Less than a dozen years separate these two images of commuters in the NYC subway system, the bottom one taken late in 2016, a reminder that the future can arrive frustratingly slowly and then all at once.
While both groups have their heads buried in media, the difference in the tools they’re utilizing makes all the difference. It’s not that newspapers never tried to manipulate readers, but they were static, intermittent and allowed for reflection. Smartphones are incredibly useful, but they not only makes reading on any profound level difficult, they’re also the largest social and psychological experiments in human history, persuasion machines constantly updated in real time, ever-shifting in an attempt to stay a step ahead of consumers. The funny thing is, I don’t think we mind very much.
In the very smart Wired interview “Our Minds Have Been Hijacked By Our Phones. Tristan Harris Wants to Rescue Them,” Nicholas Thompson questions the activist about the problem and what he believes are the solutions. The title seems a misnomer: Is it really a hijacking if we’re complicit? Harris thinks we “lack awareness” of how the Big Three (Apple, Google and Facebook) are gaming us, but I believe it’s a tacit agreement in which we choose to ignore the fine print.
Complicating matters is that the next level the Internet and social media extends far beyond a phone you can slide into your pocket: Tomorrow will be a much more ambient and pervasive time, and it’s unlikely anyone will be able to evade the chips and sensors. We will be endlessly logged on. Are there legislative solutions? Probably, though they’ll need to be limber and able to morph quickly, and with the jaw-dropping money involved, the public will have to demand them.
I’d feel more confident this could be achieved if we weren’t so deeply complicit, so desperately in need of attention. That’s one of the biggest shocks in the early years of the Digital Age: People don’t really mind so much that they’re being manipulated and surveilled. We not only like to watch, but we like being watched. For many, it’s a small price to pay for “friends” and “likes.” Big Brother now seems like just another member of the family.
An exchange in which Thompson probes Harris’ solutions for the new abnormal:
How do we reform it?
So the first step is to transform our self-awareness. People often believe that other people can be persuaded, but not me. I’m the smart one. It’s only those other people over there that can’t control their thoughts. So it’s essential to understand that we experience the world through a mind and a meat-suit body operating on evolutionary hardware that’s millions of years of old, and that we’re up against thousands of engineers and the most personalized data on exactly how we work on the other end.
Do you feel that about yourself? I tried to reach you last weekend about something, but you went into the woods and turned off your phone. Don’t you think you have control?
Sure, if you turn everything off. But when we aren’t offline, we have to see that some of the world’s smartest minds are working to undermine the agency we have over our minds.
So step one is awareness. Awareness that people with very high IQs work at Google, and they want to hijack your mind, whether they’re working on doing that deliberately or not. And we don’t realize that?
Yeah. And I don’t mean to be so obtuse about it. YouTube has a hundred engineers who are trying to get the perfect next video to play automatically. And their techniques are only going to get more and more perfect over time, and we will have to resist the perfect. There’s a whole system that’s much more powerful than us, and it’s only going to get stronger. The first step is just understanding that you don’t really get to choose how you react to things.•