June 7, 2021

Technological Untethering: Rationale (part 1)

"You have to understand: most people are not ready to be unplugged."
— Morpheus (The Matrix)

Social Media as True Addiction

It's not hyperbolic to call social media the engine of addiction.

  • "Because the stimuli for the algorithm don't mean anything, because they genuinely are random, the brain isn't adapting to anything real, but to a fiction. That process—of becoming hooked on an elusive mirage—is addiction. As the algorithm tries to escape a rut, the human mind becomes stuck in one." (Jaron Lanier, Early VR Tech Pioneer / Long-Term Industry Insider w/ Potential Bias Given Position @ Microsoft, Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now (2018), p. 15)

Ad-driven social media is explicitly designed to keep you addicted.

  • "The goal is to figure out how to keep you online, how to create the circumstances under which you are kept online, and how to shift your own preferences and behaviors in order to make achieving the first two goals easier and more decisive." (Simon DeDeo, Asst. Prof. at Carnegie Mellon in Dept. of Social and Decision Sciences & External Prof. at Santa Fe Institute, "The 11th Reason To Delete Your Social Media Account: the Algorithm Will Find You" (25 Apr. 2021), avail at https://simondedeo.com/?p=705)

Social Media Encourages Maladaptive Behaviors

TL;DR: social media makes you a worse human being.

  • "The algorithm not only seeks out your buttons, but learns how to cultivate, and magnify, the ones that you had dealt with, in ways that are essentially invisible." (DeDeo, "The 11th Reason," supra)
  • Magnified behaviors include: rage, increased interpersonal conflict, reflexive argumentation, comparison, jealousy, lethargy, passivity, fatalism, self-hatred, sadness, procrastination, entitlement, grandiosity, confusion, pathological performativity

Social media crushes knowledge work through "social snacking," info overload, and outright polarizing misinformation.

  • These platforms customize / personalize feeds based on algorithmic mass mining at scale heretofore unimaginable. This means that I'm not even seeing the same information as others. Perhaps discursive polarization today is not because the "other side" is stupid or ignorant, but because the "other side" is bombarded with information that makes it appear to be the only side that exists with any merit, endlessly fed by algorithmically curated information that mercilessly reinforces existing ideas. The result is an echo chamber of diabolical proportions.
  • This is particularly deleterious to my profession and craft of investing/trading/risk mitigation.
  • Signal:noise ratio becomes monstrously skewed to noise.

Social media makes you an asshole while waving the banner of neutrality; the effects are not immediately noticeable in increments, imperceptibly compounding over time into a ghastly form.

  • "I don't want to be an asshole. Or a fake-nice person. I want to be authentically nice, and certain online designs seem to fight against that with magical force....[S]ince social media took off, assholes are having more of a say in the world." (Lanier, Ten Arguments, supra at 44).
  • "[B]ehavior has become polarized on ad-based social platforms as experiences ricochet between two extremes. Either there's a total shitstorm of assholes...or everyone is super careful and artificially nice." (Lanier, Ten Arguments, supra at 51).

Social Media as Tools of Surveillance

It's wise to assume that tech companies watch everything you do as a large-scale and deeply penetrating surveillance apparatus.

  • "[W]hen you type something into a status-update box, and then delete, this information is transmitted to their servers. The location of your cursor on the screen, your hesitations, where you linger as you doom-scroll—all of these things are logged and transmitted." (DeDeo, "The 11th Reason," supra)
  • "[T]hey log what you type but do not send, because of an interesting article that was written on how people have second thoughts on what they tweet. (DeDeo, "The 11th Reason," supra)

Polarization of groups is encouraged because it increases usage of social platforms and thus increases their profitability.

  • Social media creates a depressing simulacrum: "[p]eople are clustered into paranoia peer groups because they can be more easily and predictably swayed. The clustering is automatic, sterile, and, as always, weirdly innocent." (Lanier, Ten Arguments, supra at 65).

Technology is not neutral. It's a "race to the bottom of the brain stem."

  • Quoting Tristan Harris, fmr. Google employee: Technology is "not neutral. They want you to use it in particular ways and for long periods of time. Because that's how they make their money." (Newport, p. 10, quoting clip from 60 Minutes where Anderson Cooper interviews Tristan Harris, available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=awAMTQZmvPE)

Solution Requires Wholesale Re-Evaluation, not Incrementalism

If I accept the premise that social media is an addiction, then the response must be to take drastic actions and possibly fully reject certain parts of the digital landscape.

  • "Many of us think of social media as a glass of wine—a harmless indulgence at low levels of use, and a total blast on special occasion. I used to think this, too, but I now think that it's much more like the modern cigarette: saturated with highly addictive chemicals, with only the most surface-level social benefits, and with a near-guarantee that a significant number of users will receive long-term damage. Nearly all of this harm comes from the simple fact that, in ad-supported social media, you are the product." Simon DeDeo, "No Safe Level of Use: Strategies for Post-Social Media" (21 May 2021), avail at https://simondedeo.com/?p=854
  • "[G]radually changing your habits one at a time doesn't work well—the engineered attraction of the attention economy, combined with the friction of convenience, will diminish your inertia until you backslide toward where you started." *(Cal Newport, Comp. Sci. Assoc. Prof. @ Georgetown, Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World, (2019), p. 59)

Alternative of Digital Minimalism.

  • Definition: "A philosophy of technology use in which you focus your online time on a small number of carefully selected and optimized activities that strongly support things you value, and then happily miss out on everything else." (Newport, p. 28)
  • Digital minimalism is highly intentional, as tech tools are used only in specific ways with specific operating parameters, whereas the opposite approach heavily indexes toward "keeping (vague) options open" and "accepting any (vague) benefit irrespective of downside." Thus, minimalism stands in stark contrast to FOMO-driven acceptance of ambiguous benefits social platforms and other tech tools may provide.

Digital De-Clutter Protocol.

  • 30 day period of taking a break from "optional technologies" (that is, I can step away from them for 30 days without incurring severe harm in my professional and personal domains) and intentionally cultivating new behaviors/activities that line up with enhanced sense of well-being.
  • Thus, this extends beyond social media platforms, but to all tech tools and services that fall under the "optional" banner.
  • At the end of the 30 day period, tech tools are added back with a "zero based budget" approach. Every tool reintroduced must be specifically justified in its service of my life goals and values.
  • For tools that I re-introduce, I must also clearly define operating procedures such as when I'll use the tool, for how long, which features to disable, etc.
  • Criteria for re-introducing technology tools and services: (1) does the tool clearly support an important value of mine? If yes, (2) is that tool the best and most leveraged way to support that value?

Objections & Responses

I've personally struggled with the following objections to the above critique of social media. And, after much self-reflection and investigation, my responses are presented.

Objection: There are benefits to social media.
Responses:

  • Even if there are benefits, the loss of control—the highly addictive quality—outweighs. "These costs, of course, also tend to compound. When you combine an active Twitter presence with a dozen other attention-demanding online behaviors, the cost in life becomes extreme....you end up 'crushed and smothered' under the demands on your time and attention, and in the end, all you receive in return for sacrificing so much of your life is a few trinkets... many of which could probably be approximated at a much lower cost, or eliminated without any major negative impact.... It's easy to be seduced by the small amounts of profit offered by the latest app or service, but then forget its cost in terms of the most important resource we possess: the minutes of our life. (Newport, p. 42)*

  • Even if there are benefits, the utility of these platforms is not at stake. What is at stake, instead, is my increased and deleterious dependence—at largely unconscious or vaguely conscious levels—upon them. "Each one of these services probably offers...something useful that would be hard to find elsewhere: the ability, for example, to keep up with baby pictures.... The source of our unease is not evident in these thin-sliced case studies, but instead becomes visible only when confronting the thicker reality of how these technologies as a whole have managed to expand beyond the minor roles for which we initially adopted them.... What's making us uncomfortable, in other words, is this feeling of losing control—a feeling that instantiates itself in a dozen different ways each day, such as when we tune out with our phone during our child's bath time, or lose our ability to enjoy a nice moment without a frantic urge to document it for a virtual audience." (Newport, p. 206)

  • Most of these benefits are weak substitutes for more genuine interaction. For example, keeping up with life events of my close friends can easily occur directly off-platform and indeed, off-line.

  • Adopting my investment/trading/risk philosophy again here requires a strategy of collecting open-ended options with the potential for massive upside. Ask: does social media platform x, y, z and tech tool a, b, c provide the potential for massive upside, together with a pre-defined and affordable risk of loss?

  • Related to the above investment-oriented framework is my pragmatic approach of utilizing a MinMax approach to life. MinMax is a decision rule used in game theory to maximize gains while minimizing the "risk of ruin" (i.e., an unacceptable level of loss that effectively knocks you out of the game or is otherwise too severe to accept regardless of the gains). As a life heuristic, MinMax means to maximize positive optionality and relentlessly exclude weak or lukewarm options. It's a strategy for cutting out the uninspiring middle.

Objection: The specific benefit of connectivity that social media provides is critical. I lose positive optionality of opportunities that might come from edges of the network.
Responses:

  • A gross misunderstanding, as this objection conflates weak and numerous "connection" with deeper and genuine "conversations." Smashing the "like" button on Facebook, the heart on Twitter and Instagram are plastic veneers for meaningful discourse.
  • "[M]any of these tools are engineered to hijack our social instincts to create an addictive allure. When you spend multiple hours a day compulsively clicking and swiping, there’s much less free time left for slower interactions. And because this compulsive use emits a patina of socialness, it can delude you into thinking that you’re already serving your relationships well, making further action unnecessary." (Newport, p. 143)
  • Increased online presence trades off directly with off-line relationships in such a way that the most heavy online users are the most connected and yet, the most alone.
  • Real world interactions are more important than online ones. "Our brains evolved during a period when the only communication was offline and face-to-face....these offline interactions are incredibly rich because they require our brains to process large amounts of information about subtle analog cues such as body language, facial expressions, and voice tone. The low-bandwidth chatter supported by many digital communication tools might offer a simulacrum of this connection, but it leaves most of our high-performance social processing networks underused—reducing these tools' ability to satisfy our intense sociality." (Newport, p. 142)
  • Adopt a hardline stance: never click "like" and never leave trite comments ("awesome!" "great work!") because these seemingly innocent activities falsely teach you that connection is a valid substitute for conversation.
  • Empirical: human history has never been this connected (nor this depressed, unhappy, anxious). As such, this begs the question of whether connection is even that important. After all, how many "friends" on Facebook are actually friends.
  • MinMax relationships: this appears callous and anti-social, but maintaining a wide set of connections and investing time/attention/energy into weak networks is perhaps really a symptom of maladapted FOMO worries.

"You know that road. You know exactly where it ends. And, I know that's not where you want to be."
— Trinity (The Matrix)

References:

  • Simon DeDeo, "No Safe Level of Use: Strategies for Post-Social Media" (21 May 2021), avail at https://simondedeo.com/?p=854*
  • Simon DeDeo, "The 11th Reason To Delete Your Social Media Account: the Algorithm Will Find You" (25 Apr. 2021), avail at https://simondedeo.com/?p=705
  • Tristan Harris & Anderson Cooper, "Brain Hacking" on 60 Minutes, (9 Apr. 2017) available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=awAMTQZmvPE
  • Jaron Lanier, Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now (2018)
  • Cal Newport, Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World, (2019)