The attention hack: how tech is changing us

The companies that trade in manipulating human decisions - thanks to data - are changing our culture...
22 September 2020

Interview with 

Aza Raskin, Center for Humane Technology


A brain surrounded by code and electronic connections.


Whenever you’re endlessly scrolling down Facebook - or Twitter, or Instagram, or whatever your poison - these platforms are only showing you the content you’re most likely to engage with. Aza Raskin, from the Centre for Humane Technology, is the man who invented that ‘endless scroll’ function; and he says that those algorithms have gotten so good at what they do, they make us addicted to the pseudo-reality that the online world shows us. He explained the idea to Phil Sansom...

Aza - I think it's important to step back and say: we call these things social networks, social sites, or just apps - TikTok, Reddit, Facebook - and that actually hides the true nature of what they are. These are immense digital habitats in which, post-COVID, we are living over one half of our waking lives. And the shape of our environments, what we tell the machines they want from us, have profound implications not just for our behavior, but for our values themselves. The story of AI is a very old one, it's the: be careful what you wish for, because whatever you wish for, the AI is going to go off and do, independent of how you wish for it to happen, and it will get your intentions wrong. And what we wished for was: can we grab as much of your attention as possible.

And in fact, how Google, Facebook, Twitter, they make their money is by selling certainty in the ability to get you to take certain actions which were different than the actions you were taking before. So as they've asked us for more and more attention, it's starting to override - because these are digital habitats - who we think we are. And we first felt it as digital overload; then digital addiction, unable to spend time with the people we care about most; to the place where over 52% of kids in the US, when they are asked, "what do you want to be when they grow up," they say, not astronauts, not scientists, but YouTube influencers. It has changed who our culture is.

Phil - There's that phrase that comes up a lot here, which is that if you're not paying for a product, you are the product.

Aza - Yeah, that's exactly right. The question everyone should be asking themselves is: "how much did you pay for Facebook recently?" You're like, “oh yeah, I haven't paid anything”. Why is that? Then the first answer you'll get is, “well, they're trying to sell you ads. They're trying to get you to buy something.” And then the first reaction to that is like, “wow, well, I sort of like those ads!” And that completely misses the point. They're collecting massive amounts of behavioural surplus data to make models of you, like a little voodoo doll, which they can prod and poke to see how you respond, to get you to take specific actions. Sometimes that's click on an ad, but often it's just to get you to do anything, because that puts you in a reactive state. 64% of all QAnon and conspiracy joins on Facebook come from the Facebook recommendation algorithm itself.

Phil - This is a hugely popular conspiracy, right?

Aza - Yeah, it has spread like wildfire through the US. Lots of these conspiracies are taking hold across the internet. And why is that? Well it's because if you shorten the attention spans of the entire world all at once, we stop reading as much, and it creates the conditions in which anger and the worst parts of human nature are reflected back to ourselves. And it's not like technology is an existential threat to humanity, but the worst of society is absolutely an existential threat to humanity. And what technology is doing is showing our worst versions of ourselves back to ourselves.

Phil - Aza, it feels like we've always been worried about technology, ever since there's been technology. You can read little newspaper op-eds from the 1800s or whatever that say, “people are spending too much time reading”! What's different about this?

Aza - Totally. And we should be intellectually honest, because as you say, like newspapers, bicycles, we've often had moral panics that come with new technology. And that's because new technology changes things. It makes disruptions, it alters the status quo. And the argument here is not that technology is bad; I've spent my entire lifetime building technology. I still do it. We've always had persuasion; we've always had propaganda; we've often always had advertisements. What's new here is that we are now living inside of the advertisement; living inside of the persuasion; living inside of the technology.

And that means its effects on us are exponentially bigger than it was before. When we wake up, we look at our phones; before we go to sleep, we look at our phones. The way we interact with our friends are through our phones and through for-profit companies' decisions. That has never happened before. And on the other side of the screen are a thousand engineers times a massive supercomputer that knows more about you than your lawyer, your priest, your therapist combined. That kind of asymmetric power is new. To put it another way, as E.O. Wilson said, the problem that we're facing now is that we have paleolithic emotions, medieval institutions, and godlike technology. And we do not have the godlike wisdom to wield this technology yet.

Phil - Aza, if I'm reading you right, then things like the rise of fake news are actually a natural consequence of having these algorithms get better and better at feeding us stuff that makes us click. And actually, as you were talking, I had not one but three notifications buzz on my phone in my pocket, which freaked me out a little bit! We all live in this world... is there any way to not?

Aza - Well, so the first thing to note is there are absolutely things that you can do that can help, but even if you don't use social media, you still live in a world that does. It's sort of like when you're in the middle of a pandemic, you can exercise, you can stay home; there are things you can do to protect your health, but you still live in a world which is affected by the global pandemic. That said, because it's often like gaslighting, it's sort of like saying, “hey, to solve climate change, you should not use straws and fly less,” but it's really not the consumer sector which is driving the most climate change. A few tips: turn your phone on greyscale. Turn off all notifications from anything that is not a human. Always ask: if something feels like it's pushing your emotional buttons, maybe it is. And finally, always wonder: why are we so angry at each other? The other side - how could they possibly believe what they believe, are they seeing what I'm seeing? And the important thing to note is they aren't seeing what you're seeing. They're seeing something different. Swap phones, and look at each other's newsfeeds and see how different their world is.


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