The Social Media Catastrophe
Attention is a fixed resource and we are in a "Tragedy of the Commons" situation with modern media.
This article originally appeared on Medium July 17, 2018. Since then quite a bit of attention has been paid to Facebook algorithms or similar, but not enough has been given to the overall problem of attention as a resource, which is being exploited. We go deep on that here.
There’s a fantastic Cult Classic horror movie from 1984 called “Cathode Ray.” You’ve probably never heard of it. What made it truly amazing was the terror came not from violence, but from a dystopian layer that builds in its creepiness minute by minute and challenges your notions of free will itself. It opens like this.
A rural family in Georgia, on a Saturday afternoon in the fall, goes through their normal routine before heading out to tailgate at a college football game. Ordinary Americana. The two boys wake up, and immediately start playing the movie’s equivalent of an Atari 2600, but before they take the joystick they stick a hypodermic needle in their arms, which feeds them some kind of drug drip from the game console. They stare at the television, and their parents don’t even notice the IV. The mom even steps over the tube, as if this is normal. Creepy. The dad opens up his newspaper for the morning, but instead of a newspaper it’s got a TV embedded in it, and he too jacks in a strange tube from the TV right into his arm. Mom doesn’t say a word. The special effects in this movie are kind of garbage because it was low budget, but the director focuses on the mom here, and her utter disregard for the tube in her husband’s arm. Very creepy. Mom goes to the bathroom and takes a shit, which is the sort of thing you could only squeeze into very low budget cult movies back then, and there’s a TV on the counter. She turns it on, and sticks a hypo in her arm while she’s doing it.
Eventually everyone is late getting out the door for the tailgate, because they’re all so distracted with these drug-inducing TVs. They transition to their Jeep Wagoneer with all their tailgate gear, and built into every hard surface of both the dashboard and the head rests are other TVs, each with another tube, and everyone jacks the needle into their arms for the drive. The drive scene is surreal, because every other car on the road, on their way to Sanford Stadium in Athens, is also full of people staring at cathode ray screens with IV drips in their arms.
When they arrive at the tailgate, they open the back, set their chairs up, get out the cooler of beer, and then get out four tiny portable TVs replete with this strange hypodermic infusion apparatus that literally nobody in the movie has mentioned. They finally go to the game, and above the football game there’s a giant, half an acre sized cathode ray TV blaring a video feed of the game at them, with a little hypodermic tube at every bleacher seat. None of them watches the game on the field, they all stare at the TV. When their team scores, they pose for a family picture in front of the massive, omnipresent cathode ray screen, with tubes in their arms. Roll credits.
If you’re trying to find this on Netflix, please stop. You haven’t heard of this movie before because doesn’t exist. It’s a willful fabrication to remind us not to believe every bullshitter on the internet, but also to convey a far more important point. We are literally living in that horror movie right now.
Thankfully, a few people are starting to talk about it.
Simon Sinek, on the topic of millennials in the workplace, goes into the technology saturation of millennials here:
He also focuses on the dopamine issue, laying it out specifically. Social media interaction releases dopamine. Dopamine is the same neurochemical that gives us pleasure when we drink, smoke, and gamble, all the most important elements for a fun Saturday night. His overall point is that adolescent millennials become addicted to this dopamine high because of early exposure, and it fundamentally undermines their ability to create deep, meaningful relationships, so they turn back to their phones. So that’s a big problem for the Millennial and younger generations.
But the overall problem is bigger than that.
Chamath Palihapitiya, a former Vice President of Facebook, got a lot of press recently for stating the obvious: social media is “Ripping apart the social fabric of how society works.”
He outlines the effects, which for anyone reading this article are probably already obvious, those being short-term dopamine driven feedback loops, no civil discourse, no cooperation, misinformation, mistruth, etcetera. He states that social media is “eroding the core foundations of how people behave by and between each other.” His explanation can be paraphrased thusly:
The psychology of likes/shares/upvotes grants us a temporary dopamine high unrelated to real truth or real value, and when the high is over, it leaves us vacant and soulless, seeking another high, so we post another cat video, or another Hillary / Trump meme. The dangers he sees are lack of civil discourse, interpersonal strife, and the possibility that bad actors might leverage the system. His explanation, and his worries, are related to the psychology of the thing.
But the overall problem is even bigger than that.
Jaron Lanier, a very well-respected futurist thinker, goes into his take here:
Before I get into a summary of his position, I’ll just mention that the one time I spoke deeply with Mr. Lanier, at a music conference in 2016, I got the very distinct impression that he was mostly regurgitating talking points he’d heard at elite Silicon Valley cocktail parties and wasn’t thinking deeply about the stuff he was spinning. If true, that may actually make this interview more interesting, because it may mean he’s a relatively good representative of the general Silicon Valley zeitgeist.
He hits on an important algorithmic feature of social media, in that the automated feed curation heuristics intentionally develop echo chambers, bend you towards certain advertisers, and force you into argument loops to generate traffic. But then he defaults back to the popular and myopic fear of “bad actors using Facebook in ways Facebook can’t understand.”
But I say to you, Jaron-Lanier-cum-Silicon-Valley-cocktail-party-proxy, the overall problem is even deeper than that.
Laurence Scott calls the pseudo-social space within our phones the “Fourth Dimension,” and hits on some of the same highlights as above, but brings up another interesting point, and I’m not sure he fully understands the implications.
Are we neglecting the physical world when we’re living in the fourth dimension?
With our limitless opportunities for living online, there’s a real sense that it’s almost a part of our citizenship to get involved in the constant digital communication. Yet at the same time, we are constantly being told via this medium that our physical world and environment is under threat. It’s a great platform for activists to get their messages out there about fracking or the decline of the bee population. So it’s not so much that we are neglecting it, but more that we are hyperaware of it, funnily enough.
But the problem is deeper than that, because this hyperawareness is not good for a stable nonviolent society.
Bret Weinstein goes into it on Rogan here:
Bret postulates that part of our latent genetic programming as a species, is to band into tribes during times of resource scarcity. We work together when resources are plentiful, to expand our population to the resource limit, but when we reach the limit this latent genetic code becomes activated. We band into groups, identify the weaker groups, be they within a nation or outside our borders, and we run the “genocide” or “war” program. Just like the ants, which I went into in a lot of depth about here:
We do these things because they work, from a gene propagation game theoretical standpoint.
Bret further goes on to draw it back to social media. Our social media feeds give us constant messaging in three predominant flavors:
Look how great my life is! (kid/dog/beach pictures)
Look how terrible the world is! (Trump/Hillary/Racism/Privilege!/Etc)
Look at all these rich motherfuckers! (Caitlyn Jenner/Elon Musk/Queen of England)
The combination of these signals creates a false picture of the world, which is very close in analogy to the sort of resource scarcity boundary that activates the latent programing to band into violent tribes. You start to think that your life is not as adequate as the ones you read about, that other people have more stuff, that your stuff isn’t enough stuff, and the tiny cluster of resource-scarcity neurons start banging away at your unconscious, infecting your world view. If you don’t believe that’s going on, head on over to r/latestagecapitalism. It will make your eyes bleed.
But as bad as that is, and war and genocide are plenty bad, the overall problem is even bigger than that!
Rafael Behr gets closer to the mark, with his piece in the Guardian about “the outrage economy.”
He spends a lot of the article railing against the right, but hits the mark with this gem:
Extremes of opinion cause spikes in web traffic, which suits publishers and platforms. In the currency of clicks, an inflammatory, racist article by Katie Hopkins, for example, yields a double payoff. It is shared by people who agree and by people who violently disagree.
Key phrase: “the currency of clicks.”
Robert Shrimsley gets even closer with his opinion piece in the Financial Times:
Sadly, the rules of the outrage economy mean everyone is behaving rationally. The outragers have identified a market and are supplying it; the media organizations, which rely solely on advertising for revenue, know these cheap-to-produce stories secure hits. The more reaction they garner, the more alluring they become. Every denunciation is a win, every furious comment stream proof of their power to engage and enrage. This, in turn, leads to more attention, newspaper columns and TV appearances.
Key phrase: this media behavior is rational. And the reason it’s rational, goes back to the ancient marketplace problem of “The Tragedy of The Commons.”
Attention as a Resource
There’s no better example in my mind of the Tragedy of the Commons than the killing, harvesting, and multiple extinctions of the whales, and there’s no better article that digs at the market details of how and why we did that (literally to butter our bread) that than Seth Miller’s piece, here:
And I’ve found few examples that better explain how this works in marketplace dynamics than this hypothetical by Slate Star Codex:
But if your attention span is limited, which I postulate below is a surety, I’ll summarize. If there’s a shared resource, and that resource is fixed in quantity, the best result for individuals who seek to use that resource would be to collaborate to ensure that the resource isn’t depleted. But any one individual who takes more than “his or her share” (whatever that means) of the resource is disproportionately rewarded. This means the individual reward scheme doesn’t match what’s best for the common resource, and you end up with a scenario where all the individual actors do everything they can to harvest that common resource, which is a completely rational act at the individual level, and we spread 99% of the blue whales on toast.
This is what’s happening right now in the media.
There are a fixed number of people in the country. Some 325 million people. Each of these people only exists for 24 hours per day. Carving off (let’s postulate) two hours per day on our media saturation addiction, we have 650 million “attention hours” that we might supply to the media by spending them clicking. That’s a fixed number. It can’t go any higher. The supply of attention hours is inelastic to demand.
But the media gets paid by the click.
So what do they do?
Since the fixed resource is time, they make the articles shorter, and eliminate all nuance. This is a raw click-increaser because shorter thoughts are more easily shared, despite them making complicated conversations impossible. What’s up Twitter?
Anything they can do to addict the smartphone user to their content is additional traffic. (Look how great this person’s life is!)
Most traffic comes from secondary sharing, so they tailor articles to echo chambers, sensationalism, and general freakoutery. Anything they can do to make people argue is additional traffic. (Look how terrible the world is!)
The other main secondary sharing hook comes from envy. (Look at all these rich motherfuckers!)
It’s not just the fake news, it’s the real news.
In short, this Tragedy of the Commons scenario with attention spans incentivizes the media corporations to create the exact environment Weinstein holds as predictive for war and genocide. And “incentivize” is too weak a word. They’re required to do this, because if they don’t, some other company will, and the other company will seize their market share. It is a business model recipe for disaster. We’ve built a system that not only can create a violent catastrophe, it must do so.
What’s the Solution?
This is the part in the article where the clever author, who’s built you into a fervor of suspense and fear, drops his or her enlightened, awesome solution and then you tweet that out to your friends and feel warm and happy from your dopamine fix. Problem is, I don’t have a solution, and I’ve spent a long time trying to cook one up. Any way I attack the problem, I reach a dead end. The classic solution to Tragedy of the Commons scenarios is forced cooperation at the hands of a central authority, such as a government. Natural Resource Conservation Service. Whaling treaties. But that doesn’t work in this space, for two reasons:
Free speech is fundamental and essential to any system of self-governance,
Even if you wanted to censor the entire internet, you couldn’t.
Every media outlet in the country, probably the world, would somehow have to come to a great agreement to cooperate in avoiding the coming (probably violent) catastrophe. But even then, whichever media outlet pushed the boundary the hardest would make the most revenue, and if any media outlet came along outside of this hypothetical Grand Pact, they’d be rewarded with market share.
I have no solution. Not a one.
The very best I can figure is to buy beans, bullets, and bandages before the media butters their bread with us all.