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'Our minds can be hijacked': tech insiders who fear a smartphone dystopia (theguardian.com)
878 points by misnamed 5 months ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 386 comments

As noted multiple times in the article, the unethical design we’re seeing in popular apps and services today is largely a result of the widespread use of advertising as a revenue model.

This is an appropriate time to show appreciation and support for the companies who are trying to demonstrate successful revenue models which are NOT based on advertising:

Medium - the replacement of “Recommends” with “Claps” was to allow Medium to better understand how much authors should be paid (with the money coming from the paid “Medium Member” plan). [1]

Patreon - probably the most popular service for paying independent content creators today. If you are a regular consumer of a content channel who’s creator is on Patreon and you haven’t already set up micro payments, then please part with a few pennies and help show the industry that an advertising revenue model isn’t the only option.

Wikipedia - Ad-free since its inception, and the web’s most popular encyclopaedia which is completely free to use for all. If you feel like you have the resources to part with a few dollars per month to support Wikipedia, and haven’t already done so, then please do. [2]

Please let me know if there are any others I’ve missed out.

[1] https://blog.medium.com/expanding-the-medium-partner-program...

[2] https://wikimediafoundation.org/wiki/Ways_to_Give

> As noted multiple times in the article, the unethical design we’re seeing in popular apps and services today is largely a result of the widespread use of advertising as a revenue model.

Advertisement as a revenue model exacerbates this problem, but I submit the problem stems from how we define success for mobile apps and websites. We directly designate "engagement" as success, rather than customer value provided or even asking our customers if they like the service.

We assume if they are there that they have made a clear-eyed assessment about the value proposition of our product compared to every other aspect of their lives and decided this is the best use of their time.

Because of that hidden assumption, our UX folks are encouraged to ruthlessly push by any means available to get more of that time. There is an assumption that the cutoff switch is somehow built into the user; that the user will say, "Enough is enough" if the engagement every reaches a toxic level in their lives.

And I think what many of the people in this article are trying to say is: That is a bad assumption. We're making our products so sticky that we're starting to surpass some our user's ability to say, "No."

Part of the reason Google's initial launch was so ballsy and great (which they've lost over the years) was a strong focus on getting the user off the search results page as fast as possible. It was a decision informed by their technical limits at the time, but it was a fantastic value to the user. Once they had the results they needed (very quickly) they were gone, off to do whatever it was they had asked Google for in the first place.

This contrasted starkly with the Alta Vistas, Yahoos, and AOLs of the day, which were all creating interlinked portal networks and trying to keep users within the company's own bubble of services to increase engagement.

Somewhere along the way, when we figured out how to use advertising revenue to "pay the bills" and turn on a profit on the cost of hosting... I think this was lost. Sometimes the user just needs the content they came for, and sometimes delivering that content to them in the leanest, most efficient manner possible is worth more than all the engagement tactics in the world.

> Part of the reason Google's initial launch was so ballsy and great (which they've lost over the years) was a strong focus on getting the user off the search results page as fast as possible.

That's an interesting example, because it contains also why Google changed. There is little business to be had in just being a place where users spend as little time as possible.

But the choice of "engagement" as the success metric directly stems from the advertising revenue model. That's why it is chosen as the definition of success. Because it triggers ad payments.

All the "customer value", "customer happiness" and all the rest is inward facing PR. Creative people need a better motivation to build these attention traps than "suck em in so they watch ads" so it has to be phrased differently to them.

I think it was chosen as definition of success because it is _easy to measure_.

From the beginning of the Web onwards, you had very little idea of what people actually did on your site, but the fact that they visited was an easily counted line in a plain text log file.

The moment something else was available (e.g. actual clicks on an ad, or conversion rate), that was used.

Even if a site gets micro-paid for each video viewed or article written, they still have an incentive to nudge viewers to keep viewing. If you think about it, even if they have a pure subscription model they will want people "engaged", i.e. addicted.

Yes, the tendency of focus on easy to measure metrics instead of what you actual care about is a whole other discussion of interesting craziness.

But isn't that orthogonal to this discussion? There are better metrics, but they still have the same large scale attention economy, filter bubble, junk food media effects as "engagement" does. "actual clicks on ads" is conversion rate x ad views and ad views is a function of engagement.

I don't see how more accurate measurements would positively affect the way content is written, presented and optimized. If anything wouldn't it just get worse?

I think you underestimate the power of intertia and groupthink in this industry. I also think there are lots of counterexamples who still do this even though they don't directly market ads.

Do you work in this industry? I used to work for a social games company and while 'engagement' of our free-to-play users was certainly a driver, I can tell you, the bosses cared much more about revenue. Engagement was certainly secondary to that.

Yes. I've been involved in 3 ventures and successfully exited on my own once.

If your model is explicitly ad revenue, then yes; you will find similar pressures.

I don't work in entertainment and I'm telling you we got the same guidance even from respected VC firms. We never once showed an ad and we had a similar model for a long time.

Success is defined as engagement because it leads to more ad revenue. If those applications had different business models, they would have different success definitions.

Lots of companies use engagement metrics as stronger signals than nps even if they're not showing ads.

That was the guidance KP gave Level, for sure.

It took us a long time to realize that was wrong. Too long.

Though I have my issues with it, I'd put Meetup[1] on there. Since it's relying on fees and not advertisements, it's more focused on using the internet to get people to meet in real life and not on getting people to avoid real life to spend more time on the site.

That's the type of stuff smartphones and the web should be used for - supplements that make us have a richer real life, not addictive junk food that competes with reality.

[1] https://www.meetup.com/

Cryptocurrency-mining in the browser (e.g. coin-hive.com) is one of the most interesting new models. Before you have an allergic reaction to this idea, let's first have a discussion of the best-case scenario.

Assuming that the publisher openly states they're mining instead of showing ads, and the user understands what's happening, browser-based mining is an attractive alternative to ads.

The first benefit is in privacy: you don't need to track your users personal preferences or identities. The second benefit is that there's no signup, no login, and no fraud.

It does not wholly solve the issue of attention-based revenue. That is, there is still some incentive for publishers to "manipulate" the user into long session times on the site. However, unlike ads, long session time doesn't have to mean long attention time in order for mining to happen.

Browser-based mining is sort of like micropayments: the user is paying the site in electricity. Many people don't want to pay subscriptions and they don't want to see ads. Browser-based mining is a viable alternative.

At least for bitcoin, software-based mining doesn't compete with ASICs, so doing more mining on clients is a net loss in terms of overall energy efficiency.

I'd rather a site wasted my electricity than my time.

It’s only valid if, coincidentally, the market value of hashing happens to be in the ballpark of the revenue the content producer needs.

That's true of advertisement as well.

Can you flesh out the analogy? I don't understand what you're saying

I'm also not seeing the analogy. Ad revenue is part of the market/ecosystem for ads and sites. Hash power just is what it is, and the value of it does not seem to be connected to the content.

Sorry, I mean that ad revenue is only valid if it has a sufficient payout per visitor. Both crypto currency and ad revenue tend to be a race to the bottom.

the big problem with this is so many people these days are using phones, tablets, laptops etc... no one wants to waste battery life mining (I certainly don't)

Wikipedia is not really ad-free, they advertise for themselves. I know that many people don't consider self-advertising and appeal to donation "true" ads, but I do. Here are my arguments.

- Appeal to donation banners are not content, they are a purposely made distraction with a money-making goal. Just like real ads.

- Most people agree that when Windows 10 gives you a popup to buy another Microsoft product, it's an ad. So the "self-advertising" rule is not absolute.

- Charities sometimes purchase advertising space on Google, Facebook, etc... They obviously count as ads, and are blocked by ad-blockers. So nonprofits can post ads too.

- When I looked at Wikipedia fundraising reports ( https://wikimediafoundation.org/wiki/Fundraising_reports ), I found it striking how similar it feels to regular ad campaigns. They use A/B testing, talk about conversion rate and all the usual tricks to incite you to pay more.

So I think that while it is safe to call Wikipedia independent, I wouldn't call it ad-free. Whether these aggressive campaigns are justified is another debate.

I imagine that they are deciding to run ads for donations, because they need donations to keep running. Are you suggesting it’s because they like running ads?

This is the case for most other companies running ads, they do it for the revenue, not the love of ads.

There are a few services like https://digitaltipjar.com/faq

I'm looking for one that was a browser plugin - you click it every site you want to support (if that site opted in).

Then, your monthly spend eg. $5 is split between all of the sites you chose to support.

It let users commit to paying $N per month for their favorite sites, without having to calculate "should I give 1 or 10.." etc.

Anyone remember this? I saw it on a few webcomics


Whatsapp in their initial days before getting acquired by Facebook had a similar revenue model. They asked $1/year from a user. I am starting to wonder if $1/year was enough from a user to keep their service running. If it is the case why are we willing to risk our privacy for an evil revenue model while we can retain it with just $1?

The problem comes with the piece work approach to payment - payment for labour services output via unreliable charity.

That is not a system that aggregates or works with the nature of creativity.

What you need is payment for labour hours provided - consistent payment for effort not results.

The challenge is how do you determine effort without looking at results. How do you influence the transformation of labour hours into the right sort of labour services without payment.

I somewhat agree with your examples, except Wikipedia. It has no business being much more than a server farm and software tweaker. That's not something that needs large ongoing investment by many people.


Sure, that's one point of view.

However, the "business" of the Wikimedia Foundation can be determined by its board of directors so long as it falls within the articles of incorporation and the IRS guidelines. It's not for us to decide.

So, when the Wikimedia Foundation decides to fund grants to help increase gender diversity in Wikipedia content, that's totally legitimate. It can decide what its business is.

From my perspective, Wikipedia is a global treasure and if they want to spend money to make sure it gets better, rather than just on servers and wiki tweaks, that's fine by me. No-one is forced to donate.

> It has no business being much more than a server farm and software tweaker

Isn’t that true for literally all Web-based businesses? Is Twitter "much more than a server farm and software tweaker"?

Twitter isn't a charity.

Servers are expensive.

In 2016, the Foundation got over $70M in revenue and spent $2M of that in Web hosting. Processing all those donations cost them more than hosting Wikipedia.

Source: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/foundation/4/43/Wikim...

No, actually most of Wikimedia's spending is largely unrelated to Wikipedia.

Look at the graphs in that article.

After 18 years as a (mainly contract) BA with some PM work on govt and big Corp business and/or software solution contracts, I'd had enough and did a diploma in enology and viticulture (wine making and growing). In one of my first assignments I referenced Wikipedia on malolactic fermentation and sent it in for marking.

The lecturer gave me a b+ and went on to berate me for using Wikipedia as a source that was not to be trusted. I was 42 (older than than the lecturer) at the time and had innumerable experiences of people questioning facts during my previous life because they didn't fit their narrative, and politely asked him to point me to where in the Wikipedia entry the political manipulation strayed from the science and process... He couldn't and after a phone call to confirm, my mark was bumped up.

Utter academic bs and cognitive bias clouded all judgement on his part. I was pretty pissed off he'd dismiss something before reading it, and the rest of the diploma was spent playing to what they would accept as sources.

Two years later my Pinot noir got 95/100, ironically marked (in part) by our other (more experienced and realistic) lecturer in a blind tasting.

Fuck academia and their fucking higher than thou bullshit based on nothing other than their own ego. And don't get me started on that other clusterfuck Turnitin.


Sorry but in “serious” writing you should never cite Wikipedia. Check and cite the original sources instead; every claim on Wikipedia should have a corresponding source per their no original research policy.

You may be right at this time, but the suggested fix feels a lot like plagiarizing the work of Wikipedia editors. It takes significant work to gather sources and turn them into an informative article. I believe that work should be recognized, even if it was published on a free access platform like Wikipedia. Is there some middle ground between using their work without acknowledging it and suffering a stain on credibility because of guilt by association?

Exactly. You wouldn't cite a different Encyclopedia either.

What you did would be fine for a commercial report, or an internal memo. In that case you are just looking for the best information you can find, and Wikipedia is as good a source as many so it can be part of the research.

But you're not understanding academia when you lump Wikipedia in with other sources. The purpose of publishing is not just to write down what you have reason to believe. The purpose is to build up a verifiable chain of trust. It's a lot like a block chain actually.

When you publish in Nature, and note that you are employed at Stanford, what is happening is you, Nature, and Stanford are all "signing" the paper. Then when someone cites you, they are building on your chain. That allows you to read a paper published somewhere and be able to rely on its truthfulness, to some degree, without manually verifying each source.

Part of what you learn in academia, what your professor was trying to get you to learn, is how to write a paper which could be published. If you cite a Wikipedia page, that can no longer be published because there aren't enough "signatures" on it to verify a chain of trust. Yes, you can verify it by hand, but that doesn't scale. The point of scholarship is to scale verifiable knowledge.

It's a little sad your instructor capitulated. It's possible they realized you were in a professional program and you weren't supposed to learn how to do scholarship... that your task was just to be able to write a professional research report, and for that Wikipedia is fine. It's also possible they assessed that they're not being paid enough to argue with indignant students and gave you the grade that would shut you up.

But regardless... you should know that what you did is not scholarship. That requires you to participate in the consensus algorithm and the verifiable chain of previous work.

> Fuck academia and their fucking higher than thou bullshit

Geez, you messed up your citations. Take the L and remember wikipedia is an aggregation that has to get citations too.

Going, "All academia is bad because I got a bad grade can't they see how right I was" is childish nonsense. You'll be better off if you just take the L.

I don't buy the idea that smartphones are extinguishing the life of the mind.

Sure, smartphones provide access to almost unlimited trash. But they also provide access to Wikipedia, perhaps the most successful encyclopedia ever developed by humans. They can show you newspapers from across the planet. They let you read Latin histories of the Norman conquest of Southern Italy in the middle ages. [0] C'mon folks, this is stuff you might otherwise seek for years in bookstores or never even hear of. Thanks to the Internet and powerful phones you can pop up the link below and read it in bed. The information is within reach of anyone with a decent cell phone.

The effects of the Internet on human society have been profound but the ultimate outcome is not foreordained. Humans have survived some pretty nasty stuff over the millennia and we'll no doubt get through this as well. It's time to stop the hand-wringing and focus on making the Internet help humans in the way many of its original founders conceived. [1]

[0] Gaufredus Malaterra, http://www.thelatinlibrary.com/malaterra.html

[1] https://webfoundation.org/2014/12/recognise-the-internet-as-...

Well, it's not the smartphone that's the problem. The smartphone is just the delivery system.

It's remarkable how well some of Richard Stallman's quotes have aged. "With software, either the users control the program, or the program controls the users..."

The idea of a program controlling its users must have seemed very esoteric when that quote was first penned in 1985, at a time when home PCs (let alone ones with GUIs) were exotic: the first Mac had launched only a year ago. By the time I first heard of Stallman's ideas in the '90s, I was surrounded by PCs with GUIs, but still didn't get it.

Now here we are, 30 years later. The first thing most of us do when we wake up is roll over, grab our phone, and look at some software. The existential costs of the non-free software are so high that we read new stories about them in the media every week, and the tech revolution's architects are banning the products they built from their own homes.

For the less frequently cited ending to Stallman's quote is this: "...If the program controls the users, and the developer controls the program, then the program is an instrument of unjust power."

> The first thing most of us do when we wake up is roll over, grab our phone, and look at some software

The danger of computers becoming like humans is not as great as the danger of humans becoming like computers.

-- Konrad Zuse

I recall Joseph Weizenbaum mentioning something like that in an interview before his death, too, about the difference between using technology to empower people, or to exploit them.

But hey, Wikipedia so what do they know... ask the mediocre for permission to learn from the great at your own peril, that's my motto.

Joseph Weizenbaum's book, Computer Power and Human Reason: From Judgment To Calculation (https://www.amazon.com/Computer-Power-Human-Reason-Calculati...) is worth a read. Weizenbaum had written ELIZA, the original "chatbot", a decade earlier (in 1966), and was worried by how much people imputed "thought" to its simple programming.

The book addresses this same topic: to what extent is computer "thought" like human "thought", and what are the dangers of equating these concepts? Like any book about AI written in the 70's, there are some things that are obviously out of date or wrong, but overall it holds up quite well. There's also a section on "compulsive programmers" that may cause some self-reflection among this crowd: https://www.sac.edu/AcademicProgs/Business/ComputerScience/P...

Thank you for this. Putting Stallman’s quote in context helps me see how forward his thinking is and how important the distribution of power and consent can be in software.

I see a parallel with food companies spending money on researching and marketing foods that are more addictive and more profitable.

Yes, people do “want” addictive foods, but that’s not the type of want we want empowered; rather it is a hook into addiction and transfer of power by inducing an addiction.

I was one who thought Stallman was just weird and obsessive way back when. I can't same I'm a devout follower, but I admit I was wrong about him.

He had incredible foresight and was absolutely, insanely ahead of his time. He was providing solutions for problems 30 years before we could even realize we had them.

I disagree with the insanely/adjectives. This makes it seem that the current problems are greater than they are, beyond the ken of mortal humans.

Junk food messes with what you want, despite you wanting to want different things.


The problem here is not the smartphone per se, but our increasing dependence on it and the "outsourcing" of our thinking and desires to our smartphone.

Imagine the follow scenario:

* Need to get to a place? Just ask Google Maps, no need to think.

* Need to decide what and where to eat? Don't need to think, just use an app that optimizes for health/variety/preferences/budget and you don't even need to leave the house, just it delivered right to your doorstep.

* Need to think deeply about something? Just Google for the right articles. No need to waste time thinking.

* Feeling bored? Just consume a game, song, movie, Reddit/Facebook/Instagram/Twitter/etc.

* Don't know what to do next week? Have an app that auto-suggests what you can do based on your preferences, your friends' schedules, activities in your city, past user ratings for an event, etc. Taking this further, have an AI virtual assistant that plans your entire year's activities.

* Need to date someone? Use an AI virtual assistant (built with the latest in Natural Language Processing and AI technology that optimizes for the right words to use, the correct responses, the best times to send a message, the best jokes to be using, the best emotions to elicit) that has already done all the swiping on Tinder/OKCupid and done all the texting conversations to set you up on a date.

When this point in the future arrives, without a smartphone, you would become almost feel like an empty shell (or even suicidal). Your very existence becomes tied in to the smartphone. Your daily whims/desires becomes dependent on the smartphone.

If you were given a life sentence: give up an arm or a leg, or give up the right to own or use a smartphone for life. I think increasingly in time, people would rather give up an arm or a leg than give up a smartphone for life.

The question then becomes: Do you own a smartphone, or does the smartphone own you?

I don't think all of these are a problem per se. The problem is (and probably always was) people with empty minds. Sure, now they can fill it more easily with junk, but the whole point of technology is to make life easier after all.

If you're learning or working on something you love and you want to have more time to do, its a perfectly reasonable choice to outsource "what I'm I going to eat next" or "how do you I get from A to B". The problem is not having anything that you love to learn/work on.

In my opinion you are conflating two roles for technology. I quote from the article itself:

"Finally, Eyal confided the lengths he goes to protect his own family. He has installed in his house an outlet timer connected to a router that cuts off access to the internet at a set time every day. “The idea is to remember that we are not powerless,” he said. “We are in control.”"

In an admittedly handwaving manner, there is tech that gives you time (think dishwasher) and that steals it. I tried to write this down a few days ago: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/tech-craves-our-attention-ann...

So instead of the internet being in control, he's in control. I'm not sure this is an improvement.

I've pretty much only ever used e-readers as a direct substitute for books that I would have read anyway.

Quite a few times I've read an electronic book where it would have been inconvenient to have paper books available.

I'm not convinced they are any different than books when it comes to time.

E-readers save you the time it would have taken to manage the inconvenience of handling physical books.

The time spent acquiring, storing, and carrying physical books adds up a lot faster than managing digital materials.

> but the whole point of CONSUMERIST technology is to make life easier after all.


No. Technology, period. It's whole point is to make easier things that are difficult, and make possible things that are otherwise not.

Consumerist technology is just crap version of actual technology; the former being designed primarily to make money off consumers.

There is a vast difference between "making things possible" and "making life easier". Same as between a spaceship and a remote TV control. I'd even go as far as to say, that such consumer-oriented interpretation of the role of technology is one of the reasons, why the world is such a mess in 2017.

> The problem is (and probably always was) people with empty minds.

And of course you think you’re in the other camp, don’t you? How cute.

The point is, smartphones are not magically holding people back, who would otherwise be creative and do cool stuff. In fact, it's pretty much the opposite, as even the constant stream of shit Internet content eventually exposes you to e.g. DIY tutorials in precisely your favourite area. Nevertheless, some people have less of intellectual lives than others, and (as GP argues and I agree with) whatever the reason, it's unlikely technology is to blame for that.

They (or, rather, the software they connect to) are holding me back from precisely that. If there was no social media, the novel I’m writing would have been done a year ago.

It wouldn't. You would spend a lot of time watching TV, reading novels, or hanging out in the bar.

I’m teetotal, so I only go to the pub to socialise. That in turn requires several friends to want to go at the same time.

TV, fortunely for me, is not something I find addictive. I don’t own a TV, and the number of shows I care about seeing online or with friends is, on average, about 1h per week.

Reading more novels would be a good thing for me at this point. Long-form prose requires focus for several hours; exactly the mental state I want to have.

At one point you stop watching TV, because there are no more new things to watch, you stop reading novels because they aren't novel anymore, you stop going to the bar because there's a fixed amount of alcohol you can consume, it costs money, the bar has opening hours.

Smartphone follows you everywhere, all the time.

if You can get bored of novels with all their formats and styles and character arcs and high complexity why can’t you get bored of scrolling through empty one-or-two line updates of people’s lives that you know don’t r fleet reality? It’s basically a worse novel that also makes you feel bad for reading it.

That's the point: if you get bored by a book, you stop reading the book, if you get bored by infinite scrollable content, you keep scrolling looking for less boring content, that never shows up.

It's the same effect that gambling has on the brain.

You keep playing, even though you keep losing.

That's the danger and that's why books, the TV, movies, radios (music in general) and other form of entertainment are not equally dangerous, because usually you are able to stop before it gets too far.

I disagree about categorizing TV as "the safer half" of the comparison, in the same section as books or movies. If anything, TV is an earlier iteration of the same stuff.

Flipping through the circular loop of cable TV channels predates scrolling and refreshing webpages, but people exhibited the same addictive novelty-seeking. It was so common it became a cliche to say things like "N channels and nothing [good] on."

In addition, they share same emphasis on advertisements as a funding stream, whereas movies and books are typically paid for up-front.

> Flipping through the circular loop of cable TV channels predates scrolling

And looping through radio channels was popular as well

There were just not enough channels back then

The addiction mechanism is known, it's the way it is exploited that is new

You didn't bring your TV on the way to work or at school, when driving, on holiday or waiting for your baby's birth.

> In addition, they share same emphasis on advertisements as a funding stream,

Radio used the same funding stream and still does

Newspapers and magazine do that as well

None of them tried to trick you into checking again and again, other than putting a pair of boobs on the cover

Having said that: that's why advertising on TV has been regulated many times to protect kids

We're not doing the same for social networks

Either we force social networks to act good, or we block kids from using them

I think I may need to explain: TV is passive, you either watch it or not

The engagement in social networks comes from being actively participating

"Your opinion matters" they say

No, they don't

But the fact that you can argue with someone on the internet believing someone is finally listening to all the important things you have to say, keeps you there refreshing over and over

it's "someone is wrong on the internet" [1]

And it's highly addictive, especially for those people who feel powerless

[1] https://xkcd.com/386/

Same reason people eat candy and happy meals, get fat and die young of an obesity induced heart attack. It’s rubbish, but rubbish which makes you feel good when you consume it and miss it when you don’t.

A smartphone has only so much battery. It's best suited for frequent but short uses. If you want to replace TV, novels and bars with social media, your best bet is still the PC.

There's a flaw in the original comment, and I wanted to make it clear through a provocation.

You don't replace social media with books, there are books I never get bored by, I've read Dune almost 20 times, and I'm sure I will read it again sooner or later.

Social media content is based on engagement, not on enjoyment.

You don't enjoy the content, you enjoy scrolling through the content at the point that once posted, the content is lost, unless it gain real traction, you won't be able to find it again.

Books never run out of battery, when you watch TV you are not actively skipping through ad, you passively ignore them.

Think about it: when was the last time that you interrupted reading a book for watching the TV or a movie?

But how many time you've watched your phone while doing something else?

The addictive nature of the "you might miss it" content is the real danger and it's what the article talks about.

We are at a point in history where going to a bar and drink it's healthier for you mental health than staying home with your phone.

> Think about it: when was the last time that you interrupted reading a book for watching the TV or a movie?

> But how many time you've watched your phone while doing something else?

I don't think this example proves your point. For me, a book engages ~100% of my cognitive resources; a movie also engages a large amount. Therefore, those activities can't be done simultaneously with other stuff if I'm to enjoy them or benefit from them. OTOH, social media usually engages less than 50% of my brain power, so it's a perfect thing to do simultaneously with other things that barely engage my brain and otherwise would bore me out of my mind. Hence: yes, it's reasonable to watch your phone while doing something else.

For me, social media does use all available mental resources. I timed “a quick look at twitter“ once, and when I looked at the clock after what felt like 5 minuets, I found I’d spent 40 minutes absorbed in irrelevant minutae. I can’t tell you a single tweet I read in that time.

Fortunately PCs make it easy to block websites.

#hosts file twitter.com facebook.com


And yet more books are being written now than at any other time in human history. Perhaps you are just making excuses. It is far easier to blame externalities than taking responsibility.

I’m actively seeking ways to block those sites, precisely in order to take responsibility.

Also, the population is higher now than ever before, as is the literacy rate. Both of these independently increase production of books.

> I’m actively seeking ways to block those sites, precisely in order to take responsibility.

Umm - don't go to them?

Or - if you need to get rid of the app (and you can't because provider-ware) - root the phone, and then delete it. If your phone is close-to-near impossible to root, get a different phone. Get a phone for phone use only, and drop everything else.

Seriously - the only thing holding you back is you. I don't say this to be flippant; I think we all struggle with it in some manner or another. I know I do now, and have in the past. For instance, I used to be very addicted to /. and Fark - eventually, I stopped going to them, and haven't been back. TBH, Hacker News will probably end up in the same bin sooner or later, as I see things going this route; I try to head it off beforehand. I don't blame anyone but myself.

So just do whatever you have to do to drop it - cold turkey, as it could be called...

“don’t go to them” would only work if they weren’t problematically addictive in the first place.

I am using all the easy technological tricks I know, at least the ones that don’t actively prevent me getting a job (found a better iOS content blocker since last message): After this novel is done, my intention is to go back to being an iOS developer, so I need to rearrange my brain to not care about the social sacharin soda that is every comment section with a voting mechanism and many without — cold turkey in my position would be like giving a minor drug addict (dopamine is totally a drug) a job finding drug dealers, with no oversight.

What I need, and have no idea how to achieve, is to stop caring what text on the internet says. If I could do that, I wouldn’t even feel a need to respond to you, I certainly wouldn’t feel this strange and unhelpful “arg, why don’t they understand!” anger-lite that tells me to not even try to be better by deleting this reply.

Now, if you have any suggestions based on psychology, I’m interested. I know too little about psychology to rewrite my mind to be the person I want to be.

Ah, yes "Program or Be Programmed"

"When humans learned to read, they also learned to write"

Now humans learn how to click without learning how to code:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kgicuytCkoY trailer for the book "10 commandments for a digital age"

If the program controls the users, and the developer controls the program, then the program is an instrument of unjust power.

I'd modify this statement as the program can potentially be an instrument of unjust power. I like to believe that the opposite of this will most likely occur. What if such a program manipulates people's minds towards the good, what if it can turn terrorists against terrorism. Whenever we think of something outside our brain taking control of our lives, we only think of negative outcomes. Why not positive ones ? Sure distraction is bad, but how bad ? I don't buy the argument that the short doses of of social media engagement is equivalent to consuming heroin or smoking. It is an addiction for sure, but why is addiction bad ? All through history, we have always looked for means of getting high - from alcohol, cigarettes, marijuana and what not. Ever since we discovered that we can get high, we have embarked on finding new means that can give us that high. Why do people want to be rich ? So that they can show off. Showing off is an addiction. Social media is just making that addiction available to every one. To use some silicon valley terminology, social media is democratizing showing off and we are just getting started :). I say this because, Whenever we friends got together for a beer or a social hangout, most of the conversation, at least 50% drift around to showing off. So I've realized that social media has just become an extension of our behavior. It has become just a tool to express our collective narcissism. The root cause of the addiction is not social media, it's our own self. I am generalizing, and there are many many exceptions to the above stated collective behavior.

I think you’re fundamentally failing to interact with the scale of the problems arising from the attention economy, basically handwaving with the word “just”.

Even if I were to grant—though I don’t—your claim that addiction isn’t necessarily bad, it wouldn’t follow that it’s perfectly fine for businesses to boundlessly seek more effective ways to capture more human attention more of the time. ”Just” run the simulation in your head, and gradually turn up parameters such as:

- amount/quality of information about how the human brain works

- % of humans addicted to addicting-by-design software experiences

- number of unethical people who realize the financial and political opportunity a pathologically distracted electorate presents

And then maybe take another look at what’s happening in our world today.

True, but I don't think social media addiction is as bad as addiction to tobacco, heroin etc.I will look into specific data points about the points that you have raised.

I think you’re drawing a very poor analogy, and missing the forest for the trees because of it. Addiction is a useful term here, but comparisons to drug addictions aren’t very instructive. Addictions to ingested substances have natural gating factors that simply do not exist in what we’re calling “the attention economy”. If you want to draw the drug comparison, you’ll need to include an assumption that the most addictive, most destructive drugs are freely/cheaply available in effectively infinite supply to everyone all the time. Which is a fundamentally different conversation.

If something can bring someone away from terrorism, it can also bring many more into terrorism.

Firstly terrorists didn’t have that much reach before. Now? For the few terrorists that you pull away, many more can be pulled in.

And it’s not just terrorism. It’s any tribe or emotional trigger that can pull you.

Control at the time of the quote is not at all what you interpret it to be now. Control for RMS was control on how you can modify the software or share it. It had very little to do with mind control per se. Context matters.

I think that misrepresents Stallman's concerns. See https://www.gnu.org/philosophy/right-to-read.en.html for instance. It is clear that free software is a tool for political ends not merely an end in itself.

That piece is from 1997. RMS 10 years before that had a much more down to earth concern about software. Like everyone he has evolved in his thinking.

Why has it stayed up on gnu.org if it no longer supports his/their philosophy?

Couldnt agree more with that you said. Desktops/laptops are very different mechanisms for delivering content. Its alot harder to be the one in control when using a smartphone because of how closed off the app ecosystem is. Its very difficult to mod the software on phones compared to on a desktop/laptop. Cellphones are instruments of control. Laptops and computers are instruments of creation.

I don’t know. I think the Stallman quote can be read in two ways. Either the control is about free software (which is what I suppose he meant). In this case it would mean that if you can not read and modify the source code of your program then you are its instrument. I can't agree with this. For me there is little difference in end result for most users between not being able and not being capable of modifying the software.

The other way to read this would be about how the program is used. If my morning starts with my phone telling me it is not going to rain and i go out into a downpour without an umbrella then I put too much confidence into the algorithm. This could get much worse though.

If the software has a free license, then someone can fork it, and provide an alternative that's less abusive.

Of course, unless you're making the modifications personally, you'll need to trust the developers behind the new project. But at least their work is free software too. That means it can be audited publicly, so for instance you can always find out why their news feed algorithm shows you some stories and not others. And if they get too abusive, someone might come along and fork them.

In this sense free software's main benefit is that it lowers (though doesn't eliminate) switching costs. Businesses have been well aware of this advantage since Microsoft's abuses in the '90s, and that's a big reason much of the software in use today is free. Consumers, though, haven't learned this lesson yet.

Now, I certainly don't think free software is the complete and only solution. It strikes me that the bigger issue is trust and where we place it. For most of human history the face we looked at when we first woke up was of the person we loved most in the world. Now it's Apple or Google, who by their nature as publicly traded companies actually _can_ be trusted to act in a certain manner, but certainly not in a manner that puts our best interests first.

Your comment contains great content, but it’s also fairly non sequitur. It appears that you didn’t read the article, and instead are responding to the (silly/stupid) headline.

The concerns addressed in the article make it much more difficult to take the posture you’re taking here.

Thanks. I just want to say I did read it. It has a number of concerns that are mixed together in a way that's not entirely consistent, compelling, or even especially new.

Consider the idea that democracy is being destroyed because people are helpless addicts of social media. You can make a plausible argument that American society and democracy are going through a troubled spell. But it's a big step to say that's all or even largely the fault of social media. It's true that Facebook makes it easier to develop echo chambers that group people by political persuasion. But hey, there's emerging poll evidence that American conservatives and liberals don't even want to marry each other. [0] There are many other causes at work here like failing education systems, economic dislocation, the capturing of the the political system by moneyed interests, etc. That's not even considering real political disputes over things like health care, immigration, and crime. Plus many of the disturbing trends we see now predate social media.

Also, the article essentially dismisses fake news and trolls ("symptoms of a deeper problem"). The fact that you can't verify sources easily is not a symptom. It's a fundamental problem with the Internet today that is not all that different from the dark money problem in American politics.

Overall this article reads like a variation of Nick Carr's "The Shallows" which I read and quite enjoyed. However, I don't think the threat to our intellects is as dire as he says. In the current article it's even a little surprising to me that tech people discount the possibility that something will come along that really upsets the apple cart at Facebook and Google. These are pretty new companies after all and they were the first to get really big on the Internet. This is not the end of the story, especially if the Internet breaks up into essentially national blocks.


Speaking of the fake news, Internet and the social media are at the same time THE BEST way to verify information.

How would one go to independently verify some news article in 80s? There was no quick way to do it, and consequently nobody did it, people just expected it's true if it's in the newspapers (and often it wasn't).

Now you just need to google a little or google search the image and the problem solved - or even better, surround yourself with others paranoid enough to do the googling on every piece of info. There was no a single fake news in my feeds (and it's not just US news but our local, even more untrustworthy, ones), that within a few hours someone didn't reply with "fake" and a link to prove it. You just need to follow and friend with intelligent people from the both sides of political spectrum and let them filter out the noise for you. And also you need to discipline yourself not to over-emotionally jump to the conclusions - arguably this is the hardest part and also the main reason social networks are considered harmful: you can respond immediately, so responses are much more emotionally driven, people never bother thinking of all the angles.

I think, fundamentally, this ability of people to get information from outside the traditional news media may be the whole reason the press are so alarmed. Previously, the press had huge sway over what people thought and that certainly hasn't been good for democracy over here in the UK (I'm not sure the last time a party managed to gain power here without Murdoch's backing). You don't see so much concern about that, or about mainstream publications repeating fake news, or journalists starting and spreading bullshit on social media - even though an awful lot of the successful viral fakes I've seen on Twitter lately were started and/or spread by reputable journalists. Their criticism is aimed squarely at the new technology undermining their established power base.

Absolutely this.

The recent "fake news", "omg people are brainwashed by social media" hysteria is coming almost entirely from the parts of the traditional media that are keenest on having a monopoly over political influence.

Observe that the Guardian burns money at a catastrophic rate and run begging boxes on every article ... because they prioritise influence over profit. They can't stand the idea of hiding their writing behind a paywall because they see their mission as to influence first, and make money second. What's more they always have, the Guardian has never made a profit (it was subsidised by unrelated businesses until recently).

My trust in the media has steadily declined over the years and what's killed my trust has been the times I've fact checked articles and discovered they're lying to me. Sometimes I felt it was deliberate and other times it clearly represented colossal laziness on the part of the journalists.

What the ....?

Any good journalist worth their salt like any good teacher wants to make sure the most people are informed with good information and they do the best job to inform.

How did that become “wanting influence”.

And if being good Doesn’t make an impact - which it increasingly doesn’t- then only crap will remain.

Hah! If that's true then why do rich billionaires so often buy money-losing newspapers? Because they like burning dollars?

And why are there so often easily caught factual errors in news articles that just happen to fit the journalists agenda? Here's a good example from this weekend:


The BBC is running some vacuous "top 100 inspiring and aspirational women" series. They really like Amy Cuddy. She's typically described as a psychologist who shows people how to create changes in their own biochemistry by "power posing". Search her name and in the first page of results you'll find an article by Slate (written by scientists, not a journalist) that reveals her to be a fraud: her research doesn't replicate and she knows it doesn't. The effect she promotes doesn't exist at all. But she continues to milk the media and TED Talk circuit by promoting these feel-good ideas as if they were based in science.

It takes all of 10 seconds to discover that Cuddy is a fraud. Yet the BBC is promoting her repeatedly. Why? Because the articles are written by a feminist who likes the idea of Cuddy as an example of a successful and inspiring female scientist. No desire to inform need intrude!

Sorry, if you really believe journalist's priority is to neutrally inform with good information then you can't read many newspapers. I'll give you a tip: newspapers don't employ fact checkers.

I did the recommended 10 seconds of Google-ing, and was completely unsurprised to find out that the example you draw is far more sophisticated and far less straightforward as you are attempting to make it.

Given that fact, I’m left wondering what the motivations for your comment are. Especially given the nature of your target, and the thinly veiled usage of the word “feminist” as an epithet.

> ... was completely unsurprised to find out that ...

So please share your findings then

> Speaking of the fake news, Internet and the social media are at the same time THE BEST way to verify information.

The problem is that Google results are often misleading or incorrect themselves. This is as expected. The sole purpose of Google is to maximize shareholder value. It would be silly to expect it to optimise for any other metric like the fairness or accuracy of results.

True, but there's a lot of people out there that have genuine knowledge about whatever the subject is, and if you wait a few days usually you'll be able to find multiple sources to verify or dismiss any claim.

The main problem is how much time and effort one is willing to invest into debunking the fake news stories? For the most of people answer is: not any, if possible. Even I will look at maybe 2-3 pages of google results and twitter feeds and give up, presume it's true. It's the same problem as computer security: it's all about the balance between the goal and convenience. It's just not convenient to double-check every fact that you read, you'd just do that whole day long or go crazy, so we choose to trust them...

>The fact that you can't verify sources easily is not a symptom. It's a fundamental problem with the Internet today

Verifying sources is easier than ever. In the 80s it was a major time investment to verify anything. Today, if your source is available in written form - whether that's a newspaper, a research paper or a book - I can more likely than not start reading it within five minutes.

Fake news and trolling are much more a symptom of cheap and easy publishing, and the exposure they can get in today's attention economy. Outrage spreads faster than you can fact-check it

> Verifying sources is easier than ever. In the 80s it was a major time investment to verify anything. Today, if your source is available in written form - whether that's a newspaper, a research paper or a book - I can more likely than not start reading it within five minutes.

This makes me wonder how much of the information from the old media (newspapers, TV programs, books or radio shows) was ever actually true before the internet. Has anyone tried to verify a bunch of news stories from the olden days, to figure out who was lying and how common misinformation was?

What I mean is that you can't tell easily tell where 'information' is coming from, not that it's hard to verify the information itself.

Facebook, Twitter, and other social media are easy to game. A recent study claimed that up to 44M Twitter accounts were likely bots--even Twitter grants that many of the accounts are fake. [0] This is kind of like the email spam problem but harder because besides some genuinely difficult technical problems it raises a lot of tricky issues about things like free speech that we're still working through. It's also not just a social media problem. "Cheap and easy publishing" was a design goal of the World Wide Web.


>I don't buy the idea that smartphones are extinguishing the life of the mind.

That's might be because of thinking of first order effects only.

>Sure, smartphones provide access to almost unlimited trash. But they also provide access to Wikipedia, perhaps the most successful encyclopedia ever developed by humans.

Well, who said access to Wikipedia is something good in itself? For one, it might (and I say it does) reduce the number of deeper study on a subject, because of "I can look it up in Wikipedia". So, people that get interested in something don't need to build a deeper connection with their subject, buy books, follow it over time, connect with other people studying it, as a basic (and often crude) summary is always at small distance, and is perceived as enough.

What's worse, there's a whole new entitlement and arrogance about topics, from people who have just cursory experience with them from Wikipedia or some other such source, and feed as qualified on them as actual people who've studied them/experts. Wikipedia feeds the "Read 1 lemma for 5 minutes expert".

It's even worse when the source of their knowledge is not Wikipedia, but random web BS pages -- from conspiracy theories to homeopathy pages to alternative diets, to plain old bad journalist/click-baits.

>They can show you newspapers from across the planet. They let you read Latin histories of the Norman conquest of Southern Italy in the middle ages.

Both quite irrelevant to the discussion (which is about mass effects), as only a tiny outlier group will ever read those anyway.

It's not the internet/smartphone that is the real problem though. It's that as a civilization we've relinquished control to structures whose only motives are profit-making.

Their "we're changing the world" lip-service always has that ("to make more money") proviso -- not "for the better".

Access to all kinds of information is good. It will always be up to the individual to investigate and draw up conclusions. People who state that they can just look something up on Wiki and be knowledgeable (or gasp experts!) will have been ignorant 10 years ago, 100 years ago etc. If they wouldn't have had Wikipedia or a newspaper, they'd have had religion (or anything else) to allow feeling knowledgeable.

Also, I disagree that reading a book is a REQUIREMENT for study. It can be beneficial, but it's just another tool.

There are a lot of wrongs on this planet, unfortunately.

>People who state that they can just look something up on Wiki and be knowledgeable (or gasp experts!) will have been ignorant 10 years ago, 100 years ago etc.

They would -- but they wouldn't be able to pass their ignorance as knowledge in most fields. Easy access has been known to devalue things -- it's simple economics.

>Also, I disagree that reading a book is a REQUIREMENT for study. It can be beneficial, but it's just another tool.

Reading a book might not be, but reading extensively is.

Skimping through online articles and wikipedia-surfing is not that.

Do you think the average public library contains a better or worse ratio of good to bad knowledge than Google?

How about a library at a world-class university?

How about the magazines on display at the grocery store checkout line?

"I don't buy the idea that smartphones are extinguishing the life of the mind.

Sure, smartphones provide access to almost unlimited trash. But they also provide access to Wikipedia, perhaps the most successful encyclopedia ever developed by humans."

This is not really a valid argument. The mere _potential_ to read medieval Latin, or even classical Greek, on your smartphone says very little about the actual overall effect of people having smartphones.

I suspect a lot more smartphone time is spent on Snapchat filters than Homer.

> But they also provide access to Wikipedia [etc]

But let's be honest, most smartphone users spend their time confined in a limited number of domains: social media, games, shopping etc. In that sense, we can be called a bit zombie in the head.

If we're going to be totally honest, then first, let's call social media primarily talking to your friends and family. Which is one of the most deeply and fundamentally human things you can do. And it is also critical to doing anything together with other people. The Internet has lifted constraints of time and geography from communication - which is why you see people on IM in situations where, without the phone, the time would be wasted. They're making more efficient use of their time.

As for shopping, I don't see anything wrong with acquiring resources needed for various things in your life.

Social media is primarily intended for talking to friends and family. As others have pointed out in this thread, the reality for most people is closer to mindless browsing and addiction. That's because the systems are designed to 'hook' people that way. I'm not suggesting in any way that social media, shopping etc are bad (I use them all the time) but as the Internet is literally at our fingertips now, I do think that we need to be more cautious of unintended consequences, for individuals (particularly vulnerable ones like children) and for society as a whole. We're already seeing some of them today.

So the question to ask now is, regardless if you're solutionist/ Luddite/ neutral/ etc, how do we tackle this? Do we need to tone down some of the 'hook' features? Do we need to totally discourage unethical tactics like dark patterns? What can we do to educate/push people towards a healthier Internet diet, to have enough will to protect themselves from being psychologically hacked? This is an entirely new design philosophy, maybe not so good for big tech corps, but can potentially push the Internet to the next level.

Edit: language

That's because the systems are designed to 'hook' people that way

No they aren't. Nobody sat down and said "how do we design Instagram to be maximally addictive". They just said, hey, look, I made some neat photo filters and someone else said, hey, love the filters, it'd be neat if I could share these photos with my friends. Badaboom, a social network.

The fact that so many people spend so many hours on Instagram is nothing to do with the software itself and everything to do with how people use it. To be brutally honest here, in my experience it's 90% girls who obsess over Instagram. I know very few men who use Instagram at all, let alone post regularly. Women use it so much because the posts they configure the app to show them consist mostly of girls boosting each others self confidence by telling each other how beautiful or successful they look in each photo. Equally important - what's not there: no politics, re-sharing of links that someone might expect you to read or care about, and in general nothing that would require any mental effort at all.

Nobody designed Instagram to be full of trivial ego pumping, it's a neutral photo sharing tool. There are no dark patterns, whatever they're meant to be, unless you believe that the absence of a "share this link" feature is a dark pattern. It just so happens that this is how many people choose to use the tool.

In the same vein, nobody designed Twitter to be mentally less taxing than other social media sites, it was just that due to technical limits SMS restricted your character count, and Twitter inherited that limit, and limiting the size of a post sets a very low but very consistent quality bar on tweets, such that people who would have been intimidated by blogging full sized articles can now engage in online discussion without feeling out-competed.

And why not? The attitude you display here shows a great feeling of superiority: people don't like Twitter or Instagram because they like the culture on these networks, instead it's because they've been "addicted" by "dark patterns" beyond their comprehension of control, in some sort of vast Silicon Valley conspiracy that is mysteriously unsupported by any sort of paper trail or emails showing discussion of these malign intentions.

Please, grow up and just let people enjoy communicating in whatever way makes them feel good.

>No they aren't. Nobody sat down and said "how do we design Instagram to be maximally addictive".

you have no idea what you are talking about and everything you're saying is invalid. The companies noted in your post are run by and dependent on advertising. The number of users on the platform, their ability to lure users back to the platform and the amount of time spent within the platform is kkey to making money and is essential to keeping their stock price up.

Sorry, this is a strawman response. I was pretty clear about my concern for unfortunate unintended consequences; nobody is saying that there's a Silicon Valley conspiracy in action! Incidentally, I agree with your points on the benefits of social media. And it's awesome that we have so much engaging content today, but please explain if it's really OK for kids to get hooked on YouTube etc five hours a day. The solution is not to ban or demonise, but how we can educate people to have more control in their use of technology. Even Nir Eyal recognises this and implements tech restrictions in his own household. It's like gambling - sure we have self control, but let's be honest, gambling companies work very hard to make it addictive (I specifically used the term "psychologically hacked" earlier).

That's a natural response to be expected from companies, user engagement is tied to company health/profitability/etc so it makes sense to maximise it as much as possible. But earlier when I called for a new design philosophy, I am hoping that tech companies can be better than that. Because you are right, nearly all of them start with a genuine belief that their tool can help people, or at the very least, it's cool and yo let's spread the word. The tools still work, like Facebook still functions as a platform to connect relatives and old classmates, but it has also become so much more than that: it's a news platform, it's a media engine, it's a publisher, it's an ad-clicking farm and so on. The tools have evolved into systems, which other forces (commercial companies, political groups etc) have learnt to leverage for their own benefit. They have become complex and life-evading enough that they can't be called neutral anymore, despite the company's best intentions. And I'll go as far as to say that these companies have some accountability.

As a daily Instagram user, I do take offence with your comment regarding Instagram and girls - you are caricaturing a lot. It's not just high-fiving about body confidence and taking random selfies...

I was pretty clear about my concern for unfortunate unintended consequences

The part of your post I quoted literally says "the systems are designed to hook people". It also says "Do we need to totally discourage unethical tactics like dark patterns".

Don't try to wriggle out of it. The words "design" and "tactics" mean deliberate intended action, agency. My post is not a strawman: it responds to exactly what you were saying. Perhaps on reflection you think that position was too extreme: OK then.

please explain if it's really OK for kids to get hooked on YouTube etc five hours a day

Sure. They're kids. What would you rather they do? Play football for five hours a day, like my grandparent's generation did? Read story books - the ultimate form of passive media consumption? At least on YouTube they might be learning something more useful than how to kick a ball around, and who knows, might even be inspired to create something themselves.

I think a lot of the complaints about social media and YouTube overlook that point. It's easy to complain. What's your proposed better alternative?

As a daily Instagram user, I do take offence with your comment regarding Instagram and girls

Alright, be offended, my lived experience does not care. All the girls I know use Instagram all the time. None of the guys do. I realise there are exceptions, it's a huge network. But I know from discussions with other men that they've had the same observation as me. If you find that fact offensive, too bad!

> "Nobody sat down and said "how do we design Instagram to be maximally addictive"."

The evidence points to the contrary. Why would you not want to make, as another commenter put it, a social network site as 'sticky' as possible? You have to understand how sites like Instagram make money, using methods which rely on keeping engagement high. It's the so-called 'Attention Economy'.

Here's one article describing how Instagram's approach to generating revenue has evolved over time:


Here's the Wikipedia article about the ideas behind the attention economy:


What evidence?

The article you link to just says they make money through advertising. Yes, and?

Your argument is 'their business relies on their users being happy and using their service a lot' which is an empty statement: it's true of all businesses. It's not a sign of addictiveness or anything like that.

You're missing the key part of my argument. There are businesses built around offering products and services that have no need to maintain your attention, for example I'll go to the supermarket when I'm hungry, and I'll go to the barbers when I need a haircut. The difference with the players in the attention economy (including social media sites, news sites, basically almost any site where the main form of income is advertising) is that they rely on getting and keeping your attention on their site. If you can't see the gamification aspects of sites like Instagram as examples of that, I don't know what else I can say that will help you see it.

You could argue that theatre, cinema and opera also rely on getting and keeping your attention. Nobody says they're addictive or "gamified".

The reason I have trouble seeing the "gamification" aspects of Instagram is that there are none. This idea that a photo sharing site is designed to be like a drug exists in your head - every argument you make easily applies to many other kinds of business that nobody considers addictive.

> "You could argue that theatre, cinema and opera also rely on getting and keeping your attention. Nobody says they're addictive or "gamified"."

Theatre, cinema and opera are experiences that are best appreciated in small doses. Television, on the other hand, is something I'd class as addictive. Wouldn't you?

> "The reason I have trouble seeing the "gamification" aspects of Instagram is that there are none. This idea that a photo sharing site is designed to be like a drug exists in your head - every argument you make easily applies to many other kinds of business that nobody considers addictive."

You have to separate the intention from the result. Did the creators of Instagram intend to create, as you put it, "a drug"? No. However, they did intend to make it a popular platform for advertisers, and advertisers are clearly interested in getting as many eyeballs on their products as they can, and the more the creators of Instagram can do to make their site sticky and drive engagement, the more their company will grow. Whilst their users are of strategic importance, their most important customers are advertisers. Increasing the userbase only makes sense if there's a corresponding increase in advertising revenue, they can't run on good will.

To give an example of a feature that increases the stickiness of Instagram (note that I didn't use "drug", that was your term), I'd suggest Instagram Stories (a feature inspired by Snapchat).


The idea being, you have to use the app every day otherwise you might miss something. Previously, you could dip in and out of Instagram and not miss anything. With Stories, that's no longer the case. Also, as well as viewing the stories of others, creating your own 24 hour story also encourages much more use of the service. What's opera's equivalent of Instagram Stories?

Let's move away from Instagram for a second to consider other players in the attention economy. News organisations are most definitely in this space as well. The rise of sensationalist, clickbait news articles, even by news institutions that were previously above such behaviour, is a clear indication that we're in an era where attention is something that's harder to earn. Have you noticed this trend or would you like some examples?

Television, on the other hand, is something I'd class as addictive. Wouldn't you?

This is clearly where we differ. No, I wouldn't. The word addiction has specific meaning. The fact that lots of people enjoy something a lot does not make that thing addictive. I am surrounded by people who have TV sets and who do not spend much time watching TV at all. I myself have a TV set and feel no particular cravings to watch it, ever. When I choose to, an hour or so is sufficient and then I may well not watch any for weeks. I consider this normal behaviour.

I think you're far too liberal with the use of the word addiction.

What's opera's equivalent of Instagram Stories?

Heh, how about the fact that it's very expensive and only occurs at specific times of day, meaning you have to structure your entire day around getting to it by the start? You've never seen someone literally running down the street because they're late for the opera or theatre? Running to the dealers for their fix!

No no, that's a very forced analogy. Opera isn't addictive even though some people can spend hours on what seems to me a very pointless activity. Instagram Stories is a great example of why Instagram is not designed to be addictive - it's simply a reaction to the success of Snapchat, i.e. a very strong message from users that they value transiency and don't actually always want their photos to go into a never ending history accessible to all, for ogling and possible exploitation years later.

Given the highly transient nature of photos usually posted to Instagram feeds, the desire for them to disappear after a while makes perfect sense from the perspective of the uploader. The fact that this gives downloaders limited time is - once more - not a deliberate attempt to addict people to anything but rather a natural consequence of the users own requirements.

> "The word addiction has specific meaning."

What's a definition of addiction you would agree with? Is it linked to changes in body chemistry? To obsessive behaviour?

Addiction is usually linked to substance abuse or similar.

Other forms of "addiction" are difficult to cleanly disentangle from people simply liking things for their own reasons, acting on their own free will. That's how you get things like TV being described as "addictive" though I never heard of anyone going into prostitution so they could afford their cable bill. Perhaps there are stories of it happening somewhere, but such a story would be rare and shocking, whereas prostitution for feeding a drug habit is unremarkable.

But let me turn it around. How do you define it? Above I've seen people claim that anything that has advertising in it must by nature be "addictive" but that would cover 20th century newspapers, and again, I never heard anyone describe them as addictive or display uncontrollable cravings for newspapers.

> "Addiction is usually linked to substance abuse or similar."

Okay, but what makes those substances addictive?

This is categorically Untrue.

The article itself lists people directly who have worked on items and code meant to addict and make sites “sticky”.

If that’s not enough - go look at gamification.

Back when WoW launched I was impressed. They distilled the then amorphous knowledge of UI and game psych and upped the ante.

At that time friends and i imagined what maximally addictive games would be. How we would use more malicious techniques from behavioral science and habit formation to keep people in game for longed.

Then came TF and the hats/freemium model (Korea/SEA/China ).

And from there to now, the worst of those ideas have been applied and evolved.

Sites very definitely design themselves to trigger and keep people on site.

Snapchat is literally designed to be maximally addictive. You know this, right?

> If we're going to be totally honest, then first, let's call social media primarily talking to your friends and family. Which is one of the most deeply and fundamentally human things you can do.

I disagree. Pre-social media, people would talk with friends and family using e-mail and programs like AIM, and there would actually be deep and meaningful conversations. This has been supplanted by social media, which is often simple banal comments on an article/rant that someone threw up for everyone to see.

If someone told you 15 years ago that people would stop having conversations by e-mail and communicate by LiveJournal posts/comments instead, it would have seemed like a hilariously terrible idea, but that's more or less where we are.

> I disagree. Pre-social media, people would talk with friends and family using e-mail and programs like AIM, and there would actually be deep and meaningful conversations.

This seems hilariously false.

Yes it is false.

But the op is oriented correctly.

The issue isn’t the depth of conversations- the issue is the availability of addictive alternatives.

I’m on a phone surrounded by family - who I will see only a few more times in my life.

And that’s entirely because of my choices.

But by that criteria being in bad relations, junk food, bingeing, gambling addictions are all “choice”.

They are not.

These tools are designed to be as addictive possible within the confines of law - laws made to prevent even worse excesses.

If you have Joe Schmoe, vs me and my ability to data mine their lives, to put reminders that “hey you are on your streak! Log on again!” While they are on the pot, to “leverage” their network to get more people onto the game and then put them on leader boards “to catch those people with competitive impulses”; to gamify their life and to put triggers to run dopamine and seratonin triggers - then joe schmoe doesn’t have a snowballs chance in hell.

Of course I can only speak from personal experience. But in my experience, long personal e-mail (several paragraphs) from friends to catch up used to be relatively common, and now they've all but disappeared (I don't think I've gotten any in the past couple of years). Likewise, long chats of the old AIM/MSN variety - spend an hour or two chatting with a friend sharing ideas and news with them - seems much rarer than before (where it wasn't uncommon to have them every few days).

This is true for me too. It's funny that we can now literally connect to thousands of people in social media, but through likes and short comments. Sometimes I get the impression that long threads of discussion is not encouraged, that it's polite to just keep it short and sweet (example, when Instagram introduced the "like comment" button, I sometimes find myself using it rather than thanking directly.)

So our connecting is more like lines crossing over briefly, but never more than that. Sometimes this is fun - because where else can you encounter other people different from you - and sometimes it's just a little sad.

Where as we have F=m•a in physical reality, in hyperreality it seems as though the rule is inverted, F=m÷a.

It seems the less "mass" a message contains the more "force" it seems to exert. A long response is ignored and carries with it very little persuasive power compared to the pithy response of a mere binary form of approval.

Social media is both 'talking to friends and family', and 'posturing in front of near-strangers'. The latter might also be a latent human thing, but overall I don't it contributes as much to wellbeing as the first.

Is an ad-subsidized and for-profit business deeply and fundamentally required to talk to your friends and family?

If interacting with friends and family is what is important, is Facebook the best way to do so?

It's not, but it's what we have. Phones are controlled by private for-profit companies too (with different business, though). And the post is funded by taxes.

Point being, the business models are not inherent to communication mediums, but due to history, those mediums are provided through the particular business models we have.

It is not what we have. We have many other options beyond even the other technologies you've listed. Businesses and products are not prerequisite for interacting with friends and family.

What about simply having a conversation in person, mediated only by spoken language? What if you never moved away from your family and could stop by for dinner a few times a week?

There are many possibilities beyond just accepting the dictations of a few product managers in Silicon Valley!

> let's call social media primarily talking to your friends and family

Let's call it what it actually is, instead:

Talking to your friends and family while a stalker sits in the corner recording and taking notes.

How many wikipedia articles have you read on your smartphone vs. ones you've read on your laptop/desktop?

"In your pocket" represents a world of difference.

Loads of them. And not just Wikipedia articles, longwinded articles from every other source under the sun. Usually ones on sites with minimal CSS and Javascript, because they use less data than the alternatives.

Admittedly a lot of people would probably just stick to browsing Facebook or Twitter most of the time, but even then, they'll look up tons of small facts and trivia pieces through Google whenever they don't know something too. In the olden days, that wasn't possible. Even less people looked up stuff they were curious about, since it meant either having to go home and online (before phones) or bringing out the encyclopedia (before computers in general).

A fucking lot. Probably as much as on the computer - and I'm in front of the computer for 10-12h / day.

Most of my mobile searches are related to a) things I'm learning right now, or b) things I've just read about and I don't know what they are.

More on my laptop but that's only because I work on a laptop and have to look up (mostly) work-related stuff.

I read a lot of 18th/19th century lit. Wikipedia is like having footnotes for anything you are reading. I use it regularly, almost exclusively on my iPhone.

The thing is that people like you are just a little minority respect to the whole. The vastly majority is destroing their screens by tapping here and there on Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat....

If you looked a bit closer on their screens (easy to do in public transit), you'd see that they're mostly a) reading stuff, b) talking with friends, c) sending cool stuff to their friends. All standard ways of spending time with other people, except with the constraints of time and space lifted.

Do you work for Facebook? It's OK if you do. It's OK if you don't accept what they do. It's OK if you don't love your job. We need to go out into the world and destroy parts of it just to survive.

From 'The Way I Am', sung by Merle Haggard and many more:

I wish I enjoyed how I made my living,

Did what I do with a willing hand.

Some may run but that ain't like me,

So I just dream, keep on being the way that I am.

Wait what? No, I don't work for Facebook, nor am I affiliated with them in any way.

The reason I asked is because it seems like you might have a lot of your identity and self-worth dependent on a moral acceptance of social media. It seems like you might be subconsciously denying the negative impact that these technologies have on both individuals and society at large.

Or not! Maybe you are fully accepting and fully aware and it is I who is missing the extra pieces to the puzzle!

Nah, my identity isn't particularly tied to social media. I just feel those problems are blown hugely out of proportion and/or just non-issues[0].

But maybe both of us are right, just right about different population groups? Maybe I happen to mostly see the use of social media I'd consider reasonable, and this biases my perception? Bubbles are strong in physical world too.


[0] - The kind of "smartphones make us antisocial on trains", except they don't, because before smartphones it was walkmans, and before walkmans it was newspapers.

You make a good point about Walkmans and newspapers... As McLuhan would point out, the Narcissus trance is present in all media technologies! That doesn't meet we should give in to the alluring trance of the Siren.

It is true that newspapermen created the Spanish-American war out of thin air as well, but we learned our lessons about the unethical use of mass print media. Irony of ironies in the name Pulitzer Prize!

I just want to make sure we're not blind to the downsides of this new "liberating" technology. It has had plenty of defenders and has swept up billions of people in its grasp.

Perhaps feeling depressed by staged photos of a friend on vacation posted to Facebook is one thing but threats of nuclear war on Twitter are a much more serious matter!

I'm on my phone now. I do most of my reading and technical stuff on my phone, even when I'm home. Why? I have it on me, it's a mini computer with a camera.

The human species has survived, but not all of us are among the lucky.


There’s no evidence Einstein ever said that: https://quoteinvestigator.com/2012/04/02/know-where-to-find/

Does anyone see an analogy with highly processed, sugary foods? Highly addictive, thought to be miracles of convenience, but ultimately detrimental when consumed in excess, and now we are starting to realise that and demand better. I wonder if society will go through the same rejection phase with attention-seeking media consumption. Or maybe those who grow up with it will be better able to control themselves.

David Foster Wallace had the same belief about TV 20 years ago. He seemed more addicted to it than the average bear, more along the lines of how you see people tethered to smartphones today. He very much saw TV as candy - sweet, addictive, not sustaining, and unhealthy without moderation.

He talked about it in multiple places, but Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself (an interview) discusses it a lot.


I think his definitive piece on the subject is E unibus pluram: television and U.S. fiction (1993) [0], definitely worth a read if you have the time. Wallace's "six hours a day" refrain is an interesting contrast to our now dominant usage pattern of dozens of 10 minutes chunks of daily social media consumption.

What explains the pointlessness of most published TV criticism is that television has become immune to charges that it lacks any meaningful connection to the world outside it. It's not that charges of nonconnection have become untrue. It's that any such connection has become otiose. Television used to point beyond itself. Those of us born in like the sixties were trained to look where it pointed, usually at versions of "real life" made prettier, sweeter, better by succumbing to a product or temptation. Today's Audience is way better trained, and TV has discarded what's not needed. A dog, if you point at something, will look only at your finger.

[0] https://www.thefreelibrary.com/E+unibus+pluram:+television+a...

In Pat Cadigan's anthology of short works "Patterns", she included this introduction to her short story[1] with the same name:

> Television will achieve its apotheosis when it is interactive.

> Of course, some people think they have that now. For some people, TV reality is as much of a reality as what they move through most of the day. I remember listening to two people I used to work with discussing the horrible burden a character on a TV series would have to bear for causing someone's death in a fire. These were not uneducated or isolated people; they had simply been drawn in so far, they were projecting the characters well beyond the end of the show -- indeed, beyond the life of the series itself. And we've all heard amusing stories about actors who play soap opera villains suddenly attacked by irate viewers who cannot separate actor and character, Maybe more people can't than can -- the host of Death Valley Days was President of the United States for eight years.

> Does TV encourage, or even induce, schizophrenia? Or does it create a separate reality in conjunction with our minds, something that is neither totally our inner life nor totally TV. The networks might call that programming.

Marshall McLuhan explained how humans see tools - such as media - as an "extension of ourselves". It's important to keep this in mind when creating tools or types of media: you're also defining part of the human that uses the tool.

[1] The short story "Patterns" was originally published in the August 1987 issue of Omni.

Here he addresses the topic in the article directly:


J.K. Rowling had a pretty fantastic facsimile of this in the Harry Potter series:

"The Mirror of Erised is an ancient, ornate mirror. It has clawed feet and a gold frame... The mirror shows the most desperate desire of a person's heart, a vision that has been known to drive men mad."

"Men have wasted away before it, not knowing if what they have seen is real, or even possible." —Albus Dumbledore explaining the danger of the mirror to Harry Potter


Lots on the topic by Neil Postman too: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amusing_Ourselves_to_Death

In one of his talks, he actually wished that newer information mediums came with a warning label.

(This miight be the one - “informing ourselves to death”: https://m.youtube.com/watch?feature=youtu.be&t=1487&v=fuRVxW... )

I was going to make this comment about TV. Social media has merely supplanted other forms of entertainment that Americans indulged on previously. I guess the main difference is that smart phones are with us 24/7.

I'd just add that it's a non-trivial difference.

Its interactive nature is another difference of kind not shared with books or television and likely to increase its addictiveness.

also the central theme of infinite jest... right? that book was confusing.

Very much so, at least one of them. “The Entertainment” was sufficiently addicting to effectively zombify characters, now fulfilled by the stereotype of people that float across busy streets without raising their eyes from their phones. The repeated parallels to drug use and escape therefrom were none-too-subtly interspersed with The Entertainment for a reason.

Also, the literary broken narrative effected by story-length footnotes that had story-length endnotes imitates the short/shattered attention span experience of living that DFW was already able to feel and express—and Infinite Jest was published over twenty years ago.

I escaped into Infinite Jest to survive a period of deep depression, denial, and directionlessness, so that shattered consciousness was pretty easy to relate to at the time.

Yes. I’ve been running with this model too.

I also think about distractions (pop ups, bullshit social media, etc) as interrupts that disrupt program execution. The mindfulness movement has organic parallels.

Is mainstream news nourishing to my brain?

The biggest story of the week (year?) has no leakers and limited facts. The media have made virtually no progress on explaining who this person was in Las Vegas.

We do have 12 sources that prove some DC douche called another douche a moron.

I am not letting the media run code on my cpu anymore. Their code doesn’t nourish.

> I also think about distractions

There is a book on this idea "Infinite Distraction"


The idea being that our media experience is modulated in a way that people can't individually or collectively focus indignation.

>Or maybe those who grow up with it will be better able to control themselves.

Get hooked at young ages, and their tastes develop around the overly sweet/salty foods. Thus becoming adults still addicted to them. Especially with marketing to young children(Animals, Colorful packaging, etc).

Combined with the both parents working, 'busier' modern lifestyle lots of families don't have time to cook 'real' food or dinners. So quick and easy food with low nutritional value is substituted.

> Get hooked at young ages, and their tastes develop around the overly sweet/salty foods. Thus becoming adults still addicted to them.

Anecdotal, but I've noticed that higher caliber restaurants have very subtle flavors. As opposed to mass produced/fast food that tend have very strong flavors.

Subtle aka bland.

I'm not sure these are quite the same things. Take a North Indian curry for example: even it's detractors wouldn't call it particularly bland, but the flavors are obviously way more subtle than, say, pixie stix. This isn't particularly surprising given that you put half a teaspoon of a dozen different spices into a curry while the pixie stix are literally just sugar and maybe a single flavor, wired directly to a part of our brain that likes sugar.

> I'm not sure these are quite the same things.

People who enjoy bland things always say this. :) Those words mean the same thing "to me", does mean it does to you, wasn't an insult, subtle just isn't a word I use for food. I like what I like and I've tasted things people use that word for, I call them bland.

Eh, language is defined by usage and the usage of "bland" is pretty inseparable from its negative connotation. Hell, even all the dictionary definitions you'll find include negative connotations.

Um, yea, and usage deviates precisely because people adopt different meanings to words over time until a new meaning becomes the norm; thus definitions are descriptive, not prescriptive, so don't tell me how to use words. And yes, I'm adding the negative connotation on purpose, that's rather the point now isn't it?

Not too long ago, we had this story, "Social Media is the New Smoking" https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=14851057. The mathematician Ted Kaczynski said decades ago, "humans with technology is like an alcoholic with a barrel of wine."

Interesting, while I have known about it, I haven't really read Ted Kaczynski (aka Unabomber) essay "Industrial Society and Its Future" [1] (aka The Unabomber Manifesto) before until your comment. I absolutely abhor his actions and what he had done, but the essay is a brilliant read.

Especially interesting is paragraph 171, as it pertains to the recent concerns about AI and our increasing technological dependence. Note that he wrote this essay way back in 1995:

"What we do suggest is that the human race might easily permit itself to drift into a position of such dependence on the machines that it would have no practical choice but to accept all of the machines’ decisions. As society and the problems that face it become more and more complex and as machines become more and more intelligent, people will let machines make more and more of their decisions for them, simply because machine-made decisions will bring better results than man-made ones. Eventually a stage may be reached at which the decisions necessary to keep the system running will be so complex that human beings will be incapable of making them intelligently. At that stage the machines will be in effective control. People won’t be able to just turn the machines off, because they will be so dependent on them that turning them off would amount to suicide."

[1] http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/national/longterm/unabo...

> As society and the problems that face it become more and more complex and as machines become more and more intelligent, people will let machines make more and more of their decisions for them, simply because machine-made decisions will bring better results than man-made ones. Eventually a stage may be reached at which the decisions necessary to keep the system running will be so complex that human beings will be incapable of making them intelligently. At that stage the machines will be in effective control. People won’t be able to just turn the machines off, because they will be so dependent on them that turning them off would amount to suicide."



"The Machine Stops" is a science fiction short story (12,300 words) by E. M. Forster. After initial publication in The Oxford and Cambridge Review (November 1909), the story was republished in Forster's The Eternal Moment and Other Stories in 1928. After being voted one of the best novellas up to 1965, it was included that same year in the populist anthology Modern Short Stories.[1] In 1973 it was also included in The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volume Two.

"The story, set in a world where humanity lives underground and relies on a giant machine to provide their needs, predicted technologies such as instant messaging and the Internet."

I won't spoil the ending, but you can guess how it plays out.

For those that don't get the reference Ted Kaczynski aka the Unabomber.

The same Ted that's the Unabomber?

The other analogy that I've used is to asbestos and lead paint. Both of those products were very good at accomplishing their immediate purpose but had pretty devastating health consequences that were only discovered after they'd become ubiquitous. I think in a decade or two, we'll look back at smartphones in the same way.

I think the "lead" in this case is nonprogrammability. We in the professional tech world design our development tools for other professional programmers. Very few of us take the time to make those tools consumable by a first week coder.

And we all have a good excuse: there are great tools and best practices for publishing a development tool to other professionals. If you want to design something for a first week coder you have a lot more work to do, few examples to follow, and no obvious personal benefit.

Except the end result of that is that we sell computers to people which are useless for actual computing. All they give the average consumer is the opportunity to follow a path worn by someone like you or me.

We barely notice this, because we do have the ability to do real computation. We forget that it's something we are hoarding for ourselves.

Our phones, their glitziness, and the way they captivate definitely hijack the mind's operations when it's saturated by them.

It's a rough solution but simply dampening the strength of the signal is one way to manage our minds.

That's why I'm moving towards a smartwatch with cellular. I know I need to be connected, but to specific people, not to the information highway. (More information cul de sacs.)

I'm excited about the kind of lifestyle patterns we can design that would be more kind to ourselves but not any less performant.

This is amused cynicism to your happy optimism.

I look forward to making more addictive programs that make me and shareholders more money. I am eager to see the next evolution of UI/experience and code, where we manage to get ever stronger feedback loops in place.

The end goal is to make money and have a good exit. To find a way to part people from their money, for the minimum effort on our our part and the best competitive release of value from our product for their time.

There’s of course diminishing returns to product quality - I mean after all, who wants to be craigslist and just do the one job good enough?

No no. We will buy out the competition or interesting startups and then expand our reach and label beyond the core product which must plateau out eventually.

Then we leverage this cross platform ability to gain more market share and dominate multiple verticals which lets us disrupt other industries.

Because if we don’t do it, someone else will. And this also has such amazing RoI!

And look at the amazing value we unlock, surfacing relevant ads all over our network.

But hey, you know not enough people are clicking on ads, so let’s push them Harder, we could model ourselves like those old companies we removed. Let’s hire some tv execs for their insight.

As For the big picture - well I’m sure there’s someone else whose job it is to worry about that.

If there is a problem we will solve it ourselves, us being the duty minded, un-incentivized corporations.

Yup. The future is shiny and usefulness is incidental.

The one comment on the earlier thread[1] links to a compelling podcast[2] on the biology of social media addiction, and it's parallels with sugar.

[1]: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=15423287

[2]: https://overcast.fm/+FaTQX2SRE

Good analogy. The one I use is to compare our modern use of the internet and social media as our eras cigarette.

We know that it isn’t good for us but we don’t realky have any idea just how destructive it is to not only the user but to society.

My analogy breaks down in that cigarettes have very little to 0 use where as the internet is in fact useful and can be safely used - much like sugar.

I am just an average tech worker with zero political inclinations. Just saw a comment on this article [1] that referenced a line from Ted Kaczynski's (aka Unabomber) essay, "Industrial Society and Its Future" [2]. I have heard about it, but this is the first time I read this essay.

I absolutely abhor and condemn his actions and what he had done, but his essay is absolutely brilliant, and is prescient, taking into account it was written way back in 1995.

He is wrong on many counts, but some paragraphs are interesting:

* You can’t get rid of the “bad” parts of technology and retain only the “good” parts.

* Technology is a more powerful social force than the aspiration for freedom.

* A technological advance that appears not to threaten freedom often turns out to threaten it very seriously later on.

* While technological progress AS A WHOLE continually narrows our sphere of freedom, each new technical advance CONSIDERED BY ITSELF appears to be desirable.

* Another reason why technology is such a powerful social force is that, within the context of a given society, technological progress marches in only one direction; it can never be reversed. Once a technical innovation has been introduced, people usually become dependent on it, so that they can never again do without it, unless it is replaced by some still more advanced innovation.

* Technicians tend to be so involved in their work (their surrogate activity) that when a conflict arises between their technical work and freedom, they almost always decide in favor of their technical work.

* In paragraph 127 we pointed out that if the use of a new item of technology is INITIALLY optional, it does not necessarily REMAIN optional, because the new technology tends to change society in such a way that it becomes difficult or impossible for an individual to function without using that technology.

* Will public resistance prevent the introduction of technological control of human behavior? It certainly would if an attempt were made to introduce such control all at once. But since technological control will be introduced through a long sequence of small advances, there will be no rational and effective public resistance. (See paragraphs 127, 132, 153.)

* What we do suggest is that the human race might easily permit itself to drift into a position of such dependence on the machines that it would have no practical choice but to accept all of the machines’ decisions. As society and the problems that face it become more and more complex and as machines become more and more intelligent, people will let machines make more and more of their decisions for them, simply because machine-made decisions will bring better results than man-made ones. Eventually a stage may be reached at which the decisions necessary to keep the system running will be so complex that human beings will be incapable of making them intelligently. At that stage the machines will be in effective control. People won’t be able to just turn the machines off, because they will be so dependent on them that turning them off would amount to suicide.

* On the other hand it is possible that human control over the machines may be retained. In that case the average man may have control over certain private machines of his own, such as his car or his personal computer, but control over large systems of machines will be in the hands of a tiny elite—just as it is today, but with two differences. Due to improved techniques the elite will have greater control over the masses; and because human work will no longer be necessary the masses will be superfluous, a useless burden on the system.

I hate his actions and his strategy, but it's a chilling read.

[1] http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/national/longterm/unabo...

The realization that processed, sugary foods are not good for you dates back to at least the 1950s when the term "junk food" appeared. Even so, the problem got much much worse over time and it's still not at all clear that people are rejecting such foods.

Yes and no, on one hand there is definitely a potential for misuse, on the other I use mine to constantly be learning something, it's like I'm a book worm except I'm reading what ever I find relevant to the thing I'm currently interested in.

There is another part to the analogy: we've all woken up to the fact that corporations re-engineered the food supply after World War II. They were hacking the human body. I think I didn't get this say in the year 2000, but I really get it now.

Think about what your grandparents ate vs. what your parents ate (assuming you grew up in the U.S. and are in the 20's-30's age range. Anecdotally the effect seems to have been particularly strong in the midwest.). It's like night and day.

It's not a coincidence that the food was remade by large corporations during that time. And likewise it seems obvious to me that we will look back on this time in 20 years and see that big corporations were hacking the human brain, like they were hacking the human body 50 years ago.

Now I don't think it is a matter of evil people in dark boardrooms. But if you believe in capitalism, and you believe in biology, then this effect is almost inevitable. It would be surprising if it did NOT happen.

Could you expand on what you feel the goal of their hacking was/is?

Competitive pressure. Gary Taubes in his books "The Case Against Sugar" and "Good Calories, Bad Calories" mentioned the competition between Kellogg's, Post and other cereal brands.

While it's hard to believe today, Kellogg's was founded by a health nut who was eager on bringing healthy grains to Americans. Once his descendants took over, they noticed how enriching their product with sugar increased sales. Kids specifically don't have necessary mental controls to recognize addictive behavior (which is why we have restrictions on sales of cigarettes and alcohol).

So bit by bit American breakfast table and grocery store cereal isle turned into varieties of concentrated sugar instead of the muesli, oats, granola and nuts mixes it was way back in the days.

>While it's hard to believe today, Kellogg's was founded by a health nut who was eager on bringing healthy grains to Americans.

Strictly speaking he was trying to prevent masturbation, but I see your point.


As a (currently) flagged comment absolutely accurately notes, a major concern of the Kelloggs was matters of mental and spiritual hygiene, including concerted efforts (including surgery) to avert masturbation.

Medical historian Howard Markel addresses this in his recent book The Kelloggs, with some relevant aspects mentioned in this book-tour interview at KALW, Santa Monica:

[Dr. John Haarvey Kellogg] also was very chaste and reminded both his readers and his followers that sex outside of the marriage, of course, was not a good idea, but [that] sex for anything other than procreation really sapped the soul and sapped the spirit. And of course, he was very much opposed to masturbation of any kind, something he wrote about extensively and called "the solitary vice."


Ok, so he had weird views on that topic, but how does that have anything to do with his views on food?

Ideologically driven reasearch in which conclusions are assumed or asserted rather than proven empirically has a poor track record for truth discovery.

The Kelloggs' theories of nutition are fairly hit or miss. Corporatising the institution they created has not helped.

Another reply summarized my view: there doesn't need to be a goal other than optimizing for profit for this type of "hacking" to arise.

I guess the word "hacking" conveys intentionality, or an explicit goal, but I'm using it in the sense that it's "exploiting bugs" in human brains.

Human brains/bodies didn't evolve in a situation with unlimited supplies of fat, sugar, and salt. Likewise, human brains didn't evolve in a situation where you can have an instant audience of 1,000, 100K, or even 100M people.

If you consider facts of about human biology (we like fat, sugar, salt, and to belong to a social group, etc.), and if you understand what a powerful mechanism capitalism is, then it's not surprising that corporations could remake the entire food industry or remake our social lives / belief systems in the span of a single generation.

Whether it's intentional or not is perhaps a secondary issue. I'm saying that in the absence of any opposing force, it would be surprising if this phenomenon did NOT occur.

So I guess my takeaway is that it doesn't hurt to treat current social networks and tech products like smartphones as adversaries. Just like it is reasonable to treat McDonald's and cigarette companies as adversaries. They were designed to deliver concentrated pleasure to your brain without regard to long term consequences.

My impression is that tobacco was a traditional, social, harmless pleasure until "capitalist optimization" morphed it into something deadly and addictive.

(BTW there is evidence that the human brain grew bigger to keep track of our peer group, i.e. it didn't grow big in order to solve math problems. The social part of the brain is large and critical for survival.)

Thanks for clarifying. Hacking has strong connotations with having a smart individual doing the exploiting on purpose. Also, hacking has strong connotations with that purpose being cool, not evil.

But since you mean companies just following the market gradient - that is precisely what happens.

> So I guess my takeaway is that it doesn't hurt to treat current social networks and tech products like smartphones as adversaries. Just like it is reasonable to treat McDonald's and cigarette companies as adversaries. They were designed to deliver concentrated pleasure to your brain without regard to long term consequences.

This is the key. The goal of companies is to make money off you, not to do good to you. If doing good to you helps them make money, they will do it. If screwing you over lets them make more money off you, they will screw you over. This is obvious both in observational evidence and in theory (if you look at the incentive structures of the market economy), and yet some people still persist in the belief that companies do only what consumers want, and that consumers have any agency in this process.

Increase demand for their products.

Overweight people eat more. Creating obese people needn't have been a corporate goal; a blind optimization process could have produced the same outcome. Just tweak the product until it sells more.

this is exactly what's happening with digital media. Optimize for human attention. Direct real time feedback on how people react to your media. Tweak for more attention. Repeat. No intentional malice needed.

I'd like to chime in:

I believe one of their goals was to lower testosterone in general population, to make for a meeker and more easily controlled population. This probably wasn't a 'fully evil' goal, since the horrors of WW2 were recent, and some of them thought that they could prevent that from happening again by engineering a less aggressive population.

From the onset of 20th century at least, it was known that testosterone is responsible for 'manly' characteristics (aggressiveness etc); in 1935 it was synthesized from cholesterol by Lavoslav Ruzicka. So, by the end of WW2 it was already well known that a) testosterone is what makes people aggressive and b) body needs cholesterol to synthezise testosterone. With this information in hand, it's easy to conclude that to get a less aggressive population, one should make them eat less saturated fat/cholesterol.

Enter Ancel Keys, a military-related dietologist (he created the ww2 K-rations, for example). Before mid 1950s, he was making rational scientific research into good/bad foods, and even published some material about the negative health effects of 'grain' ie carbs. But by the mid 1950s he made a full 180 and started attacking saturated fats and cholesterol as the cause of (especially heart-related) health problems. He started using bad science (selectively choosing countries for study to confirm his claim that it's high fat and not high carb diet that causes health issues), and using his pull to silence everyone claiming otherwise.

In 1960s/1970s he was joined by the Big Agro/Food who poured a lot of money into continued shifting of the blame from carbs onto fat, including silencing and ostracizing scientists and studies who dared to claim otherwise; this is the 'conspiracy' that we are familiar with, but I believe it started even earlier, with Ancel Keys, military, and 'powers that be'.

It is sad that you are downvoted (however you may have told it without hints to conspiracies), because there are parallels to what you say about that time's mentality in for example the "Morgenthau Plan" that was fortunately dumped in 1947 and replaced with its opposite the "Marshall plan".

During implementation of the Morgenthau Plan, Germans had to live with 1200 calories per day:


guess what tobacco companies bought after the public started seeing dramatic health complications? you guessed it!

The invention of TV dinners and the preservative revolution is the best parallel ive seen compared to the invention of the internet from a regulation and unintended consequence perspective.

This excellent article fails to mention artificial intelligence. Facebook has recruited one of the world’s top AI teams, led by Yann LeCun. Their work and Google's are the equivalent of tobacco companies engineering cigarettes to ensure that nicotine hits a smoker's brain more quickly. Facebook and other social networks are the cigarette companies of the mind. Cigarettes blackened our lungs with tar, and social media blacken our brains with distraction, alienation, envy, and loneliness.

Social media networks will become ever more addictive, and by using AI to increase the click-through rate on the ads, they will squeeze ever more money out of their addicts. AI will be essential to the "capture and sale of attention," as Tim Wu puts it, walking users from curiosity to the cash register more and more efficiently.[0]

Lewis is right to focus on addiction. Especially because behavioral addictions are easier to ignore than addictions to substances slung on street corners. But they amount to the same thing: you want something, but you don't want to want it, and being unable to resist it, you sabotage your own life. Addictions turn our brains against us.

In a prescient 2010 essay, PG warned of the acceleration of online addictions, and the lag between the introduction of an addictive product and society's response to it.[1]

Capitalism is an accelerant for addictive behavior, and we are only just realizing how unhappy people become as a result of the marketplace’s newest and most insidious products. What's worse, the necessary functions performed by our phones and the Internet are fatefully tangled with the apps that addict us. They put the heroin next to the tap water.

For anyone interested in a fictional account of American society as a tapestry of addictions, Infinite Jest will change the way you think. It's all about that buzz.[2]

Full disclosure: I prompted Paul Lewis to write this piece.

[0] https://www.amazon.com/Attention-Merchants-Scramble-Inside-H...


[2] https://www.amazon.com/Infinite-Jest-David-Foster-Wallace-eb...

Your analogy of cigarette companies and Facebook was accurate but deeply shocking, I felt a chill in my hands and almost lost my grip on my phone.

I’ve always wondered if in the near future, working for Facebook and Google might be considered shameful, just like how working for Big Tobacco became. I remember one person from college who got a job with a tobacco company promoting Reynolds brands cigarettes to his regions Walgreens and Gas Stations. Despite making more than me (and I’m a Linux / AWS Engineer), he was ashamed, didn’t have a LinkedIn, and would tell people he was unemployed.

The cigarette company analogy also includes the "secondhand smoke"-style problem: Even if I don't personally use their services, I'm still exposed to the problem indirectly with gmail/GA/etc.

Non-users are also exposed to the problem because not using those services weakens social networks and interpersonal relationships.

And you are exposed to it's effects if you have "users" in your household - the same way as cigarettes

I'm going to make a prediction. If you are correct with the analogy of comparing FB to modern cigarettes (and I am inclined to believe you've hit the nail in the head here), then FB is going to find a way to make money off of two more categories of people.

1: Those who do not use FB, and who make every effort not to be under their influence; and more importantly..

2: Those who do use FB and want to limit their exposure, along with the damage that have endured.

If there is a way to turn the second group into a lucrative business case, FB will make sure they have a piece. After all - throughout the history of the human race, few things have been more profitable than selling both the poison and the cure.[ß]

ß: Incidentally, we have already seen this, perhaps by accident, with the very same tobacco industry you made the comparison to. Tobacco industry sells addictive nicotine products. The pharmaceutical industry sells what they can to make money off of that addiction. Both industries are required to manage their wealth responsibly... and via an intermediary or three, own decent chunks of each other. The more money they individually leech off of their customers, the bigger the second bite is.

Recall that story a few months ago about how Facebook had purchased an “anti-tracking” VPN provider in order to use their data

Thanks for your part in getting this story published!

If you have not seen it, the BBC series "The Century of the Self" details the pre-history of these tendencies in the creation of the public relations industry by Freud's nephew Edward Bernays [0]. It is truly fascinating and horrific -- all 4 or 5 hours of it!

Social media/big data has also made the consumer a (not fully willing or conscious) _producer_ of mass addiction, through the exploitation of their social graph data. There is a fictive "work contract": give me your data and we'll give you your buzz. This relationship is based on unwaged work. What if this work, the value of it to BigTech, were recognized? It leaves open the possibility of mass refusal. And in some sense how people use social media now is already composed of many types of refusal, some more and some less effective. To state one obvious way -- Facebook is used around the world as a tool for political organizing. The fact that this makes it an even more valuable commodity for repressive governments, starting with the US government, does not stop us from using it and finding it effective, does not stop us from getting together "in real life".

More needs to be said about the social basis of addiction. It's not only ad scientists pushing well-studied biological buttons. It's the trauma of living a society that locks up an insane number of people, puts its children on psychotropic drugs, poisons them with toxic environments and toxic fast food, separates poor children from their mothers, criminalizes their survival, abandons entire communities after natural disasters, bulldozes neighborhoods to make way for hi-rise condos no one can afford, etc. Or the even bigger trauma of living in a world that has the guns & money of this toxic society pointed at them, literally or potentially, every day, forcing migrations and threatening survival of entire populations.

All of these things come into play when we look at why virtual realities are more attractive than real ones, and lead us to have some sympathy for those who use them for networking with others and temporary escape.

If you have not seen it, I recommend reading some of Gabor Mate's work on addiction, for instance "In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts".[1]

[0] https://youtu.be/DnPmg0R1M04

[1] Interview with him: https://www.democracynow.org/2010/2/3/addiction

"Capitalism is an accelerant for addictive behavior"

I'm not sure that what we have would be described as capitalism any more. If you buy FB stock, are they using that to build new machines that pay dividends over time?

You can make an analogy involving software, sure, but it really seems quite different to me. The way I think about it is this: if we all had amnesia and forgot that company XYZ existed, would it still have any value? Under traditional capitalism, yes, they would just need to advertise a bit and rebuild their customer base. But FB and google would be worth close to zero no matter how much software they have.

How much amnesia are we talking about? Google's core feature of being the best web search engine fits into your "advertise a bit and rebuild the customer base" criterion imo.

If google only had 10% of the search traffic it wouldn't just be smaller, it would be as irrelevant as Bing. So they would somehow need to advertise their way into a dominant position again, which is much harder than advertising just to bootstrap and aquire some custoners.

Articulating social media restraint as a health practice is a powerful idea. Family legend has it that my grandmother threw out her cigarettes and quit smoking the day she heard the Surgeon General's smoking warning on the radio in 1964. Having a scientifically backed recommendation for social media would provide a foundation for adults to make better decisions about their mental health.

Infinite Jest is worth the read, it's funny but potent stuff. I'm still struck by the way it depicts the ultimate futility of addiction/pleasure-as-a-goal through the impact of the "Entertainment".

I think your post and this sort of article is a lot of hype and hysterical morality-panicking over nothing.

Google has been using AI techniques to optimise ad targeting for 15 years now, certainly since around the time they floated (I used to work there so I know this for sure). These techniques were very successful. Nothing the algorithms did was based around weird psychological hacks, it was mostly to do with NOT showing people irrelevant junk that wasted their time and attention.

You need AI at scale to stop these systems doing stuff like showing tampon ads to men, or video game ads to elderly women. But nobody sane would describe these outcomes as even remotely the same as "addiction", even though they increased click through rates a lot. To do so makes a mockery of people who suffer with actual addictions.

This sort of article in the Guardian presents vague handwaving that sounds superficially intellectual without actually being so. The goal is to whip up hysteria to justify some crusade against tech companies, when the actual problem is not addiction but rather people who actually quite enjoy social media but perhaps feel a pressure or expectation that they should be doing something else.

Playing to our biological urges is what makes most economies function. Only the details have changed: last century it was tobacco, today it's social media.

Will we transcend the instincts that got us here, or will we become perpetual slaves to a finely tuned techno-capitalist system we don't understand?

>> Facebook has recruited one of the world’s top AI teams, led by Yann LeCun

Information I have is dated (~10 years) - Facebook had 'top' psychologists team working to design product behaviour.

Two related books you may find of interest along the lines of Paul Graham's insightful "The Acceleration of Addictiveness" essay:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Supernormal_Stimuli "Supernormal Stimuli: How Primal Urges Overran Their Evolutionary Purpose is a book by Deirdre Barrett published by W. W. Norton & Company in 2010. Barrett is a psychologist on the faculty of Harvard Medical School. The book argues that human instincts for food, sex, and territorial protection evolved for life on the savannah 10,000 years ago, not for today’s densely populated technological world. Our instincts have not had time to adapt to the rapid changes of modern life. The book takes its title from Nikolaas Tinbergen's concept in animal ethology of the supernormal stimulus, the phenomena by which insects, birds, and fish in his experiments could be lured by a dummy object which exaggerated one or more characteristic of the natural stimulus object such as giant brilliant blue plaster eggs which birds preferred to sit on in preference to their own. Barrett extends the concept to humans and outlines how supernormal stimuli are a driving force behind today’s most pressing problems, including modern warfare, obesity and other fitness problems, while also explaining the appeal of television, video games, and pornography as social outlets."

And also "The Pleasure Trap" from 2006 by Douglas Lisle and Alan Goldhamer, which is mainly about food but much the same idea. They say humans are adapted to eat a certain variety of nutritious foods. But modern industry has made it possible for businesses to sell large quantities of tasty but non-nutritious foods which people get used to. The foods destroy people's health over time in various ways by malnutrition from missing micronutrients and fiber which leads to cancer, heart disease, stroke, and so on. Getting back to enjoying healthy eating generally requires four to twelve weeks of suffering through "neuroadaptation" to appreciate the more subtle tastes of whole healthy foods. The book is summarized here in detail: http://web.archive.org/web/20160418155513/http://www.drfuhrm...

Here are some other related books emphasizing how children are being harmed by pervasive commercial media and what parents can do (all easier said than done) include:

* "The Cyber Effect: A Pioneering Cyberpsychologist Explains How Human Behavior Changes Online"

* "Reset Your Child's Brain: A Four-Week Plan to End Meltdowns, Raise Grades, and Boost Social Skills by Reversing the Effects of Electronic Screen-Time"

* "Glow Kids: How Screen Addiction Is Hijacking Our Kids-and How to Break the Trance"

* "So Sexy So Soon: The New Sexualized Childhood and What Parents Can Do to Protect Their Kids"

* "The War Play Dilemma: What Every Parent And Teacher Needs to Know"

Or, as I summarize in my sig: "The biggest challenge of the 21st century is the irony of technologies of abundance in the hands of those still thinking in terms of scarcity."

If this is true Then it also presents a unique opportunity. I.e. There should be a very real and observable productivity boost from being able to ignore your phone and working on career building/family-relationship projects.

If you can tear yourself from your phone for 3 Hours a day and work on career building projects, you should be able to get far ahead of others in your social circles who can't break the addiction.

You no longer have to wake up early to beat the world, just wake up and not Touch the phone!

> If this is true Then it also presents a unique opportunity. I.e. There should be a very real and observable productivity boost from being able to ignore

B J Fogg, who gets brief mention in this article, teaches his students to cause behaviour by making the behaviour easy and then delivering timely triggers [1]. If you find yourself behaving in ways you don't reflectively endorse, your basic approach should be to flip the Fogg model upside down – avoid triggers and make it harder.

In my own case, that's meant disabling notifications and blocking websites and apps. I also hacked a Chrome extension which applies the "avoid triggers and make it harder" idea to Gmail [2]. The extension has several thousand users, many of whom reclaim 30-60 minutes of focussed work each week which would otherwise be lost to compulsive inbox processing.

[1] http://www.behaviormodel.org/

[2] https://inboxwhenready.org

Easier than avoiding triggers -- and almost as effective -- is just to delay the response. Let yourself check your phone, but only 10 minutes after you feel the urge to do so.

This is much easier than complete abstinence, but breaks down the habit-forming link between trigger and instant gratification.

And just as you say, it's something I started doing after reading about training [1] and inverting the priciples

[1] https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/31052.Don_t_Shoot_the_Do...

Last year I went on a 2 week long entrepreneur-ish conference on a cruise ship. Due to satellite internet limitations, my phone/laptop usage was limited to 1-2hrs per day, usually in the evenings. Rest of the time I spent mingling, joining workshops, talks, or just having fun on the boat. Now mind you, I'm not a particularly social person. Being around people so much was very much out of my comfort zone, but it still felt great! I felt productive and relaxed at the same time, probably because I was able to focus on a single thing at the time, and wasn't being constantly distracted by notifications on my phone or emails and Slack conversations on my laptop. It was sort of a detox from the constant information bombardment of the digital age.

I really need to do that again.

and... you were on a cruise ship. had a similar experience on a cruise ship a few years back, and I don't think the feelings were entirely just 'info detox'. You're in a physically different space, probably exposed to the elements more than you normally are day to day (more sunshine, etc). You're around a whole other set of people, many of whom are more relaxed than the normally are (because many are on 'vacation' of some sort). Normal issues of food shopping, housework, etc are taken care of for you (well, those concerns are replaced with other concerns, at minimum).

So... agreed that the 'info detox' aspect is not bad, but I suspect that just doing an info detox in your 'regular life' wouldn't give you the same boost you experienced.

This is the reason why https://freedom.to/ exists

love that the take away to an article like this is "well this presents me with an opportunity!! I can use others weakness to my benefit!"

This is the thesis of Cal Newport’s “Deep Work.” It’s an interesting book, I recommend reading it.

This article makes me question my purpose as a designer. I spend my days looking at the screen and figuring out ways to get people to spend more of their money on junk they don't need. The sad part is that I work with incredibly good people who think they are somehow contributing to our society by helping companies grow their revenue. I guess on one hand companies are selling more and perhaps hiring more people which in turn supports their family but the sinister half of my mind thinks "who am I kidding, only a handful of people are profiting at the cost of many". I don't know where I'm going with this thought as HN has hijacked my attention yet again on this late Sunday night. Have mercy techno-gods.

I think your position is important - because I think this battle may be lost.

Regulation is the only solution, but that’s just tossing the ball to another team and hoping for a magic win.

Even should regulation manage to handle this - it’s only the first step between this and what worse comes next.

We’re moving directly to the worst options of mine control and people are only useful for the neurological reactions you can reliably induce in them.

Improvement of society starts with improvement of self. If we each refuse to cooperate, by curtailing our "use" of various horrible online services, we can be the inspiration for our families and communities to do the same.

I like to think that, but I have not-so-distant family who, after learning I would not join FaceBook just to help them with a problem they claimed was quite important to them but would be very responsive over plain old-fashioned email, haven't sent a single email.

Send an email yourself I guess.

Perhaps there’s a set of minimally laborious actions on our part, that re-trigger the growth of old habits and mental connections.

But now that I write that I’m worried someone is figuring out a model/way to do the opposite.

Your 'purpose' is to make the company money by designing things. Isn't that literally what you signed when you started working for them?

Any 'higher' purpose comes from within.

Ever see that photo of Mark Zuckerberg surrounded by hundreds of people in VR headsets? The backstory of the original Matrix movie doesn't seem as far fetched anymore.


Not only that but I believe the look on his face was one of joy or at least accomplishment. The media parroted that spin.

That said, metaphorically we're already in The Matrix. Humans were just fuel for the system. When I see so many over-weight/obese "consumers" I can't help but think how happy the system is to have them; how well they're fulfilling their role. VR glasses will simply close the loop.

> That said, metaphorically we're already in The Matrix. Humans were just fuel for the system. When I see so many over-weight/obese "consumers"

Well, if we go with The Matrix, then these battery specimens so far have only been storing energy, not releasing it.. =)

Nope. Let me explain :)

Consuming (i.e., food, clothing,fuel,etc.) is the "energy" that drives The Matrix. Humans are mere consumers. That's how they're refered to. That's how we refer to ourselves.

The fact that we're choosing ro over-consume to the point of killing ourselves and killing to planet is about as dystopian as it gets.

Sadly VR goggles might be our only hope.

Not to get too off topic but I want to add this. What was one of the first things POTUS GWB told the USA public after 9.11?

"Keeping shopping."

And no one even notice. So perhaps there's some 1984 going on as well?

Nah, they're releasing money, not energy.

Money is energy in said current Matrix :)

creepy AF

There's the well-known anecdote that Steve Jobs didn't let his own kids use the iPad.[1]

If there was a tech equivalent of "don't get high on your own supply", that was it.

[1] https://www.google.com/search?q=steve+jobs+doesn%27t+let+kid...

I mean Steve Jobs tried to treat his completely curable pancreatic cancer, which was caught early, with alternative medicine and diet changes. The guy was a genius at some things, but not everything.

When did pancreatic cancer get a reputation for being curable? I was under the impression that it is one of the most fatal cancers.

You are correct, most pancreatic adenocarcinomas are rapidly fatal. He had a pancreatic neuroendocrine tumor, which is more treatable with resection and chemotherapy.

I don’t like how this comes up when Jobs is mentioned but I wanted to put a real reference here. Ignoring other factors a stage I patient is looking at 61%.


It was diagnosed very early, which made it much easier to handle.

He also had a very rare form of pancreatic cancer.

Well, was he suggesting that other parents should give iPads to their kids?


I don't think "the Apple iPad" is an "unrelated field" for Steve Jobs. It seems like you're the one bringing in unrelated fields....

Child development?

You missed a chance to say eating apples.

Does anyone think that Hacker News fits the bill of addictiveness? Or is HN different than Facebook/Reddit/Twitter for some reason?

Yes. I went away a few months ago with my fiancé for 4 days and we did an unofficial smartphone detox. We just got there and said to each other, why not turn the phone data off and leave the phones in the corner of the room. So we did. The holiday was very relaxing.

But the most interesting part was when we got back. When I jumped onto hacker news I was overwhelmed by all the headlines about totally different things all simultaneously being interpreted by my brain as must reads. It was total overload, and not at all what I was expecting. The Hacker News feed is it’s own kind of brain hack. I wonder how much more pleasant (but less addictive surely) it would be if each page had say 5 headlines with a few paragraphs underneath. Like a newspaper.

Another interesting thing that i’ve Observed since I started observing my Hacker News usage: I read maybe 2 paragraphs of an article then read the top 3 or 4 comments then go to the next thing. I don’t stop until I have some kind of realization about something. Or I see my own views on something validated. Then I put the phone down seemingly satisfied. It seems I come here for the hit of dopamine that comes from “you learnt a thing” or “people agree with your view on a thing”. The addictive part seems to stem from this. I stay here until I get that moment.

I seem to ignore the "people agree with your view on a thing" or at least it doesn't satisfy. I already know people agree with me or don't - so rationally I don't search for that.

But I definitely experience the "you learnt a thing" addiction. And frankly, I don't know how to feel about that. If that's the thing I'm searching a hit for... do I need to stop that?

I think probably yes - but I'm not sure why. When I thought deeply about it and talked with a friend about it, we somewhat came to a consensus that as long as you still do a significant amount of deep reading, thinking, work, etc per day these little hits of "learnt a thing" probably are fine to endulge.

It's when you're always only "learnt a thing" and never digging deeply into them and applying them that you have a problem.

But what's the right balance? Or is some hits of learnt a thing always bad?

HN fits the pattern of addictive behaviour. (Trigger -> Action -> Variable Reward).

You are triggered to come here when you’re bored. Your action is simple loading (or reloading) the page. The variable reward is that you get interesting content and discussions...but you never know what they will be.

Over time this pattern of behaviour becomes habitual. You probably open Hacker News at similar times of the day in similar situations.

This basic pattern applies to all social media products. It’s very well understood and a key part of modern software design.

That logic could define almost anything as addictive, including food, books, conversation or travel.

People come to HN because it's interesting. If something more interesting arrives (like children!), then they often stop coming as much or at all.

So wake me up when there is a large collection of stories about people who lost their job, their wife, or who neglected their kids because they were posting to HN.

HN is different because, if you play your cards right, there will be no obligation to additional, subsequent behavior modification based on your actions, and minimal (if any) real life social consequences related to your participation.

Facebook and Twitter are notorious for producing disastrous results among individuals careless with their identity. Reddit permits the free creation of pseudonyms, but the material is less engaging and currated with less rigor.

I wouldn’t rate HN as “addictive” since there aren’t any real barriers to ignoring the site, and it lacks the kind of reach other sites have in “finding you.” This is to say that the usage patterns of the other sites you mention, saturate social circles so thoroughly, that it’s hard to not hear them mentioned in daily conversation.

You may prefer HN, and it may fill certain gaps in regular daily activity, alleviating boredom to an extent, but if you find it infectous, that’s merely a reflection of the intellectual personas that get moderated into your attention based on merit.

Is stimulating conversation addictive? Is reading material deleterious? At some point the buck has to stop with the individual’s own judgement.

I've wrestled with this same question, and I'm not quite sure where I stand. Maybe HN is like nicotine gum, still the same chemicals and neural pathways being activated, but a better substitute for a user who can't just quit cold turkey and replace the addiction with a more productive habit.

On the other hand, if I want to be more charitable to HN (or possibly to rationalize my own addiction), I see Hacker News as a kind of social circle , like an English cofeehouse in the 18th century where thoughtful people congregate to discuss what they see as the important issues of the time.

I've completely gotten rid of facebook with the help of News Feed Eradicator, I don't have an Instagram (though I rarely will get caught up recursively stalking people which leads to feelings of envy / contempt / anomie), and I find most of reddit to be utterly banal pop culture TV-for-the-internet.

So, maybe hacker news is an addiction, but the social aspects of being able to connect with all of these brilliant people, that I otherwise wouldn't, and hear their thoughts and experiences is something I find extremely valuable, addiction or not.

Two big differences:

1) HN has less content, so it is much easier to run out of things to look at.

2) Its content is less digestible on average, so you don't get nearly as deep into "mindless info consumption" mode.

That being said, it definitely has those characteristics to an extent.

It does! But it is the coffee kind of addictiveness, you know "scientists say it's good for you and you'll live longer, get anti-oxidants and so on" not heroin type "you'll sell everything you have and live on the streets" addictiveness. But at the same time those who are addicted usually say "they don't have a problem" so...

Absolutely it does. The quality of discussion is higher, but the feedback cycle of addiction is precisely the same.

As are the rationalizations.

HN might be worse because it's easy to label it as necessary or useful in your professional life.

things I am (currently) addicted to: coffee, hackernews, news, computers, programming, problem-solving/puzzles, youtube/shows/movies, games/poker, reading articles, ...

I think we need to be aware of what we are (currently) addicted to. The author of the like button has been able to break free of social media, and like a former smoker, it sounds as if he is on a crusade to help others break free too. I am unsure that democracy/capitalism as the author describes is working/evil -- both are 'like' systems that allow a person to choose and receive a reward, and we can choose not to participate. There are worse systems. And, perhaps we can create better ones.

The main difference is that the people who run it aren't getting rich directly from harming its users. That's why we don't see a constant stream of new features that make our experience worse.

I can see it, but the end result is actually beneficial to the "user." The draw is karma (likes) and replies. Unlike most social media, you are rewarded with knowledge and thoughtful discussion for the most part.

I wonder if someone could come up with a compulsive trigger for general education. That would be something.

It doesn't seem as bad though as there are no notifications.

Something that helps a lot is to be ruthless with notifications on a smartphone. I basically have it set to only bother me for calls, SMS, and chat apps. Everything else is turned off.

And whenever I get a new phone, it surprising how bad the defaults are. Basically every apps default is to spam notifications.

Here is what I've done:

- I have a gmail filter for emails that contain 'unsubscribe'. They skip my inbox so all emails I get are real ones I need to look at. (It's magic)

- I don't have facebook installed. Only messenger.

- Twitter notifications off.

- Snapchat notifications off. (Except direct snaps)

- Instagram notifications off except for comments.

- Slack notification only for direct messages or mentions.

- Installed 'News Feed Eradicator for Facebook' and broke the habit of passively scanning facebook when bored: https://chrome.google.com/webstore/detail/news-feed-eradicat...

I get basically no notifications except for IMs, important emails, and direct slack mentions. I occasionally scan facebook on my phone but I only do it like once a day.

That e-mail tip is really clever. I'm going to test that out.

That's exactly my setup. For the past year or even longer I've unsubscribed from basically every automated email that hit my inbox (or off to spam if unsubscribe is behind a login). Additionally I've got a huge list of muted words on twitter, mostly "politics in tech" buzz words. It's a much better experience.

Trying to replace hacker news with a hn newsletter now, but so far not really successful. But well, there are worse things.

I consider it a luxury to not need to carry a phone. I only know where my phone currently is because I made the effort to find it.

I have a couple of dollars and can afford lots of luxuries. Yet, it's the things I don't do that seem the most luxurious.

I spent years tethered to my phone. I was on call, at all hours of the day and in pretty much any location. To not be beholden to a cell phone is true luxury.

I turn off WiFi, data and location for a good part of the day.

I do use it to browse when I'd otherwise be idle. I do sometimes email from it. I do SMS, MMS, call, and take a picture once in a while. I use a dedicated GPS and MP3 player, as needed. That's about it.

There aren't any apps on it that it didn't come with. Other than a few settings, I've only really modified the ring tones. I sometimes use it as an alarm clock, if I'm on the road.

Hell, I don't even have voicemail configured. You can call up the provider and they will disable it, if you've already set it up and change your mind.

I did give smartphones my attention but I've since realized how much happier I am without being beholden to it. It's a personal thing, but I'm happier not being obligated to answer the phone, or to respond in a timely manner.

It works for me. I expect many people are much happier with their Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, and the likes. If someone wants my attention bad enough, my door is unlocked. Everyone else has learned to be patient. I'll respond when I have both time and motivation.

This. Aside from quitting FB, this has been the biggest win for me. I only have notifications on for sms/iMessage. Email is pull only.

And, if you can get away with it, don’t install work “productivity” apps like Slack and Asana on your personal phone.

Laptops seem just as bad now so I usually don not disturb my MBP as soon as I start my day.

Twitter on ios mobile has given me such a headache with those highlights notifications. No way to disable them, infuriating.

I'm assuming you mean without disabling twitter notifications entirely. I have the entire twitter app's notifications disabled just fine on iOS 10.

You can turn highlight notifications off in the Twitter iOS app settings.

I tried that before. Twitter still thought it was vitally important to notify me that Beyonce was pregnant. That was the last straw that made me delete it.

I have become afraid of my feeds. YouTube has started to shape my hobbies and interests, my political leanings, my dietary patterns. If Google is getting paid to steer me towards certain products, I probably have no idea and it's probably working very well.

YouTube can make overnight superstars just through the recommendation system.

Can we hijack this loop to create or reinforce good habits instead of selling ad space? Can we use the skinner box to dole out intangible rewards for activities with real, long-term benefits like exercising and eating better? This looks like an obvious opportunity to me, so what work is being done in this area?

For all its downsides and astroturfing, reddit actually does some pretty good things in that regard. Some of the best posts on there are when people go out of their way to be, you know, human towards other humans. There are subreddits out there dedicated towards exercising and eating better... the orange you-got-a-new-response seratonin-bump envelop icon appears when people give social acknowledgements towards someone's exercise progress or meal prep.

It most definitely gets co-opted... karma whoring, reposting, marketing campaigns posing as that goodwill to the kid in the children's hospital with cancer amateur picture... but that's exactly what this article is about: the forces of maximizing shareholder value find what works and wiggle their way in.

The resistant subreddits appear to be the ones that look at it as a human problem, not something needing a technical fix. That is, they create community rules around what is acceptable content and what isn't welcome, they encourage the content that furthers the subreddit's mission, they moderate away content that seems to break the rules, etc. Some communities are even organized around recognizing these things (eg r/hailcorporate)

Again, all of that can be (and does get!) co-opted for evil, but there are methods that can make groups in social media more resistant.

Problem is at the end of the day, those things don't pay the bills. Ultimately you need to find a way to align profits with good habits. Until we find that, go hit the donate link on the Guardian article. And I think Wikipedia was doing a fundraising campaign recently too.

If you're not paying for it, you're the product.

I think that was pretty close to the basic premise behind a lot of public broadcasting 30+ years ago (the bits I've seen lately strike me as more commercialized, but I'm not sure whether that's a change in the shows or in my perspective). There's a lot of contention underneath that topic, but the fundamentals of shows like Sesame Street or Mister Rogers' Neighborhood are much closer to what you describe than to modern television and gaming material.

A bunch of companies are using this primarily for learning via spaced repetition. I use Memrise and Drops for foreign languages.

The problem is training your brain to capture and monopolize that brief moment of boredom and inactivity.

I've been trying to figure out how to implement this for myself. Increase friction to tasks that do not provide long term reward (e.g. video games, social media) and decrease friction to tasks that work toward goals I'll be stoked to have achieved 2 years from now. What I haven't figured out yet is how to do a reward system. I need random jackpot noises to play each time I get something done.

It seems like the root cause of all this is advertising. Social media companies need attention grabbing features to draw eyes on ads, makes you wonder if we'd still be facing this dilemma of social media was sites were a paid service.

Paid services diminish circulation / market / network size. For mass consumer products, advertisers seek higher readership. That's a conflict which dates to the Penny Press of the 1830s.

A great little book on the conflict inherent in advertising-driven media, from 1909:


And advertising is needed mostly to sell stuff. If there wasn't any need to sell, there wouldn't be much advertising. I don't see non-free social media of current scale possible, unless you count the telephone network and the whole Internet as one. You already pay for that.

But people justify paid services by the amount of attention they dedicate to it. If you barely read the magazine, you'll likely not renew the subscription.

I recently installed Android Oreo on my 6P sans browser. No Google search app, no browser, no Facebook, no Twitter. I still have Slack, email, calendar and SMS for work, maps, Lyft, spothero, Spotify, and podcasts for travel. So far the phone is working great, only had to install aosp browser component to keep apps like Gmail functional.

Elevator rides are very different. I'm curious to see how this will work out in the long run. I figure if it's worth opening up a browser, it's also worth opening up laptop.

These guys clearly weren't around for the introduction of television. If ever there was a technology tailor-made to hijack our minds with, it was TV. It wasn't the end of the world.

There’s a very solid argument for TV as stunting people’s development.

There’s lack of reading, albeit not necessarily due to television (https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2014/01/the-dec...)

There’s a direct link between television and obesity (http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/75/5/807)

And more general health dangers (http://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/newsplus/prolonged-tel...)


One substantial benefit of Television was that everyone was simultaneously watching the same thing. This increased political homogeneity by providing a shared belief system, or at least some more common ground. Such homogeneity is correlated strongly with stability and prosperity on a nation-state level.

This was particularly true from 1950 until 1970 or so, before cable television exploded (it remained true for longer in smaller nations without wide cable TV adoption). I think it matches up with a comparatively bi-partisan period in (mainstream) politics around the western world.

Of course, there are disadvantages too, but homogeneity is looking increasingly valuable as legislatures around the Western world succumb to polarisation.

But you can also argue that that polarisation is just a step away from homogeneity.

I'm arguing precisely this. Perhaps you misread my comment?

Via the medium of radio, that worked just dandy in 1930s Germany.

Lots of current problems were created by that unexamined unanimity, so one would have to try much harder to successfully argue it was a "benefit".

What problems were created by the unexamined unanimity?

I am not trying to argue there were no downsides, only that we should account for the benefits. The comments I responded to seemed to be ommitting the existence of some benefits. Whether the benefits outweigh the damage is a more complex question.

Etcetera is not a reason.

Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television, written by ad exec Jerry Mander, 1978.


This seems like a good excuse to plug Beeminder but I'll try to be at least slightly less self-promotional and point to our collection of all our competitors who offer commitment device apps of various kinds: http://blog.beeminder.com/competitors

We call this the granddaddy of first-world problems.

> We call this the granddaddy of first-world problems.

I think you're right, Dan. It seems like a pretty existential problem at this point.

What is the alternative here? Is there such a thing as an ethical "news feed", and how would I make one ethical?

(PS: HN: Beeminder is awesome and you should try it).

Hi Kyle! I'm a fan of Aaron Swartz's timeless advice to avoid news altogether: http://www.aaronsw.com/weblog/hatethenews

If you can't help yourself and want to find out about a big news event, check Wikipedia. Wikipedia is updated in pretty much real-time for major events, which can defeat the point, but at least it's filtered down to accepted facts rather than endless, time-sucking speculation.

But I don't follow my advice that well. Like I've gotten kind of sucked in by Twitter because I think patio11's tweetstorms are brilliant and don't want to miss any. And pg's tweets about his kids are just delightful. But then I end up sucked in by news.

So, yeah, I could use help too!

Oh yeah, Beeminder+RescueTime is always a good place to start for forcing yourself to spend more or less time on certain things, but that's not quite the same question as how to just make one's newsfeed less self-destructive.

Why not just:

- A subscription requires explicit opt-in (not "oh, yeah, I met that dude once in college," or, "oh, yeah, I eat Cheerios and 'Like' them")

- A subscription is easy to cancel

- The filtering/sorting algorithm is "show the newest items first"

That seems like an ethical news feed to me, and it's basically what you get with any RSS reader, right?

So shocking that these services make no effort to incorporate that standard....

One way might be to update the feed exactly once a day, so people do not compulsively check for changes. Like daily newspapers.

looks like aherk on your list might be dead?

Correct. We have them listed in the graveyard section. (Thanks for pointing out that it looked like a dead link. I shall edit the post more carefully to make that clearer!)

In 2015, the European Commission published a report which included the following [1]:

> We believe that societies must protect, cherish and nurture humans’ attentional capabilities. This does not mean giving up searching for improvements: that shall always be useful. Rather, we assert that attentional capabilities are a finite, precious and rare asset. In the digital economy, attention is approached as a commodity to be exchanged on the market place, or to be channelled in work processes. But this instrumental approach to attention neglects the social and political dimensions of it, i.e., the fact that the ability and the right to focus our own attention is a critical and necessary condition for autonomy, responsibility, reflexivity, plurality, engaged presence, and a sense of meaning. To the same extent that organs should not be exchanged on the market place, our attentional capabilities deserve protective treatment. Respect for attention should be linked to fundamental rights such as privacy and bodily integrity, as attentional capability is an inherent element of the relational self for the role it plays in the development of language, empathy, and collaboration. We believe that, in addition to offering informed choices, the default settings and other designed aspects of our technologies should respect and protect attentional capabilities.

(The report was co-authored by Luciano Floridi, who is supervising James Williams' PhD at Oxford.)

[1] https://ec.europa.eu/digital-single-market/sites/digital-age...

One thing UN's declaration of Human Rights doesn't seem to cover is the right to free will. http://www.un.org/en/universal-declaration-human-rights/

Perhaps it should?

Gosh, if only the existing ones were even remotely enforceable.. There's a lot of good stuff there, but the phrase "talking to a wall" comes to mind when I read it.

There's evidence that the self-awareness and intent commonly believed to be "free will" could be be a post-hoc illusion generated by the brain after decision making occurs[0]. How can something which may not even exist, or which doesn't even have an objective definition, be a right?


"As noted multiple times in the article, the unethical design we're seeing in popular apps and services today is largely a result of the widespread use of advertising as a revenue model."

The simple question that I never see addressed in any of these discussions of the ad revenue model is whether the websites or the software could earn revenue without using this model.

If not, then what does that say about the inherent value of the websites or software? No one would pay for it? (Who believes that?)

It appears to me that in recent years the value has been in acquiring an "audience" which can be bought or sold as a "product" (or perhaps access to the audience as a "service"). This is the ad revenue model. As such, in an increasing number of cases, the product of web or software development, i.e. software itself, is not sold (but is made available for "free" or a nominal cost). Instead, audiences are sold.

The result is an overabundance of websites and software that (from a commercial perspective) serve no other purpose than to try to construct audiences. Including databases of personal information.

Other goals of website or software development are consequently neglected.

The thought I keep having is that developing websites and software solely to acquire audiences in some way presumes web and software development is "worthless" except for this limited purpose.

Some VC once said "Software is eating the world" and it became a meme. What if the media business is eating the world of software? When software developers are focused only on ad sales or publicity, the software industry begins to resemble the media business. (Has software been subsumed by media?) Ad sales becomes the lifeline. And like the media, software developers will do or say anything to sell ads. Anything.

I agree with him that social media could be very distracting, especially in the family settings, but, I get a ton of useful information and stay up-to-date with the latest research through Twitter, Reddit and HN. Cutting those out would mean putting an iron curtain on the latest insight and recent developments, and, essentially, quitting the front line.

But at what cost? Having read "deep work" recently, I've started thinking much more about all of this, and for me, the cost mostly outweighs the benefits. By cutting back drastically on my use (phone typically lasts 3-4 days instead of 1 now), I'm getting a lot more done, in less time, feel better and am much more present than I have been in over a decade. I hadn't realised the creeping effect of it all, and I don't feel I've missed out in the way that attention technology was making me feel that I would be.

I realise that the balance of this particular equation is different for everyone, but I also think many people are convinced they will be missing out when in reality they won't be.

Loved the book and highly recommend, especially to hn crowd.


That's the problem I faced as well, and I ultimately decided to quit a line of work that required being constantly connected to the latest developments. I realized I wanted to pursue a line of work with a bit more permanence and, for lack of a better word, timelessness.

Email is a wonderful thing for people whose role in life is to be on top of things. But not for me; my role is to be on the bottom of things.

— Donald Knuth (http://www-cs-faculty.stanford.edu/~knuth/email.html)

(You might wanna remove the <> they screw up the link.)

Email seems to be an analogy for communication or perceiving information, or at least a predecessor of more fast-paced forms of that.

Could it be these new forms are so efficient and fast-paced, they overload our brain? Before the TV (which had limitations at start as well), there was telephone and radio. Both were limited. Telephone was expensive (monopoly yada yada), and radio informative (before the ~60s).

What Knuth did is enforce snail mail. This creates an artificial barrier, increasing signal to noise ratio.

"Bad roads act as filters... bad roads bring good people, good roads bring bad people"

-- Joseph Wood Krutch

as evanlivingston mentioned above, Knuth is in the position to cut off people from his email; trying to run a digital company without an email is kind of like trying to be a lumberjack without an axe

You became a Fortran programer who works on mainframes?


I can't really remember where I read it, but the concept of an "infinity pool" is what really gets me. I can listen to the news, read a magazine, or watch a show and it's done. But HN, Reddit, Twitter, etc are ever replenishing pools of distraction. That's where it's damaging for me, I know I can always go back for more.

Not only the new stuff that replenishes the pool, but often times when I find a new resource/subreddit that I don't know much about but find interesting, there's often a huge amount of info already there. So even depleting the pool of past information becomes a huge distraction, all while more stuff is piling on top.

New hobbies and interests are the death of me. I am the personification of the "hacker" as defined in George Leonard's book Mastery.

You don't need those sites. Find professors in your chosen field, click on their personal pages and there should be a list of all their PhD student's personal pages. Follow those and any related academic journals, throw in Stack Overflow/Exchange, Google Scholar, and occasional HN and you'll be far more informed than anybody wading through countless junk posts on reddit or twitter.

For example if you're a user interface designer or wearables programmer, then you'd benefit from the recent papers from these PhD students more than you'd benefit from spending hours trying to find meaningful content on reddit or twitter https://www.hcii.cmu.edu/people/phd-students

Even that's not enough. I spent the last year or so switching over to consuming news through RSS, moving myself and close friends out of Facebook, and downloading textbooks. I've been teaching myself advanced mathematics that I didn't get a strong hold of in graduate school.

I found myself in the middle of a category theory exercise stuck. I wasn't getting anywhere, and couldn't figure something out. Break time, so I opened my RSS reader. Even if my RSS reader has curated content, it's easy to read. An article about urban planning here, optimizing latency there, and before I know it, an hour has passed. I spent none of that time focusing on my problem, and I'm just as stuck as ever.

I think, at least for me, I need to stem this constant flow of information. I need to take time to step aside of it, live without it, then get back.

You may be interested in these slides from a lecture (yet more information to consume) on how to find answers to grad level math like using oeis.org to identify sequences, where to post on stack exchange/mathoverflow to get answers, using the inverse symbolic calculator ect http://www.cs.cmu.edu/~15751/2016-lecture1.pdf

That lecture drastically reduced the time I spend now finding answers which usually I found myself drifting into the attention economy while I stopped working to search for things.

I think I am observing it being destructive in a family setting. I fear for what this will bring in 20 years.

this is what they said about TVm rock and roll, comic books computer games etcetera etcetera going back to the dawn of time.

As Socrates's says “The children now love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise.”

Not mention the shocking depravity of shaving and painting statues blue

Oh, that old chestnut. I bet that was also dragging that out when someone suggested x-ray machines in shoe shops might not be a great idea.

After Marie Curie dying and the radium girls cases that actually had some good science behind it


Is it not obvious that a search algorithm for maximizing a revenue function, devoid of ethics, eventually becomes a search algorithm for identifying and exploiting human weaknesses?

AI/machine learning is just a way to optimize this function further.

Responsive and sensitive to human sentiments AI seems to be the modern Frankenstein monster.

Right now it's about attention grabbing and using machine learning to connect content to consumers in the most addictive way in order to show advertisements on the side. How long will it take until the content itself is artificially generated on demand to fit the mental state of each and every recipient individually? What are the unintended consequences of the ever advancing technology of automatic manipulation?

I think the most frightening part of this excellent article was, "how do we know it has not already happened?"

the smartphone is just a tool, how you use it is up to you! nobody is making you use it, but companies spend millions to figure out better ways to psychologically mindfuck you since you have been conceived. to get you to buy things or behave a certain away which leads to them capitalizing on your behavior. this is not new, one movie which describes this is: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Century_of_the_Self the smartphone is simply the delivery mechanism because it is with you at all times, just like social pressure and environment, they all carry messages, but it is up to you to choose to respond and how to respond, one could argue that if you are conditioned like this since birth because of media, by the time you are an "adult" <-- whatever the fuck that means... and high on the legal stimulants and running on the hamster wheel which turns into profit, i doubt you will even notice. but the irony of all this is that it is all optional if you understand it so...

This seems like a classic cop out. It's like companies ruining the environment and the media and others trying to make people feel guilty about their consumption.

It's gives a false sense of power, sets the responsibility in the wrong place, muddies the water and basically gives those actually doing the destruction a free pass.

The Internet is simply a source of information, its Google, Facebook and others who have completely lost any restraints in harvesting personal information, building surveillance infrastructure and creepily following people around without any sense of ethical constraints. And this forum itself is full of people desperate to work for such companies.

You would not necessarily expect any ethical dimension from a self absorbed profit driven corporate but at least the individuals working in it. It seems there is no moral compass and anything goes.

The problem is not technology but the people within it and a troubling 'disconnection' with relation to the concept of 'other people' and society at large.

I'm scared of owning a smartphone, precisely as my self -control is poor. Currently I have a dumb phone and check that a couple of times a day. I'm a member of a Facebook forum - the content of which is interesting. That is the only use I have for Facebook. The notifications are handy as they indicate new and active threads.

I follow only a small number of people on Twitter. I'd love to bulk that number up if I could manage it, but scrolling through my current feed is already quite a time waster.

The web still sucks me in without the reward trinkets mentioned in the article, and it has done for hours a day since I discovered it. I will say I am an addict. It prevents and impedes me from doing things that I really should be doing.

It's very useful but mostly a distraction, but I always assume that's my problem.

I have a rule to keep all my personal life off the internet and use it only for intellectual and public life. It is impossible to follow it strictly - but I manage to do it most of the time. I think it alleviates much of the problems described in the article. In particular I don't often feel like I have lost time following what the computer offers (be it facebook stream, Hacker News, wikipedia links or whatever). And maybe I am mistaken but also 'likes' and '++s', or upvotes on anything also do have some more meaning in this arrangement.

I also don't use Facebook on my phone - only on a desktop. I still don't use the smartphone much - only on pull bases.

smartphones are modern version of zombie apocalypse if people keep using them in such unaware way. From start the aim has been to implement game theory learnt from gambling industry into the phones to make people hooked. All of these kind of techniques only work however, on an unaware subject. Solution is not to expect people to become good and ethical salesmen, but to educate unaware people of the dangers of such media. Like with television , internet technology, smartphones can have a very bad effect on people if handled without any care or further thought.

If you are 'against' this kind of effects, the best solution, in my mind, is to educate your fellow man, and try to help them become aware if they seem not to notice these kind of things. change starts with yourself, not with expecting things of otheres.

Not talking about conspiracy mind control things, just basic psychology of the human mind which is exploited by marketeers en designers to make a profit. As this practice is not illegal, and even encouraged for these people through education and results, it's unrealistic to expect them to change. If the effect on people changes however due to a raise in awareness of the general population, then they will need to seek other means of getting their products out there. More awareness of these tactics will lead to them becomming uneffective, and will force the market to switch to a more 'ethical' or human way of doing buisiness.

The counters (like/retweet/views/upvotes) that produce the feedback loop have to be looked at.

There is no reason for realtime feedback. Delay the feedback and lot of behaviour will return to "normal".

This is a very critical discussion that designers, technologists, PMs, founders & maybe everyone needs. Few reasons I find it to be critical: 1. Digital's impact footprint is far more than 10 years back. 2. As we move towards using more complex Algorithms, its highly important what metrics will be deemed relevant while analyzing success. 3. Technology is becoming more people centric as we speak with Blockchain & other tech on the rise, however the way their applications are designed is still the same as 10/20 years old.

You children are afraid of monsters. All the problems you describe are the ones of your own choice.

They're an improvement over television. Well, maybe.

See this article in the Atlantic.[1] More hard info, less speculation.

[1] https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2017/09/has-the...

I'm an observant jew. I can't express how healthy it is for me not having any screens around for 24 hours once every week.

I made exactly the same move.

I can recommend K9 as the best self-control app.

I use it with recommended settings + any social media. I thinking about adding linkedin to the list. Maybe one day Hacker news also :)

I now use a basic phone after years using a iphone.

You know why?

I had some jobs interviews 2 years ago, and I had many problem to answer basic questions. I felt a so powerfull programmer.. But my memory was not as strong that I though.

I remember how it was before, when I was in my university. I used to know how to learn new things. And at 34 I cant think its just age. I think that google already hi jack a part of my learning process...

I can't work without google or searching SO time to time but I will for sure stop using social media, and I will try more and more to learn like I used to. Like watching video and taking note on a real paper.

But for next generations that is a real problem I think

I recommend reading The Shallows, by Nicholas Carr.

I found it to be a pretty well researched look into the way heavy internet use can change our brains.

Although the book was good on its own, I also found its references section helpful as a launching point to discover other interesting books and academic papers on related topics.

I recently went basic phone too and it's amazing. Much more present and clear and happy.

Years ago I wrote a blog post[1] talking about this at a higher level, essentially vetting my frustration about people being addicted to their phones all day rather than living their real lives.

Here we are, 4 years later, and while I think I saw a surface level societal change at that point, I completely missed the bigger picture of society being actively manipulated by companies, governments, etc. through tech for their own gain.

Crazy times we live in.

[1] https://www.stevegattuso.me/2013/11/30/a-society-of-phone-zo...

If you enjoyed the article and want a more detailed discussion, James Williams gave a talk on this topic at the RSA in May [1], and did an interview with David Runciman in July [2].

[1] https://soundcloud.com/the_rsa/are-digital-technologies-maki...

[2] https://www.talkingpoliticspodcast.com/blog/2017/53-the-nine...

Yep just deactivated my FB account and they tried to guilt trip me with "people who will miss me" (mainly kids) and whatnot. Also it asks why you are deactivating and shows a response for each reason.

As someone who had quite a few websites which I had foolishly signed up with Facebook for, I began the pattern of reactivating and then deactivating Facebook in order to log in.

I must say that emotional blackmail lost whatever power it had rather quickly.

Built a little chrome extension to block distracting sections of Twitter and Facebook: https://chrome.google.com/webstore/detail/quieter-twitter-fa...

I, ironically, ready this article from a post on twitter, and proceeded, after having read it, proceeded to retweet and post on FB!

This reminded me of https://www.timewellspent.io

It's mentioned in the article.

A short (8 minutes) and poignant Marshall McLuhan lecture on this topic from 1977:


Excellent. There were a few exceptionally aware and pertinant commentators in the early-, and even pre-computer age.

Alvin Toffler's Future Shock also has several quite striking observations.

Internet is full of Information, good and bad. So is social media. But we should take purpose driven approach whenever we are online. Instead of getting ourselves trapped into psychologically designed products, we should remain focus on our purpose.

Self-discipline scales poorly, particularly against a highly capitalised and motivated enemy.

All this implies that the rediscovery of life of mind will be the next big cultural shift

I remember a quote from some Unix book around 1990: "IRC is a simple tool that allows two users to type ASCII messages to each other's terminals. Oh, did we mention that it's more addictive than crack cocaine?"

I'm not sure what I feel more, amusement or hopelessness, when I read yet another article on this topic, get to the bottom and see those icons lined up across the screen: facebook, twitter, google, pinterest, etc, etc, etc

Curious why HN didn't detect this as a duplicate of my submission: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=15423287

our minds can be hijacked by all kinds of things... for some it's tv, for others it's alcohol. Louis CK and someone else, Simon Sinek talked about smartphones and hiss few words instantly got me unhooked when I'm in the presence of other people. I believe that can be done for everyone.

$ grep facebook /etc/hosts facebook.com

So many ways to share this on social media.

> Rosenstein, Pearlman and most of the tech insiders questioning today’s attention economy are in their 30s, members of the last generation that can remember a world in which telephones were plugged into walls.

Umm. Yoohoo! We're still here, you remember us, those who created the hardware and the computing concepts you all use now? Well maybe not me personally but I was there using and developing computing hardware and software starting in 1970. I remember when telephones were plugged in to wall too!

And we've been questioning the direction that it's all going in since before Rosenstein, etc., were in kindergarten.

The author probably means that people in their 30s will be the last generation to have witnessed telephones plugged into walls — i.e., the generations after them, people in their 20s and younger, won't have.

That anyone in their 40s, 50s, 60s, etc. has witnessed and used telephones plugged into walls is implied.

I know, but I was taking issue with the implication that his generation were the only ones to notice the problem.

There is an interesting article where a Google design ethicist explains how technology hijacks your mind [1].


Hijack 1: If You Control the Menu, You Control the Choices. Ask yourself: What’s not on the menu?, Why am I being given these options and not others? Do I know the menu provider’s goals? Is this menu empowering for my original need, or are the choices actually a distraction?

Hijack 2: Make apps behave like Slot Machines - give a variable reward. If you want to maximize addictiveness, link a user’s action (like pulling a lever) with a variable reward. You pull a lever and immediately receive either an enticing reward (a match, a prize!) or nothing. Addictiveness is maximized when the rate of reward is most variable.

Hijack 3: Fear of Missing Something Important (FOMSI). If I convince you that I’m a channel for important information, messages, friendships, or potential sexual opportunities — it will be hard for you to turn me off, unsubscribe, or remove your account — because there is a 1% chance you could be missing something important.

Hijack 4: Social Approval. When you get tagged by my friend, you think s/he made a conscious choice to tag you, when actually s/he just responds to Facebook’s suggestion, not making an independent choice. Thus Facebook controls the multiplier for how often millions of people experience their social approval on the line.

Hijack 5: Social Reciprocity (Tit-for-tat). You follow me — it’s rude not to follow you back. When you receive an invitation from someone to connect, you imagine that person making a conscious choice to invite you, when in reality, they likely unconsciously responded to LinkedIn’s list of suggested c ontacts.

Hijack 6: Bottomless bowls, Infinite Feeds, and Autoplay

Hijack 7: Instant Interruption vs. “Respectful” Delivery. Messages that interrupt people immediately are more persuasive at getting people to respond than messages delivered asynchronously.

Hijack 8: Bundling Your Reasons with Their Reasons. When you you want to look up a Facebook event happening tonight (your reason) the Facebook app doesn’t allow you to access it without first landing on the news feed (their reasons), so Facebook converts every reason you have for using it, into their reason which is to maximize the time you spend consuming things. In an ideal world, apps would always give you a direct way to get what you want separately from what they want.

Hijack 9: Inconvenient Choices. Businesses naturally want to make the choices they want you to make easier, and the choices they don’t want you to make harder. NYTimes.com claims to give you “a free choice” to cancel your digital subscription. But instead of just doing it when you hit “Cancel Subscription,” they force you to call a phone number that’s only open at certain times.

Hijack 10: Forecasting Errors, “Foot in the Door” strategies. People don’t intuitively forecast the true time cost of a click when it’s presented to them. Sales people use “foot in the door” techniques by asking for a small innocuous request to begin with (“just one click”), and escalating from there (“why don’t you stay awhile?”). Virtually all engagement websites use this trick.


[1] http://www.tristanharris.com/2016/05/how-technology-hijacks-...

I blocked Facebook as an adult website on my phone. It’s kind of a hack, there’s no other way to restrict FB use in iOS aside from deleting the app. Good riddance though. Now I can’t plop down on the couch, open FB, and get lost in that chaotic algo haze of 45 second cooking videos, paywalled articles, and trite, discordant political screams.

Tldr; Good things can also be bad

"Too much of a good thing..."


It's an ongoing process and it's been happening for decades (propoganda, brain-washing). The population is always learning and always presents with threats to be countered. The internet was one such potential threat. It was potentially a democratic, free and open source of information. Now it's controlled by a few companies.

The article is very long and doesn't say anything interesting, IMHO.

lol Okay, Freud. Tell us something every marketing student in community college doesn't already know. People can be persuaded. People have addictions. Cool story, bro.

>smartphone dystopia

that's been here for at least a couple years and even normies are talking about it.

edit: thanks for the downvotes, appmakers

Reading too much of Dan Brown, are we ?

This is an astoundingly naive article on an extremely important topic.

The core fallacy is that we’re all “good people” with “the best of intentions” and that we’re all shocked, simply shocked, at the “unintended, negative consequences” of the systems we deliberately designed to be as addictive as possible. i.e.:

- “It is very common,” Rosenstein says, “for humans to develop things with the best of intentions and for them to have unintended, negative consequences.” - McNamee: “The people who run Facebook and Google are good people, whose well-intentioned strategies have led to horrific unintended consequences” - “Harris believes that tech companies never deliberately set out to make their products addictive.

The last quote is especially ludicrous. With all due respect to Tristan Harris, if he isn’t being misquoted then he has absolutely no idea what he is talking about. I was an engineer/PM/exec at Bebo in the early days, before the $850M AOL exit and the complete catastrophe that followed. We absolutely 100% “deliberately set out to make our products addictive”. Bebo only existed as a serious venture-backed company at all due to extremely aggressive viral flows which were, yes, deliberately designed to get the unsuspecting user to email invite links to every single person in their address book. All of the top social startups were doing the same thing. The ends (better UX + higher valuation thanks to network effects) justified the means (deliberate hijacking of our users’ minds at scale).

But don’t take my word for it. The article’s author proves my point by immediately contradicting himself. Here’s the full quote in context:

Harris believes that tech companies never deliberately set out to make their products addictive. They were responding to the incentives of an advertising economy, experimenting with techniques that might capture people’s attention, even stumbling across highly effective design by accident.

A friend at Facebook told Harris that designers initially decided the notification icon, which alerts people to new activity such as “friend requests” or “likes”, should be blue. It fit Facebook’s style and, the thinking went, would appear “subtle and innocuous”. “But no one used it,” Harris says. “Then they switched it to red and of course everyone used it.”

Okay. So to recap: they decided to use a red button because nobody used the blue one. It was not an unintentional accident. It was based on careful reflection after testing different versions. This is what I call “deliberate”.

Why does this matter?

Because if we aren’t honest with ourselves about the problem, we’re not going to fix it.

How many times are people going to fall for the “oops, I did it again?” excuse from the titans of social tech? Does anyone else remember Facebook platform? The original F8 conference outlined a vision of an open-access social technology platform that would make the world a better place. Instead, we got FarmVille.

The problem isn’t the technology. The problem is that the vision for this technology was always about money and power. To pretend otherwise is disingenuous and ultimately counterproductive if the goal is to fix the system.

I don’t want to come across as overly negative to the author or to the people cited in it. We need more critical discussion of these issues, not less. But fundamentally this problem is due to a lack of integrity in people, not technology. And we’ll never fix the lack of integrity at the heart of the tech world if we keep pretending that none of us knew what we were doing.

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