Tristan Harris is right. He is the genius behind the Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma. He’s right that our attention is being hacked, and vulnerable people like kids, religious minorities, girls, and those who live in democracies are harmed every day.
Let’s assume you’ve seen the movie, so we can check the box on informed outrage and cut straight to the action. What do we do about the problem Tristan and his team elegantly framed? At the end of the movie, Tristan says the solution is in “collective will”. Agreed, so what do we do with our will?
I was on a group zoom call with Tristan yesterday, and we wanted to know what practical steps each of us could take, using our collective will. He had some good ideas, but most importantly, he emphasized that the attention monetization and polarization at the heart of these social media businesses is the enemy, and that we have to drive a stake through the heart of that model to return to social health.
Tristan defined IQ, as “problem-solving ability”. He said how polarizing social media algorithms have destroyed our cooperative problem-solving ability — our social IQ, — just when we need cooperation the most. None of our global problems can be solved while we are divided, and nothing divides us more than social media algorithms. If you care about social justice, family values, climate change, pollution, overpopulation, women’s rights, religious freedom, human rights, food sufficiency, education, peace, justice and opportunity, then you need to know that progress is not possible while social media algorithms fan our flames of division.
We now understand that this single cause, attention monetization by AI, is the hidden hand pushing teen suicides, Rohingya massacres, screen addiction, mass political polarization, and more.
How do we cut this off at the root? How do we reclaim our children, our time, our friends, our politics from this social techno-monster that is eating us up?
Two years ago, to support productivity and health, I got completely off social media. Still, I can’t dodge the massive social divisions, depression, hate, anger and suicide that attention monetization creates, exploits and perpetuates.
Backing up a bit, social media should be implemented as a distributed basic utility in service to authentic connection, not as a huge monopolistic corporation monetizing attention. As humanity, we got this very wrong, and we need to fix it before we hurt ourselves further.
Social media should be a set of standard protocols for individuals to exchange and control digital social information we want to share and see. That’s not true now, but really should be. To wrap your head around it, think about email. We have millions of email servers, a few shared protocols, many different email clients (interfaces). Social media should be like email on steroids. Imagine if email were controlled by just one or two companies — imagine you HAD to use one of these companies, you couldn’t avoid email, and they read all your email. Imagine they tried to lie, inflame and manipulate you based on all they learned about you from their scrutiny of every email you sent or received. Social media companies are exactly like this, only a LOT worse!
Okay, too bad for us, social media is not yet a basic global utility. But surely I can escape somehow? What if someone wrote a bot that can log into Facebook to scrape the updates I want? What if I wanted to migrate to safety, say, Mastodon or Sociall or Friendica, but delegate my bot, like a digital condom, to nab updates from my friends who yet remain on Facebook.
Well, I can’t find such a bot — there is apparently no such digital condom. Why not!? Not going there — the last thing we need is another conspiracy theory. The point being, if I can’t find a good way to migrate off Facebook while keeping my friend connections, then it might as well not exist. So, there is no safe social media, no way to escape without making the same painful choice I made — to lose touch with many friends.
Fact: we are trapped on the monopoly platforms. Given that , what do we do about these unavoidable juggernauts that are wrecking lives and democracy? What action is warranted, now that we know how dire our plight?
We intervene. We just say, “hell, no, we no longer agree to have our minds and hearts perverted by evil algorithms that hack our brains!” We take decisive protective legislative action. To credibly face this threat, our moves have to be MUCH more definite and effective than the current anti-trust action to separate Instagram from Facebook.
We are in a special urgent situation that requires special urgent action. Our old anti-trust laws don’t fit the threat. We have unleashed something truly terrible and insidious on ourselves, that is killing people every day and preventing solutions to our life-threatening problems.
I propose that we…
- Ban algorithmic feeds (like those used on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter);
- Ban or tightly regulate algorithmic recommendations (YouTube, Facebook, Netflix, etc);
- Mandate easy migration off of Facebook to other platforms to help transform social media into the basic harmless utility it ought to be;
- Compensate affected shareholders for limiting their business model.
That’s all. We take radical action to protect people, while keeping our friends and being fair to shareholders. We save ourselves by saying “no” to our inadvertently toxic self-hack.
I believe we can keep advertising — just not advertising based on evil algorithmic attention maximization. Maybe not advertising that micro-targets vulnerable minds. We can define criminal penalties for platform abuse, and license advertisers to use these potentially dangerous tools. Plus, why not promote a subscription model for those willing to pay to eliminate ads? Everyone does it. Personally, I would love to pay for a safe digital friend network. I miss my Facebook friends.
If you can improve this proposal, while still saving us from addicting and polarizing algorithms, great! Let’s do what works better.
Whatever you think, let’s do something soon! If I could just pull a giant OFF switch right now, I would. Ham-handed immediate shutdown of social media and toxic recommendation platforms would ADD value to our society. The daily damage is so great that fast action done poorly is better than careful action done slowly.
If this sounds radical, okay. I suggest that the externalized harm caused by this now-known-to-be-evil business model warrants immediate protective action. We ended institutional slavery of bodies 150 years ago, didn’t we? Let’s end algorithmic slavery of minds right now.
If you get it, and you want to take personal action right now, then do this: get off Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, YouTube, whatever you can stand or afford to get off. Get the Brave browser instead of Chrome or whatever. Use StartPage or DuckDuckGo for all your searches, instead of Google. I promise you will be happier — especially when you notice those creepy targeted ads start to miss their mark.
Do that, and also support Tristan Harris’ notion of collective action to reclaim our calm attention, our mental health, our warm social connections, our middle ground of politics, and our lives.
As your civic duty, call your Congressional representatives and let them know you support drastic action to eliminate the attention monetization model that is addicting and killing us.
Tristan, thank you and your team for all the hard work you did to bring this to our attention. You are awesome.