoea discovered the CPAP breathing machines that helped them sleep at night were secretly sending usage data to health insurers who used it to decide insurance payments. 

Civilisation is in the middle of a transition from a 20th century analogue society to a 21st century digital one and what was once recognisable is now different to anything that’s gone before.

A major knowledge gap has arisen between those who know all about us – the technology giants – and the rest of us who know nothing about them. 

When knowledge is power, this is a frightening concept and one that formed the recent testimony to politicians on the Senate Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Privacy, Technology and the Law by former Google designer Tristan Harris.

One year on from his last appearance before Senators, the campaigner for the overhaul of digital technology and social media, outlined two dystopian paths ahead:

  • One that will install a Chinese ‘Orwellian’ brain implant into society with authoritarian controls, censorship and mass behaviour modification.
  • The other that will install a US/Western ‘Huxleyan’ societal brain implant that saturates us in distractions, outrage and trivia until we amuse ourselves to death.

Harris is at the forefront of a movement that claims technology is eroding the fundamental organs of society including journalism. 

The digital take over and smart devices have set the race for attention spinning out of control, a phenomenon summed up nicely by the CEO of Netflix who said his biggest competitors are Facebook, YouTube and… sleep.

The pernicious creep of the addiction business model 

While the mainstream news publishers are left floundering in advertising wilderness having lost to Google and Facebook, Harris says the real issue is not the advertising model but the entire design model of what Silicon Valley does.

Human attention has become a highly valued commodity but no one is monitoring the ‘race to the bottom of the brain stem’ inherent in the digital techniques used to trigger outrage and anger, the emotions necessary to attract eyeballs. 

This race involves scrutinising people’s online lives and predicting what they’ll do next so an algorithm can intervene and shepherd them towards a specific action, one that helps boost someone’s profit margin.

If this is allowed to continue unimpeded the very future of humanity is at stake. If that sounds alarming, it’s because it is. But while Harris’s projections are grim, he sets forth a number of solutions. 

First let’s look at what got us here:

  • The digital takeover has taken place at a rapid speed 
  • We have freely given away personal data and integrated social platforms so fully into our lives we can’t figure out how to break free 
  • We hear how our data is being used to manipulate us and change our behaviour but we feel powerless at what to do about it.

‘We don’t find it radical to ban the sale of parts of ourselves like human organs,’ Harris says on his podcast Your Undivided Attention: Mr Harris Zooms to Washington.  ‘We shouldn’t find it radical to ban the sale of human behaviour which is the business model of all of the attention companies: TikTok, Facebook, Google, Instagram. That business model is turning humans into a domesticated species that’s incompatible with a civilisation that can survive.’

A business model that preys on human attention means people are worth more as human beings when we’re addicted, outraged, polarised, tribal, anxious, narcissistic and disinformed. It means the model has been successful at steering our attention using automation. 

And while we’re busy feeling those emotions, we’re distracted from serious existential threats like misinformation, the rise of China and climate change. 

A third path: how governments can and should steer us to digital health

Harris and his organisation The Center for Humane Technology are keen to focus on what can and must be done to stop the rot which starts with political strength and commitment. 

The Senate hearing also heard from executives at Facebook, Google, YouTube and Twitter about their actions to remove harmful content from their platforms. Harris supports their efforts but believes far more is required.

‘…no amount of content moderation policies can fix big tech’s core problem — the business model of keeping users addicted, outraged and polarised.’

While governments in Australia, Germany and the UK, are finally squaring up to the Google/Facebook duopoly grip on advertising, he goes a step further, calling on the US government to carve a third path as a viable alternative to the two dismal dystopian forecasts. 

This third path would incentivise strong, humane digital open societies that serve the people, not the pockets of the tech goliaths. Only this can ensure the continuance of government and democracy, and outcompete digital closed societies. 

Social media and the changing nature of journalism

Meanwhile, the general preoccupation with likes, shares and views has changed the way the mainstream media measures success with its news stories.

The US-based media and news publishers appear caught in a loop of negativity similar to that seen on social platforms. Even respected publications evaluate their journalists using similar forms of measurement – how many likes did the story get? Was it in the top 10 of stories? How many shares did it get? 

While the media – print and online – has always competed for ratings, what’s different now is the informational environment in which it does so. 

In subtle ways, social media is transforming not just our minds, mental health and connection to ourselves, but our institutions like the fourth estate and journalism.

Tech colonisers vs digital natives

The phrase ‘digital native’ was coined to describe the internet generation but Harvard professor Shoshana Zuboff calls it a ‘tragically ironic’ one. 

In her bookThe Age of Surveillance Capitalism she argues humanity has been sleepwalking, while the world has been colonised by tech titans.

Like the breathing of the sleep apnoea sufferers, private human experience is being used as a free raw material to translate into data about how we behave. 

This data is then packaged as prediction products and sold into behavioural futures markets to ‘business customers with a commercial interest in knowing what we will do now, soon and later’. We have unwittingly given up our right to the future tense, the essence of autonomy and free will. 

Zuboff says our behaviour is being predicted by tiny things that are unique to us, for example, how many exclamation marks we may use in our posts. This is shocking stuff!!

Technology as a force for good: empowerment and the democratisation of knowledge

Her solution starts by naming the problem, a move she hopes will generate public awareness and elicit the change of opinion so essential in helping reverse the crisis. 

In an article in the Harvard Gazette, Zuboff says she wants people waking up to a sense of indignation and saying, ‘No, this is not OK’. New laws, regulations and legal concepts for the digital space are urgently required and these must be based on an in-depth knowledge of how data gathering techniques work.

Tristan Harris meanwhile is rallying product designers to adopt a ‘Hippocratic oath’ for software to check the practice of exposing people’s psychological vulnerabilities. ‘There is a way to design that’s based not on addiction,’ he says, as he calls for new ratings, criteria, design and certification standards. 

When the founder of the internet himself, Sir Tim Berners Lee, speaks out about malign forces and a digital dystopia while launching a global plan to save the web from abuse, you know with certainty the time for change is upon us. 

In the interests of transparency and openness and so you know what our motive is, Powered by Coffee develops WordPress tools, software and other digital solutions for media publishers. We also happen to care deeply about the issues facing journalism in the 21st century and want to help promote improved design and more respectful tech that ensures a better, brighter future.

Coral Wood

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