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Is Social Media Training Us to Please a Machine?

“We tend to think that the internet is a communications network we use to speak to one another — but in a sense, we’re not doing anything of the sort. Instead, we are the ones being spoken through.”

Teens on TikTok all talk in the exact same tone, identical singsong smugness. Millennials on Twitter use the same shrinking vocabulary. My guy! Having a normal one! Even when you actually meet them in the sunlit world, they’ll say valid or based, or say y’all despite being British….

Everything you say online is subject to an instant system of rewards. Every platform comes with metrics; you can precisely quantify how well-received your thoughts are by how many likes or shares or retweets they receive. For almost everyone, the game is difficult to resist: they end up trying to say the things that the machine will like. For all the panic over online censorship, this stuff is far more destructive. You have no free speech — not because someone might ban your account, but because there’s a vast incentive structure in place that constantly channels your speech in certain directions. And unlike overt censorship, it’s not a policy that could ever be changed, but a pure function of the connectivity of the internet itself. This might be why so much writing that comes out of the internet is so unbearably dull, cycling between outrage and mockery, begging for clicks, speaking the machine back into its own bowels….

The internet is not a communications system. Instead of delivering messages between people, it simulates the experience of being among people, in a way that books or shopping lists or even the telephone do not. And there are things that a simulation will always fail to capture. In the philosophy of Emmanuel Lévinas, your ethical responsibility to other people emerges out of their face, the experience of looking directly into the face of another living subject. “The face is what prohibits us from killing….” But Facebook is a world without faces. Only images of faces; selfies, avatars: dead things. Or the moving image in a FaceTime chat: a haunted puppet. There is always something in the way. You are not talking to a person: the machine is talking, through you, to itself.

As more and more of your social life takes place online, you’re training yourself to believe that other people are not really people, and you have no duty towards them whatsoever. These effects don’t vanish once you look away from the screen…. many of the big conflicts within institutions in the last few years seem to be rooted in the expectation that the world should work like the internet. If you don’t like a person, you should be able to block them: simply push a button, and have them disappear forever.

The article revisits a 2011 meta-analysis that found massive declines in young people’s capacity for empathy, which the authors directly associated with the spread of social media. But then Kriss argues that “We are becoming less and less capable of actual intersubjective communication; more unhappy; more alone. Every year, surveys find that people have fewer and fewer friends; among millennials, 22% say they have none at all.

“For the first time in history, we can simply do without each other entirely. The machine supplies an approximation of everything you need for a bare biological existence: strangers come to deliver your food; AI chatbots deliver cognitive-behavioral therapy; social media simulates people to love and people to hate; and hidden inside the microcircuitry, the demons swarm…”

So while recent books look for historical antecedents, “I still think that the internet is a serious break from what we had before,” Kriss argues. “And as nice as Wikipedia is, as nice as it is to be able to walk around foreign cities on Google Maps or read early modern grimoires without a library card, I still think the internet is a poison.”

Why the Past 10 Years of American Life Have Been Uniquely Stupid

Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist at the New York University’s School of Business, argues in the Atlantic that social-media platforms “trained users to spend more time performing and less time connecting.” But that was just the beginning.

He now believes this ultimately fueled a viral dynamic leading to “the continual chipping-away of trust” in a democracy which “depends on widely internalized acceptance of the legitimacy of rules, norms, and institutions.”
The most recent Edelman Trust Barometer (an international measure of citizens’ trust in government, business, media, and nongovernmental organizations) showed stable and competent autocracies (China and the United Arab Emirates) at the top of the list, while contentious democracies such as the United States, the United Kingdom, Spain, and South Korea scored near the bottom (albeit above Russia)…. Mark Zuckerberg may not have wished for any of that. But by rewiring everything in a headlong rush for growth — with a naive conception of human psychology, little understanding of the intricacy of institutions, and no concern for external costs imposed on society — Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and a few other large platforms unwittingly dissolved the mortar of trust, belief in institutions, and shared stories that had held a large and diverse secular democracy together.

In the last 10 years, the article argues, the general public — at least in America — became “uniquely stupid.” And he’s not just speaking about the political right and left, but within both factions, “as well as within universities, companies, professional associations, museums, and even families.” The article quotes former CIA analyst Martin Gurri’s comment in 2019 that the digital revolution has highly fragmented the public into hostile shards that are “mostly people yelling at each other and living in bubbles of one sort or another.”

The article concludes that by now U.S. politics has entered a phase where truth “cannot achieve widespread adherence” and thus “nothing really means anything anymore–at least not in a way that is durable and on which people widely agree.” It even contemplates the idea of “highly believable” disinformation generated by AI, possibly by geopolitical adversaries, ultimately evolving into what the research manager at the Stanford Internet Observatory has described as “an Information World War in which state actors, terrorists, and ideological extremists leverage the social infrastructure underpinning everyday life to sow discord and erode shared reality.”

Is the Internet Changing the Way We Remember?

“A study in 2019 found that the spatial memory used for navigating through the world tends to be worse for people who’ve made extensive use of map apps and GPS devices…” reports NBC News.

But that’s just the beginning, according to Adrian Ward, who studies psychology at the University of Texas at Austin. NBC says Ward’s research suggests “People who lean on a search engine such as Google may get the right answers but they can also end up with a wrong idea of how strong their own memory is.”

In Ward’s research, published in October in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States, he used a series of eight experiments to test how people used and thought about their own knowledge as they completed short quizzes of general knowledge. Some participants had access to Google while answering the questions — “What is the most widely spoken language in the world?” was one — while others did not. They also completed surveys. He found that people who used Google were more confident in their own ability to think and remember, and erroneously predicted that they would know significantly more in future quizzes without the help of the internet. Ward attributed that to Google’s design: simple and easy, less like a library and more like a “neural prosthetic” that simulates a search in a human brain.

“The speed makes it so you never understand what you don’t know,” Ward said.

The findings echo and build on earlier research, including a widely cited 2011 paper on the “Google effect”: a phenomenon in which people are less likely to remember information if they know they can find it later on the internet…. In a review of recent studies in the field, published in September, researchers at Duke University found that the “externalization” of memories into digital spheres “changes what people attend to and remember about their own experiences.” Digital media is new and different, they wrote, because of factors such as how easily images are edited or the huge number of memories at people’s fingertips.

Each photographic cue means another chance for a memory to be “updated,” maybe with a false impression, and each manipulation of a piece of social media content is a chance for distortion, wrote the researchers, doctoral student Emmaline Drew Eliseev and Elizabeth Marsh, a professor of psychology and neuroscience and director of a lab dedicated to studying memory.