Social Media: A Public “Bad”?

A recent article in the The Atlantic has made the best case I’ve read that social media is an unmeritorious (or immoral) private good and a public “bad.”  Ayad Akhtar, in an essay entitled “The Singularity is Here,” writes:

“Adhesiveness.  That’s what the technology aspires to achieve, the metric by which it self-regulates and optimizes.  The longer we stick around—on YouTube or Facebook, on Amazon, on the New York Times app—the deeper we scroll, the greater the yield of information, the more effective the influence.  We are only starting to understand just how intentional all of this is, just how engineered for maximum engagement the platforms are.  In fact, the platforms have been built and are still being optimized to keep us glued, to keep us engaged.”

He puts the invention of this demand to govern our inner selves as the service of Mammon in the seeking of profits by private enterprise:

“John Stankey, the current CEO of AT&T, was unusually clear … in 2018, as he addressed his new employees at the just-acquired HBO:

“We need hours a day,” Stankey said, referring to the time viewers spend watching HBO programs.  “It’s not hours a week and it’s not hours a month.  We need hours a day.  You are competing with devices that sit in people’s hands that capture their attention every 15 minutes.” Continuing the theme, Stankey added: “I want more hours of engagement.  Why are more hours of engagement important?  Because you get more data and information about a customer that then allows you to do things like monetize through alternate models of advertising, as well as subscriptions.”

Akhtar realizes that: “or the tech to be able to tailor and deliver advertising in its various forms, it needs eyeballs.  The more of them and the longer they stay, the more adhesive the platform becomes and the more revenue it can generate.”

Akhtar adds: “In pursuit of what John Stankey called more hours a day, the technology metes out its steady stream of tiny pleasures as the reward for your sustained attention.  Touch the screen—respond to the offered stimuli like a rat in an experiment—and receive what some are now calling a dopamine rush.”

“Embedded in this scheme of endless distraction is a deeper logic.  The system has come to understand the fundamental value of always reaffirming our points of view back to us, delivering to us a world in our image, confirmation bias as the default setting.  This is the real meaning of contemporary virtuality.  In the virtual space, the technology combats and corrects our frustrations with reality itself—which defies expectation and understanding, by definition.”

I seek.  I find what I know.  I enjoy this recognition of myself.  I am trained over time to trust in a path to understanding that leads through the familiar, that leads through me.  “I” am the arbiter of what is real.  What is more real than me?

“In its basest form—and make no mistake, the baser the form, the stickier the engagement—what we’re describing here is a profound technological support for primary narcissism.  We don’t need to know our Ovid in order to understand the perils of all this self-gazing and yet, we may nevertheless fail to appreciate just how pervasive the social attitudes engendered by this orientation have become.  Self-obsession as a route to self-realization is, of course, not a new idea.”

“Merchants of attention have learned that nothing adheres us to their traps like emotion and that some emotions are stickier than others.  The new and alluring, the surpassingly cute.  The frenzied thrill at the prospect of conflict or violence.  The misfortune of others.  Perhaps most emblematically, the expression of our anger, rightful or hateful.  All of this lights up a part of our brain that will not release us from its tyranny.  Our fingertips seek it.  To say that we are addicts does not capture the magnitude of what is happening.”

“The system is built to keep us riveted, to keep that neurochemical leak of dopamine steadily coursing and it operates with a premium on efficiency, which is to say, the platforms optimize for performance based on empirical feedback.”

“The platforms that churn through content with the greatest velocity shape the emotional responses of consumers almost in real time.  Watch a video on YouTube or like a post on Facebook or Twitter and you will be offered another and another and another.  Behind the suggested offerings is a logic of emotional response.  The technology is seeking your trigger, whatever draws you deeper and keeps you clicking.”

“Self-valorizing anthems abound.  “Me” and “my” have been elevated to epistemological categories.  And the now widespread misreading of the self’s fragility as resulting not from the contingent situation of selfhood itself, but from society’s failure to protect and recognize “me.”

Akhtar rightly perceives that putting my self-valorizing under threat and stress gets my attention. “Nothing quite does it like outrage.  Moral outrage.  Those we know are right to hate; those we love because we are united together against those we know are right to hate.”

“… And the logic of the increasingly truculent divide between right and left in America today. Driven by engagement and the profit that it generates, each side drifts further and further from the other, the space between us growing only more charged, only richer with opportunity for monetization.  The cultural clash in America today has more electrical engineering behind it than we realize.”

Akhtar’s insightful realism reminds me of Shakespeare’s not-dissimilar cynicism about our kind:

“When we are born, we cry that we are come to this great stage of fools.”

If we are not to be sheep, born to be herded and shorn by the lords of tech who feed themselves off us, what must we do?

We at the Caux Round Table have proposed a code of ethics for social media by which we each, on our own, take charge of our destinies.