The Social Disorder And The Internet. ~~ MrRedwoodGuy

~~ Written by MrRedwoodGuy ~~

The Social Disorder And The Internet.

September 6, 2021

The first serious critique of technology that I encountered was the “Unabomber Manifesto” by Ted Kaczynski. As the world understood the writer to be a crazed criminal, I didn’t have many opportunities to openly discuss the manifesto with any of the middle class people of my circle. It was my first introduction to the question, “Is all progress good?” Even today, it’s hard to find any part of the general public critical of technology, and what is always called progress

 As an early adopter of PCs, and the Internet (I actually had Prodigy, then CompuServe, then AOL) I succumbed to the popular theme that the Internet would democratize the world – a force for good. But, almost immediately, I had nagging doubts as I noticed that avatars were far more cruel and crude in social behavior than real people behind them would be when face-to-face.. Chat rooms and fora became cesspools of foul, unforgiving crudity in the blink of an eye when one avatar detected a slight or an insult from another. In spite of this devolution of human interaction, we all invested ever more time behind keyboards, and most of it was counter-productive, and even infantile behavior. As the ‘90s rolled on, the tone and topic on the Internet became ever more political, as forces from other media, like radio, TV, and print, found ways to integrate the new technology medium into their brand, by adding web sites and commenting schemes. Soon enough, every public issue in education, medicine, or science turned into a political identity issue as a stand-in for the Good v. Evil. Politics quickly lost all nuance in this reductionism for popular consumption. Surveillance of the population was an immediate by-product of the requirement for an ISP account and an email address to make use of the Internet. Not a single click or keystroke – anywhere on the World Wide Web was anonymous. The web browsers (actually the entire HTTP protocol) was designed to track identity. Built-in cookie management was soon supplanted by ever more sophisticated surveillance bots. Visiting a web site meant your browser was fair game for dozens of tracking agents to be loaded onto your machine invisibly. Overnight, the users became the commodity being bundled, sorted, monitored, and sold repeatedly into the hands of not just advertisers, but the NSA who was invited to the party by the biggest of the tech companies – Google. “Searching for terrorists” was more than enough justification for everyone to turn their head the other way. 

Behavioral manipulation and modification was the next development when Social Media was born. Artificial Intelligence research led to the innovation of behavioral algorithms. Decision-making code that sits atop Facebook, and YouTube, and Google, Twitter, and the rest, and could manage and manipulate the preferences of billions of users in real time as they scrolled their accounts. The surveillance provided your history, and from your history your quirks, preferences, predilections and biases could be managed to fuel your interests and beliefs. If you watched a video on 9/11 conspiracy news in the past, you were fed a steady recommendation diet of 9/11 conspiracy videos.  No matter how narrow, how specific, or how bizarre your tastes were, the algos could always find more of the same for you to consume. Your eyes on ads was the crucial goal.  They needed to keep you coming back, staying longer, engaging with more content. To that end a proper reward system was needed for the user. The first one developed was the LIKE button, and a careful system of doling out the LIKES, in just the right increments as rewards. The job of the algos is to keep your eyes on the site, viewing as many ads as is humanly possible day and night. That’s how social media companies – defactot ad agencies –  increase revenue. 

But, in that process of keeping you engaged in the site, they are also keeping you engaged in your interests. If that interest is monster movies, there may not be much harm to society. But, what happens if your interest is quack cures for cancer, or promoting conspiracy theories? A second phenomenon then unfolds – – the algos help you find others with the same interests. You bundle yourself into groups that can grow into tens of thousands of members. In pre-Internet history, you might have fed your interest by purchasing the National Inquirer at the grocery store and reading those fictitious stories. You’d be alone in your pursuit, and your faulty thinking. You would find it hard to be validated in your belief that Democrats were operating a global pedophile ring and sacrificing babies on alters. 

Internet algos, operating on billions of users in real time, quickly lever-up the popularity of quacks, conspiracy theories, and deliberate misinformation (e.g. going viral). Algos are the ultimate ‘confirmation bias’ tool. Validation by the multitudes of ‘followers’ feels good to egos not accustomed to validation.. A YouTube Doctor with 500,000 subscribers is assumed to be a credible expert  just on the basis that half a million other people think so. Does your personal physician have 500,000 fans listening to her every word? The New England Journal of Medicine has about 1M monthly readers – a number swamped by the most popular YouTube doctor with 8M subscribers. This is not to say they are all quacks – they aren’t – but that quacks abound, and seek cover,  in their ranks. 

The mass production, marketing and consumption of junk thinking, quackery, and bad science is completely analogous to the American consumption of junk food. If it tastes good, it is good, and everyone has the right to produce it – and consume it. The social media algos that direct the behavior of their billions of users, is the equivalent of the industrial food industry’s copious amounts of added sugar, salt and fat into junk food to make it more delicious to our taste buds. And, just as obesity and metabolic diseases are destroying the health of the body, the operation of these algos is destroying the ability to think rationally. Just as eating a bag of Doritos is satisfying, so too is it equally satisfying to hear others reciting your fantasy about fascists getting ready to round up the population for FEMA Death Camps. 

The sum of all this technology is that it is destroying trust among the citizenry as fast as fires are destroying the forests in the West. Trust in our important institutions, trust in each other, trust in any commonly held beliefs that the society needs to remain cohesive and functioning. The FDA, the CDC, the NIH were never perfect, but they did provide useful guardrails for public safety. The alternative of simple “caveat emptor” everywhere would be typical of a 3W nation – which is now, exactly where we are headed. When all trust is gone, when every conspiracy theory  is as valid as any factual history, or scientific theory, then only chaos remains for the society. Successful social orders are not about truths – truth is too elusive to claim by anyone. But, social orders need a level of common trust, and some common beliefs among its members, in order to function to the benefit of the whole. No one should assume that every technology must be deployed just because some businessman says so. No one should accept technologies as beneficial or unavoidable without careful consideration of all the intended and unintended consequences. Just ask homeowners in previously nice neighborhoods that got converted to ‘AirBNB resort destinations’  without review, without question, without approval, without warning to current residents. Don’t like having 20 rowdy drunks partying every weekend in the house next door? Hey, it’s a free country

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