"And through the future, near and far, as through the past, shall this law hold good: Nothing that is vast enters into the life of mortals without a curse."
- Sophocles, chorus, Antigone
Imagine your mind, your consciousness scalloped out. Your memory not only no longer flattering your self-esteem, and the best bud witness to your existence, but not connecting in a vital way with the world of your current experiences. Something's missing, you can't put your finger on it. Something's replaced it. Somehow you're not half the human you used to be. There's a shadow hanging over thee. And though you feel as if you're in a play, goes the old Beatles lyric, you are anyway. It's like some "genius" figured out that you could save a lot of money by dropping exoskeleton research and development, and just concentrate on creating AIs by means of Internet reprogramming of users. This is a dystopian nightmare you are not able to wake from. You don't even know you're in it.
Last year Netflix streamed The Great Hack, a documentary that recounted how UK military contractor and psychological-warfare firm Cambridge Analytica (CA) "scraped" Facebook data and used it to manipulate voters in both the 2016 Brexit campaign and the 2016 US presidential election. What CA discovered was that the more data collected on an individual, the more their habits, online behavior, and digital thinking could be parsed, profiled and manipulated for cash -- lots of it. It could also be used to shape political mindsets. The race was on to develop individual algorithms for each of us that were akin to digital fingerprints -- no two algorithmic patterns were the same. Once you were ID'd -- mucho ka-chingo.
Trump confidante and advisor Steve Bannon was one of the first to see the potential. He worked with CA to shape the thinking of wishy-washy voters (or what CA "whistleblower" Brittany Kaiser referred to as "persuadables") in swing states. Writes Christopher Wylie, another CA whistleblower, in Mindf*ck,
Refining techniques from military psychological operations (PSYOPS), Cambridge Analytica propelled Steve Bannon's alt-right insurgency into its ascendancy. In this new war, the American voter became a target of confusion, manipulation, and deception. Truth was replaced by alternative narratives and virtual realities.
It was as if Karl "Turd Blossom" Rove's pissing down on reality-based thinking had gone mainstream. Ultimately, consumers and voters are all "persuadables," and digi-stim Mindfuck was the new norm.
In September, Netflix began screening what amounts to a sequel documentary -- The Social Dilemma. It's a far darker depiction of social media and their influence on so many people around the world; their algorithms may even be the true globalization of the world. The doco urges that we are fast becoming hooked on the feeds and manipulations of Facebook, Google, Twitter, and Instagram; we are becoming slaves to a Master Mind; subjects to a digital, fascistic mafiosi, being offered ways of thinking that we cannot seem to refuse. The Social Dilemma warns grimly, at times even fatalistically, that our species is dealing with a whole new paradigm that we may not be in control of.
The film starts off with the quote from Sophocles cited above. Gifts from the gods don't come to us without perils and consequences we can't always anticipate. For starters, human consciousness, out of which language emerged as a form of negotiating the nature of reality with each other, is disputed territory. Some of us want to be in charge of the language, what things mean, how they are defined, our plans for proceeding. Think Hegel, and the master/slave dialectic. The consequence of modelling "machine thinking" on human thinking is that the machine may find ways of improving on ours, if for no other reason than that it does not deal with our human biases. Subtly, and without our conscious awareness of it, the machine thinking can start calling the shots. The Internet is our Daddy, as Pedro Martinez might say. We just don't know it yet.
That's the gist. Former leading minds at social-media platforms have come together to group-whistleblow about their past work helping to build the dashboards of manipulation -- the bespoke algorithms -- that they now say are, perhaps, unstoppable, dystopic, and in charge of more and more human minds. Suddenly, they all seem to have been hit with an epiphany at the same time. They saw into the abyss, and it saw into them. Asked what the problem is, these "elegant" intellectual figures, one after another, struggle before the camera to articulate. They just can't seem to find the words to explain the phenomenon. But their yuppie terror is evident. Although, it's early in the script.
Eventually, dramatic tension established, we're told the problem is Algorithms, AI, machine thinking. For some reason, these data warrior-entrepreneurs, many of them proud wunderkinds brought on to set up monetization algorithms that would get users (baitclickers) to subtly change their behavior so that social platforms made a buck off their attention, were unable to foresee moral issues down the road. Things were fine, it seems, for Tristan Harris (Google), Jeff Seibert (Twitter), Bailey Richardson (Instagram), Joe Toscano (Google), Lynn Fox (Apple), Tim Kendall (Facebook), Justin Rosenstein (Facebook) and -- over at Cambridge Analytica -- Brittany Kaiser, members of an elite programming club that worked separately and together, almost like a video game room competition, to elegantly engineer the thoughts of others for money (six figures) and glory (false deus in machina).
And now they're sorry, for their lack of foresight in engineering, what, by their own admission, may be our mental extinction. On the silver-liney side, now that they've broken good, they're still swimming in six-figure-plus salaries. In preparation for a TED Talk-like presentation Tristan Harris says to the empty seats before him:
When you look around you, it feels like the world is going crazy. You have to ask yourself, like, "Is this normal? Or have we all fallen under some kind of spell?"
I wish more people could understand how this works because it shouldn't be something that only the tech industry knows. It should be something that everybody knows.
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