The Algorithmic Life Is Not Worth Living

Behavior modeling is the flywheel of the digital economy - and it's making us all stupid, boring, and neurotic.

1/28/2022 5:36:00 AM

The “Algorithmic Loop” created by giants like Google and Facebook do more than show us personalized prospective dates or movie titles or news blurbs. They actually shape our choices and behavior, davidzmorris writes for PrivacyWeek.

Behavior modeling is the flywheel of the digital economy - and it's making us all stupid, boring, and neurotic.

(to say nothing of writers, who have always struggled). Instead, we get an endless string of Marvel movies.In fairness, there are other major factors behind these changes. Hollywood, for instance, is grappling with a secular decline in theater attendance that creates pressure to make less-challenging content because it needs butts in seats. U.S. political culture was increasingly partisan well before the algorithmic loop made sorting people into opposing, equally single-minded hives a process as unconscious as breathing. At the very highest level, the trend toward a

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support their work (to say nothing of writers, who have always struggled). Instead, we get an endless string of Marvel movies. In fairness, there are other major factors behind these changes. Hollywood, for instance, is grappling with a secular decline in theater attendance that creates pressure to make less-challenging content because it needs butts in seats. U.S. political culture was increasingly partisan well before the algorithmic loop made sorting people into opposing, equally single-minded hives a process as unconscious as breathing. At the very highest level, the trend toward a “winner-take-all economy” began with the invention of the telegraph: Improving communication technology allows the very best performers, businesses and products to dominate ever-larger shares of the global market for just about everything. But the algorithmic loop is what allows the winner-take-all dynamic to infiltrate every aspect of our lives, online and, increasingly, off. It is what constantly tempts us with news or products or tweets that might not make us any more thoughtful or empathetic or well-informed – but which everyone else, as the algorithm knows, seems to be enjoying. Reject tradition, embrace yourself The algorithmic loop is the cybernetically enhanced version of a problem humans have been grappling with since before machine learning, the internet or computers even existed. In ye olden times, the problem went under names like tradition, hierarchy, superstition, conventional wisdom or just “the way things are.” Three decades ago, legal scholar Spiros Simitis predicted just how powerful these systems could be for molding people’s behavior into acceptable forms, much like traditional hierarchies. In a passage cited by Zuboff, Simitis argued that predictive algorithms were “developing … into an essential element of long-term strategies of manipulation intended to mold and adjust individual conduct.” Such forces have been viewed with suspicion for thousands of years. You’ve likely heard the phrase, “The unexamined life is not worth living,” one of the most famous aphorisms of Socrates, the foundational philosopher of the Western world (as passed down by his student Plato and Plato’s student Aristotle – Socrates didn’t even write, much less code). The general sentiment is clear and obvious enough: Spend some time reflecting on yourself. It’s good for you. But Socrates also meant something much more specific: To truly examine yourself, you have to interrogate all of the social norms, unspoken assumptions and historical conditions that shaped you. Until then, you’re essentially the puppet of the people who came before you and established the norms, whether we’re talking about church doctrine or aesthetic judgment. A couple of thousand years later, pioneering psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud restated this a bit more explicitly, in a slogan that also has the advantage of sounding totally badass in Freud’s native German: “Wo ist war, soll ich verden." Or in English: “Where it is, there I will be.” The “it” Freud is referring to is the unconscious mind, which he saw as shaped by the traditions and social norms hammered into all of us from birth. By Freud’s time, modernity and technology had helped make those norms ever more widespread, uniform and rigid, particularly during the sex-repressing Victorian era of Freud’s youth. Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), who believed social hierarchy and norms were a major source of mental illness. Freud believed the conflict between social norms and individual desires was a source of mental health problems. He hoped that his “talking cure” could help patients who felt strangely out of place in their repressive society, by making visible both the norms that are so often unspoken, and the desires that people sometimes hide even from themselves. We might understand disturbing findings about the mental health impacts of social media in similar terms: A constant stream of the most popular content might sometimes amount to a psychically damaging erosion of individuality by the dominant social order. The algorithmic loop may not seem quite as harsh a master as the social norms of Victorian Europe – but it is often more insidious. Repressive social norms that are visibly enforced by a policeman or priest may be easier to defy than the algorithmic loop, because now we’re the ones doing the clicking, the streaming, the scrolling. It certainly feels like we’re making individual choices, affirming our uniqueness, and expressing ourselves. But that’s only because the curve toward groupthink is so subtle. Viewed as a total system, the algorithmic loop inevitably degrades the diversity and uniqueness of what most people see, learn, and enjoy. Even as the amount of “content” we consume skyrockets (a disturbing trend in its own right), it feels like less and less of actual consequence is on offer – less that can challenge you, help you grow, make you a better person. No matter how much we scroll, tube or tweet, we may begin to suspect that our choices are illusory. Escaping the loop How, then, do you break free from a strangling vine that reads its future in your very struggle? How do you re-assert control over your own choices and your own brain? Of course, there are individual practices requiring various degrees of commitment. A straightforward one, if not entirely easy, is to ditch Facebook and Google to whatever degree possible. Facebook especially – the company that now calls itself Meta is simply and uniformly not to be trusted. (And yes, Facebook can track you even when you’re not using