Sad truth behind tech’s ‘Guinea Pigs’
IN March 2004, Chris Hughes was working a $13 an hour job checking student IDs at a library on the campus of Harvard University. Eight years later when Facebook went public, he was worth more than $600 million.
Hughes happened to be Mark Zuckerberg's room mate at the prestigious university and was one of the early co-founders of Facebook. In large part, by being in the right place at the right time, the now 34-year-old became rich beyond his wildest dreams - even though Zuckerberg only gave him 2 per cent of the company (after he asked for 10 per cent).
In 2012 he used some of those new-found riches to buy The New Republic, a prominent US politics and culture magazine that was partly conceived in Theodore Roosevelt's living room.
But pretty soon not everyone was happy about the direction the young tech millionaire took the prestigious magazine.
"He seemed like he was going to be our mythical saviour but as he became panicked about our future he kind of insisted that we increasingly produce journalism that would thrive on Facebook, because that's what he knew how to do," said Franklin Foer, who worked as a senior editor for the magazine at the time.
"I could see how that dependence was so dangerous, and how the values of these big companies ended up shaping the values of my profession," Foer told news.com.au.
He didn't like the new direction of the magazine and he liked even less the new incentives imposed by the Facebook co-founder and the social media environment he helped create. So in late 2014 he left the magazine in a very public parting of ways with Hughes.
The disheartening experience prompted him to more deeply examine "the distorting effects of these big powerful companies" in Silicon Valley - Google, Facebook, Apple and Amazon - which have become fundamental to the way our society organises itself.
Without pausing to consider the cost, the world has rushed to embrace the products and services of these influential tech companies (just think of the unbridled excitement of Amazon's recent Australia launch) but in Foer's latest book, he shines a light on those costs in a scathing critique of the era of big tech.
These companies "have eroded the integrity of institutions - media, publishing - that supply the intellectual material that provokes thought and guides democracy," he writes in the introduction of World Without Mind: The Existential Threat of Big Tech.
Aside from undermining the publishing and news industry that increasingly relies on Facebook and to a lesser extent Google for traffic, he believes the oligarchs of Silicon Valley have strangled our ability to contemplate and connect in important ways, ultimately making us less present and less human.
PLEASURE AND ANXIETY
In the book, Foer is writing for an audience that is ready to re-evaluate the role technology plays in their lives as consumers become more aware of the way companies like Facebook work to capture their attention and manipulate their behaviour while online.
"So much of the environment of Facebook is about manipulation of users," Foer said.
Like most online services (including the one you're using now), Facebook is trying to create an environment where its community is engaged for as long as possible.
To achieve this objective, the company leverages the insane amount of personal data it has on users which amounts to "a very intimate picture of people's pleasure points and anxieties," Foer said. They know what will get your blood boiling, or your heart fluttering "and it has bread a certain amount of sensationalism," Foer said.
That's not a bug, but rather a very intentional feature.
It was revealed recently by Wired that Facebook essentially rates potential ads on their ability to be provocative when auctioning spots to advertisers.
If the ad is more likely to elicit a strong emotional response, whether good or bad, Facebook is inclined to charge the advertisers less than those who offer up more benign ads.
In this system, during the 2016 US presidential election, Donald Trump's campaign was charged less for political adverts than Hillary Clinton's campaign because they were more inflammatory.
Tweeting about the revelation, Ms Clinton said: "We should all care about how social media platforms play a part in our democratic process. Because unless it's addressed it will happen again ... We owe it to our democracy to get this right, and fast."
Mr Trump didn't just exploit these perverted new incentives, he was also a product of them.
"He was a character that no one should've taken seriously at the very start of his campaign, going around talking about Obama's birth certificate," Foer said. "But there was incentives to write about him because you knew you would get clicks from that Facebook audience."
In this new world order, his polarising quality was undeniably his biggest asset.
'WE'RE GUINEA PIGS'
For these Silicon Valley giants, it's all about hoovering up as much personal data about us they can.
"The goal is to take our data to hold our attention for as long as possible, because data is this incredibly intimate portrait of the inside of our heads. They've tracked us everywhere we go, they know of our habits and predilections," Foer told news.com.au.
"The ultimate goal right now is reflected in the race to become our personal assistant. The idea is that these artificial intelligent (products) can wake us up in the morning and lead us through our day.
"As a result they'll have tremendous control over what we watch and what we buy."
Perhaps more than anything else, the extent of just how tight a grip companies like Apple, Google and Facebook have on their users is illustrated by something known as phantom vibration syndrome.
Research published in the Computers in Human Behaviour journal suggests that up to nine of 10 people suffer from "phantom vibration syndrome" - where they mistakenly think their mobile phone is vibrating in their pocket.
"We're so conditioned of everyone trying to steal our attention away we think it's happening when it's not," Foer said. He believes this phenomena and the wider trend it represents is "destroying the possibility of contemplation".
"We're guinea pigs in this really overwhelming experiment where there are all these incredible techniques being used to distract us, to hijack our eyes and our brains and it is very difficult for us to resist that."
For him, it serves as an obstacle to being fully present and "prevents us from being fully human".
"It's even hard for us to be good citizens, it's hard for us to be spiritual as it's hard for us to have the time and space to disconnect," Foer said.
"I do fear that we're ultimately going to be flattened as human beings by the fact that we're simply distracted too often."
It's undeniable that much of the responsibility to ensure a greater state of moderation in our relationship to technology falls on the individual. We need to regulate our own lives, and that of our kids, to mitigate against the unproductive effects of too much tech.
But using the example of Apple's well publicised tax dodging practices, Foer believes these tech companies have "evaded a lot of responsibilities that we would have historically expected from companies like them".
"You look at companies like Uber, they were essentially a lawless company and nobody stood up to them," he said, referring to the companies well chronicled history of flouting the laws and regulations of various markets it sought to enter.
And it is true that some of these companies have snuck into a new paradigm in which it can be unclear if the old rules apply. For instance, charging the Clinton campaign more than the Trump campaign for political ads like Facebook did is illegal in the US among traditional media outlets.
THE BACKLASH BUBBLING AWAY
After it came to light how Facebook, YouTube and Twitter were exploited by foreign governments to hijack to latest US presidential election, the country's regulators have taken an increasingly dim view of Silicon Valley heavyweights.
As a result there has been a growing number of calls for the US government to use Antitrust laws to break up the big tech monopolies.
"We're in the early stages of a backlash," Foer said.
"There is a growing public mistrust of them but it feels like we're still a long way away from the (US) government taking meaningful action against them."
For the readers of his book, he hopes they will "take a more active role in how we organise the place of technology in our lives".
For him, it's the least we could do to counteract something, which as he writes, is ultimately responsible for "the catastrophic collapse of the news business and the degradation of American civic culture".
It's quite a charge indeed.
Franklin Foer will be in Sydney on March 24 when the UNSW's Centre for Ideas presents Truth, Homelessness, Democracy and More.