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.
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.
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.
Full disclosure: I prompted Paul Lewis to write this piece.
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.
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.
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 . 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".
 Interview with him: https://www.democracynow.org/2010/2/3/addiction
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.
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".
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.
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?
Information I have is dated (~10 years) - Facebook had 'top' psychologists team working to design product behaviour.
"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:
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."