If Big Tech has its way, it’s ‘Checkmate for humanity’ expert says
Center for Humane Technology co-founder Harris warns of danger ahead, especially at Facebook
An apparently significant investigation by The Wall Street Journal of Facebook and its wanton disregard for the damage it's doing to our society, has been getting a lot of buzz since its publication.
It was even the subject of contentious hearings on Capitol Hill on Sept. 30.
But you can read “The Facebook Files: A Wall Street Journal investigation” ONLY if you are willing and able to fork over $38.99 per month ($467 per year!) for a subscription.
If you can't or won't pay such an exorbitant amount to a company owned by Rupert Murdoch, who also owns Fox News, the next best thing was the Sept. 24 interview of Tristan Harris on “Real Time with Bill Maher.”
On his HBO show, Maher begins his setup for the interview saying: “So there was a big story in The Wall Street Journal this week about Facebook and, you know, whenever I read these stories (this one was about how they changed their algorithm) I'm always thinking: How much do our robot overlords really control us because I honestly feel like a fucking hamster.”
When Maher gets angry, the vitriol pours out unrestrained.
A much calmer, almost cerebral, Harris – president of the Center for Humane Technology – amplifies the point.
“My understanding is [the WSJ has] the largest set of internal research about Facebook's effects on society that were known inside the company,” Harris says.
“That they deceived from the top, and it has effects across the gamut – from an increase in suicidal ideation among teen girls, mental health issues in teenagers, body image issues, and, specifically, the thing that I think you and I are both most interested in, which is the way that it makes political parties more negative.”
Maher is overtly political, one might say a radical progressive – except laced with a thick dollop of ironic humor.
Harris continues: “They found evidence in Poland, Spain, Taiwan, India, where political parties who used to post … regular facts about policies, they couldn't get attention. They had to go 80% to 90% negative to get the same attention and we know it’s the anger and outrage that gets the eyeballs.”
Later in the five-minute chat, Harris comes back to Facebook.
“The company is trying to defend [itself by saying] they're just holding up a mirror to society. The problem is that these things are not a mirror – it's more like a funhouse mirror; it selects for whoever says the most divisive thing and and that's what shoots up to the top.
“It doesn't have to be this way, but the business model of engagement [is] that whatever it takes to get people engaged is the key to that equation.”
Judging by the responses to the YouTube video posting of Harris’ appearance on “Real Time,” the conversation between the two men hit a nerve.
Bryan Machin: “I keep saying this because I hope anyone will listen: Say 'hi' to your friends on Facebook. Say 'hi' to your relatives on Facebook.
“BUT GET YOUR NEWS FROM A REPUTABLE NEWS SOURCE, NOT FACEBOOK.
“Discuss politics with someone you can look in the eye, NOT FACEBOOK. DON'T follow famous people on FACEBOOK because most of them are actually no smarter than anyone else. In fact, don't follow them AT ALL. Thanks!”
Lots of ALLCAPS emphasis there!
“I gave up Facebook years ago,” writes Tony Stone. “My wife maintains her account. She has 22 friends, mostly relatives, publishes beautiful wildlife photography, funny cartoons and her latest crocheted blanket that she and a group send to animal shelters so the critters won’t have to sleep on the concrete floors. Facebook should be constrained to that level of communication.”
Archi Teuthis is perceptive, to say the least: “Something big that didn't get said: Not only are the algorithms calling more attention to divisiveness, but that extra attention reinforces divisive behavior. In other words, Facebook doesn't just promote divisiveness, it actively rewards people for trolling.”
Neither Harris nor Maher may have actually used these words, but they certainly expressed the concept. And Harris has done so in many other venues. (Watch a related video below)
All the pressure certainly seems to be having an effect at Facebook, which owns Instagram.
In an statement posted Sept. 27, Pausing “Instagram Kids” and Building Parental Supervision Tools the firm announced it was “pausing” but not canceling Instagram for kids, which had been widely criticized as being inappropriate.
“While we stand by the need to develop this experience, we’ve decided to pause this project,” said Adam Mosseri, head of Instagram. “This will give us time to work with parents, experts, policymakers and regulators, to listen to their concerns, and to demonstrate the value and importance of this project for younger teens online today.”
Named to the TIME 100 Next Leaders of the Future and Rolling Stone Magazine’s 25 People Shaping the World, Tristan Harris is the co-host of “Your Undivided Attention,” a podcast from the Center for Humane Technology (consistently among the top 10 technology podcasts on Apple Podcasts) which explores how social media’s race for attention is destabilizing society and the vital insights needed to envision solutions.
Co-hosts Harris and Aza Raskin expose how social media’s race for attention manipulates our choices, breaks down truth, and destabilizes our real-world communities.
At his website Tristan Harris we learn: “Tristan Harris has spent his career studying how today’s major technology platforms have increasingly become the social fabric by which we live and think, wielding dangerous power over our ability to make sense of the world.”
Harris is co-founder and president of the Center for Humane Technology, which says it “is catalyzing a comprehensive shift toward humane technology that operates for the common good, strengthening our capacity to tackle our biggest global challenges.”
Harris is not a newcomer to making waves with his insightful and seriously wise commentary about the looming dictatorship of our technology overlords.
Four years ago already, he was saying very similar things in his April 2017 Ted Talk titled A handful of tech companies control millions of minds every day which has garnered over 3 million views.
“I was a design ethicist at Google, where I studied how do you ethically steer people's thoughts,” he says as he introduces himself. “Because what we don't talk about is how the handful of people working at a handful of technology companies, through their choices will steer what a billion people are thinking today.”
The algorithms which drive the technology can be insidious.
“When you pull out your phone and they design how this works or what's on the feed, it's scheduling little blocks of time in our minds.
“If you see a notification, it schedules you to have thoughts that maybe you didn't intend to have. If you swipe over that notification, it schedules you into spending a little bit of time getting sucked into something that maybe you didn't intend to get sucked into.”
Even then, Harris’ language meets the listener where he or she is at … you don't have to be a geek to understand it.
“Technology is not neutral, and it becomes this race to the bottom of the brain stem, of who can go lower to get it.”
Does this sound like a social media platform you know? Nod if you agree!
Even back then, Harris is revealing what has become common knowledge today.
“If this is making you feel a little bit of outrage, notice that that thought just comes over you,” he says. “Outrage is a really good way of getting your attention, because we don't choose outrage. It happens to us. And if you're the Facebook newsfeed, whether you'd want to or not, you actually benefit when there's outrage.”
Harris says this is the most urgent problem of our times because it underlies all others.
“It's not just taking away our agency to spend our attention and live the lives that we want, it's changing the way that we have our conversations, it's changing our democracy, and it's changing our ability to have the conversations and relationships we want with each other.
“And it affects everyone, because a billion people have one of these in their pocket.”
Furthermore, Harris is emphatic in saying:
“It doesn't have to be this way. Instead of handicapping our attention, imagine if we used all of this data and … power and this new view of human nature to give us a superhuman ability to focus, a superhuman ability to put our attention to what we cared about, and a superhuman ability to have the conversations that we need to have for democracy.”
Aha! There is that big theme again; how democracy is being undermined by the race to the bottom – of our brain stems!
But it goes beyond just a political philosophy and the structure of government. It is global.
“Maybe instead of worrying about hypothetical future runaway artificial intelligences that are maximizing for one goal,” Harris concludes, “we could solve the runaway artificial intelligence that already exists right now, which are these newsfeeds maximizing for one thing. Instead of running away to colonize new planets, we could fix the one that we're already on.”
Smash hit documentary
Most recently, Tristan Harris was the primary subject of the acclaimed Netflix documentary, “The Social Dilemma,” which has reached an estimated 100 million people worldwide, streaming in 190 countries in 30 languages. (If you don’t have Netflix, hurry!! It’s FREE on YouTube until Oct. 31.)
We won't spoil it for you, but from the official trailer here are some highlights. (There are many voices in the 2-1/2-minute clip, but we will just stick to Harris himself.)
“A lot of people think Google's a search box. And Facebook's just a place to see what my friends are doing. What they don't realize is there's entire teams of engineers whose job [it] is to use your psychology against you.
“That’s not by accident – that’s a design technique.”
On another headline-making topic:
“Fake news spreads six times faster than true news. We're being bombarded with rumors.
“[So] we have less control over who we are and what we really believe.”
The urgency grows towards a climax, which you have to admit, nails it:
“We built these things and we have a responsibility to change it,” Harris says. “The intention could be, how do we make the world better? If technology creates mass chaos, loneliness, more polarization, more election hacking, more inability to focus on the real issues – we’re toast! This is checkmate on humanity.”
Watch the trailer here: