Never mind Cam­bridge An­a­lyt­ica and the ter­ri­ble things it did with your data. Worry about the in­ter­net and the things it’s do­ing to your brain

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - NEWS - PA­TRICK FREYNE

Along time ago, when the vir­tual world was young, a sim­ple man named Mark Zucker­berg had a sim­ple dream to cre­ate a web­site through which he could meet and rate chicks. This week his com­pany is al­leged to have helped a du­bi­ous data-anal­y­sis com­pany, Cam­bridge An­a­lyt­ica, to game the Amer­i­can pres­i­den­tial elec­tion of 2016 with all our data. “That es­ca­lated quickly,” as the kids say on Face­book.

Be­fore this, Zucker­berg and his var­i­ous im­i­ta­tors had be­come puffed up with the idea that their self-en­rich­ment and ma­nip­u­la­tion of hu­man de­sires were all linked to a Whig­gish tale of hu­man progress. “Ha ha ha!” they said, frol­ick­ing de­light­fully in their black polo­necks, sip­ping gob­lets of Soy­lent and, in the case of Pay­Pal co­founder Peter Thiel, child blood. “We truly are like gods of Olym­pus!” they cried.

In re­al­ity, even be­fore the Cam­bridge An­a­lyt­ica scan­dal, I think many of us were feel­ing un­easy about how their creepy in­ven­tions were re­struc­tur­ing our brains. I’m pretty sure, for ex­am­ple, that I’m stu­pider now than I was five years ago (feel free to com­ment on this below) and that so­cial me­dia has changed how I process in­for­ma­tion.

Here’s an ever-so-slightly-lead­ing thought ex­per­i­ment I like to en­gage in. I pic­ture my­self in the olden days, read­ing a news­pa­per. I am sit­ting in a leather arm­chair, wear­ing a suit, prob­a­bly in my club. I am nod­ding sagely as I take in the af­fairs of state, but my face is im­pas­sive, for I am a ra­tio­nal man hav­ing ra­tio­nal thoughts. I am also, for some rea­son, smok­ing a pipe. Oc­ca­sion­ally I say “Very true” or “In­ter­est­ing” or “Most droll”.

And then I pic­ture my­self as I am now when I’m con­sum­ing so­cial me­dia. My face is red and con­torted with rage and/or de­light. I am drool­ing, typ­ing fran­ti­cally and mut­ter­ing trig­ger words like “Trump”, “blueshirts”, “Der­mot Ban­non”, “Paw Pa­trol” or “strate­gic com­mu­ni­ca­tions unit” to my­self.

Then my ex­pres­sion changes and a tear comes to my eye and a smile to my lips. “Pup­pies in clothes,” I whis­per. “That os­trich has be­friended a seal.” “Th­ese cud­dly tod­dlers are fem­i­nists.”

My face con­torts once more and I am guf­faw­ing like a loon and yelling “Yes! I too re­mem­ber

Bat­tle of the Plan­ets. Ah, the hal­cyon days of my youth. Gen­er­a­tion X 4eva.”

And then my face dark­ens. “But Trump!” I say. “Trump is be­ing wrong again, and now I must tell a stranger to go f*** him­self.”

In this se­cond vi­sion I’m not in my club, ur­banely smok­ing my pipe. I am on the couch, late at night, in my pants, spo­rad­i­cally cry­ing and eat­ing jam with a spoon.

The in­for­ma­tion su­per­high­way has be­come, for me, a cir­cle jerk of emo­tional buf­foon­ery. On the in­ter­net, where no busi­ness model is sus­tain­able for any­one other than the dig­i­tal ren­tier class, the main busi­ness now is the cul­ti­va­tion and ex­trac­tion of data. Ir­re­spec­tive of how wise we seem to one other, to the data farm­ers we are a moo­ing, bray­ing, baaing data herd. In this con­text “emo­tion” is used like a growth hor­mone. The whole ecosys­tem pumps us full of feel­ings de­signed to trig­ger the pro­duc­tion of de­li­cious data milk from our brain teats. They just want to get us typ­ing. So­cial-me­dia con­sul­tants call this “en­gage­ment.”

Go­ing mainly on my own ex­pe­ri­ence, I’m go­ing to go out on a limb and say that this arousal-in­duced chat­ter is 99 per cent point­less. For­get­ting for a minute that we’re all share­crop­pers till­ing the data fields of dig­i­tal feu­dal­ists – I know we were cows a few min­utes ago, but I like metaphors – it’s also mak­ing us stupid and sus­cep­ti­ble to a land­scape of on­line spats and cliques and so­phis­ti­cated troll­craft.

When you look at the kind of is­sues that get most “en­gage­ment” on so­cial me­dia, it’s not the stuff that’s nec­es­sar­ily the most im­por­tant, it’s the stuff that’s the most dis­cor­dant or wrong­headed and thus ca­pa­ble of prompt­ing a rapid emo­tional re­sponse. I mean, which of the fol­low­ing sen­tences do you want to re­spond to: “Tack­ling poverty in the in­ner city re­quires mul­ti­ple nu­anced ap­proaches” or “Jor­dan Peter­son says that pota­toes are ac­tu­ally just dirty ap­ples and that women can’t have any”?

It’s the lat­ter one, right? I mean what’s Peter­son at? Even as you read it you be­gan fu­ri­ously ex­plain­ing why pota­toes aren’t dirty ap­ples and that women can have as many of them as they want (hash­tag fem­i­nism).

Well, I’ve news for you. Peter­son is al­ready pen­ning a hot take that reads: “Women have eaten all the pota­toes, the greedy wag­ons, and now there are none left #menin­ism.”

You type. “That’s ridicu­lous, Peter­son, and even if it’s true, eat­ing all the pota­toes is em­pow­er­ing #liv­ingmybestl­ife.”

Yeah, if you’re not care­ful you could be ar­gu­ing about this all day or, if, like me, you’re a slightly su­pe­rior sort, voyeuris­ti­cally watch­ing other peo­ple ar­gue about it.

Apart from be­ing a ter­ri­ble waste of time, this is also a pretty big shift in what we use our brains for. Ten years ago I had an ill-thought-through opin­ion a few times a week. Now I’m prompted by an end­less stream of strangers to take shaky po­si­tions on all sorts of stupid stuff. I find my­self con­stantly for­mu­lat­ing use­less, usu­ally un­ex­pressed opin­ions in spite of my­self.

Once I had space for such pri­vate thoughts as, Oh look, a birdy, or, Hey, my knuck­les look like an old man’s face, or, Are cats a kind of furry owl? This is what we used to call “hav­ing a rich in­ner life”.

Now, I fear, such rich in­ner lives are be­ing re­placed by a never-end­ing cy­cle of ag­i­ta­tion prompted by trolling colum­nists, provoca­tive Rus­si­abots and nuts we knew in school and/or are re­lated to. You can see it by just look­ing at the dead-eyed phone stares all around you on the bus. The in­ter­net is no longer a nifty tool that we use as needed but has be­come, thanks to so­cial me­dia, a place where we graze bliss­lessly and live out our think­ing lives.

At its very best it eases lone­li­ness and brings ac­tivists to­gether, but I’m scared that if we spend too long there we’ll stop day­dream­ing, hav­ing pri­vate selves, recog­nis­ing the hu­man­ity in peo­ple with dif­fer­ent views or be­ing ca­pa­ble of self-knowl­edge with­out an on­line ques­tion­naire (I’m a “Car­rie” by the way).

I’d like to think there might be a great dig­i­tal with­drawal, but the un­in­ter­ested re­sponse to the cur­rent Face­book scan­dal from users sug­gests not. It’s only a mat­ter of time, re­ally, be­fore some­one is post­ing: “Yes, Face­book con­verts some users into a nu­tri­tious paste for the Zuckerbaby, but we knew what we were sign­ing up for – and, any­way, I need it to keep in touch with my cousin who lives in Peter Thiel’s un­der­ground blood re­fin­ery.”

Rich in­ner lives are be­ing re­placed by a never-end­ing cy­cle of ag­i­ta­tion prompted by trolling colum­nists, provoca­tive Rus­si­abots and nuts we knew in school and/or are re­lated to . . . The in­ter­net is no longer a nifty tool that we use as needed, but has be­come, thanks to so­cial me­dia, a place where we graze bliss­lessly and live out our think­ing lives

I’m with stupid: Mark Zucker­berg

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