The psychology of social media networks

A friend shared a relatively short but no less incisive and thoughtful article by Jonathan Haidt in ‘The Atlantic’ on ‘The Dark Psychology of Social Networks’. Some key sentences that I found thoughtful:

Social media, with its displays of likes, friends, followers, and retweets, has pulled our sociometers out of our private thoughts and posted them for all to see…..

……Human beings evolved to gossip, preen, manipulate, and ostracize. We are easily lured into this new gladiatorial circus, even when we know that it can make us cruel and shallow. As the Yale psychologist Molly Crockett has argued, the normal forces that might stop us from joining an outrage mob—such as time to reflect and cool off, or feelings of empathy for a person being humiliated—are attenuated when we can’t see the person’s face, and when we are asked, many times a day, to take a side by publicly “liking” the condemnation…….

……..A multiplicity of forces are pushing America toward greater polarization. But social media in the years since 2013 has become a powerful accelerant for anyone who wants to start a fire………..

……….Even though they have unprecedented access to all that has ever been written and digitized, members of Gen Z (those born after 1995 or so) may find themselves less familiar with the accumulated wisdom of humanity than any recent generation, and therefore more prone to embrace ideas that bring social prestige within their immediate network yet are ultimately misguided………….

………..Many americans may think that the chaos of our time has been caused by the current occupant of the White House, and that things will return to normal whenever he leaves. But if our analysis is correct, this will not happen. [Link]

To me, the last extract I have posted above is as important as any that preceded it. Perhaps, the penultimate extract is equally important. We consume what is easily available. Youth are especially vulnerable to the superficial trends that bring social prestige and popularity.  Or, in economics terms, there is the opportunity cost to time. They will not have time or energy to peruse ‘the accumulated wisdom of humanity’ as Jonathan Haidt puts it.

Other lessons: Technology has provided an avenue (well, more than one avenue) for our worst instincts to be displayed and played out in public. That is why technology cannot be the answer to our behavioural problems. Indeed, the advent of social media, its spread and embrace have shown that they accentuate our worst behavioural instincts.

That is why sometimes social restrictions and conventions help in keeping our worst ideas, imaginations and thoughts private. In a way, ‘fake it until you make it’ works. That is, if one is forced to practise reasonable communication all the time because tehre is no avenue to practise and spread unreasonable communication, two things happen: (1) reasoable communication becomes a habit and (ii) we do not infect others with unreasonable communication. There is a positive social multiplier effect too.

This takes time. But, what we have seen is that the painstaking work, accomplished over centuries, of making us ‘reasonable and responsible’ could be so easily undone within a decade or two.

Saurabh Mukherjea’s Marcellus Investments shared the speech by Sacha Baron Cohen delivered when he recevied the ‘ADL International Leadership award’. There are many convergent points between his speech and some of the issues that Jon Haidt highlights. His reference to the ‘Silicon Six’ makes one think. The question is if it would make them think.

Silicon Sultans

In the last month or so, I had read these two pieces with great concern. One appeared in Bloomberg. That article dealt with the features like Siri that comes loaded with Apple phones and about Alexa that is a device that Amazon sells. The article detailed how both of them listen to conversations that no couple or parent or children would want outsiders to know about or sneak in on.

Then, the New York Times had a brilliant long article with great videos and graphics on how location services in phones and the apps. that they carry track us down everywhere. They are meant to help us find stuff or places we look for, near where we are. But, they do much more than that.

I had written about both of these in my blog post titled ‘Snoop to conquer’. Then came another article in Wall Street Journal on how one could easily list stuff picked up from the dumpsters and put them on the Amazon platform. They are allowed to be listed and sold. Good journalism.

Then, I read an article that appeared originally in January 2015 in ‘The Economist’ on the ‘Silicon sultans’ that inspired the title of this post. In that ‘The Economist’ briefing, this quote attributed to Eric Schimdt (co-founder of Google) shows that five years later, things have gotten worse and not better on the privacy front:

“We know where you are,” says Mr Schmidt. “We know where you’ve been. We can more or less know what you’re thinking about.” The EU is drafting a privacy directive, to come into effect in 2016, which could introduce strict rules about data collection. [Link]

Market concentration is becoming a social menace again. I doubt if there is any answer – no matter how imperfect it is – other than to break these monopolies up.

Snoop to conquer

The following two articles should scare anyone using smart phones and want to stick to land lines.

One is about the Alexa and other smart devices that respond to voice commands by listening. Yes, they listen to stuff you don’t want them to listen to.

The other article is about location services that supposedly are the ones that make the apps and the phone smarter in ‘helping’ us find what we want, based on where we are. Well, the smarter ones are not the ones who hold the phone but who sell the services/devices to us. Check out this New York Times article.

Rana Foroohar offers the answer:

Only prohibiting the tracking and microtargeting of individuals will do that. I used to think such a prohibition was extreme. It may, at this stage, be impossible. But I’m also beginning to wonder whether it might be crucial, not only to restoring competition in the US, but to saving trust in liberal democracy throughout the world. [Link]

All this is leading to nice income and stock grants for employees of technology companies whose source of profits, income and wealth is our stupidity in relying far too much on smart phones and becoming addicted to it.

As if this was not enough, look at how Wall Street veterans looked the other way and showered Wework’s Adam Neumann with money.

It is just that we are the losers in the incestous game that the East and the West Coast cities of America play together and against us. The outcome is decided well in advance.

What were Luddites after?

Those who resist technological progress (or, progress, in general) are called Luddites. But, Luddites were not protesting technological progress as much as the distribution of the fruits of the profits derived from the deployment of machines. Sounds familiar. Read this interview. In fact, ‘Luddites’ derived their name from a mythical character called Ned Ludd. The reference for that article and many other articles are there in the article I co-wrote with my colleague Raghuraman on ‘Machines and Men’. I enjoyed writing this one. Our first article in this series of two articles is here.

It happens during the day

Chanced upon the review of three books by Quinn Slobodian in ‘Boston Review’. The three books are ‘dark’ in his view, especially the first one, he reviews: The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power by Shoshana Zuboff.

He takes exception to her comments on how media influences behaviour:

One could ask whether her description doesn’t flunk the Cultural Studies 101 test by failing to acknowledge that the media’s designers don’t dictate directly its use and consumption. We hear a great deal about what companies “aim” to do through baroque projects of “behavioral modification,” but, as with the Cold War brainwashing techniques she references, we have little evidence that these efforts work—except for generating ever greater contracts for those pronouncing their own effectiveness. [Link]

But, let us listen to the testimony of Jim Balsillie, former CEO of ‘Research in Motion’ (remember Blackberry?):

Second, social media’s toxicity is not a bug — it’s a feature. Technology works exactly as designed. Technology products, services and networks are not built in a vacuum. Usage patterns drive product development decisions. Behavioral scientists involved with today’s platforms helped design user experiences that capitalize on negative reactions because they produce far more engagement than positive reactions. [Emphasis mine]

Third, among the many valuable insights provided by whistleblowers inside the tech industry is this quote: “the dynamics of the attention economy are structurally set up to undermine the human will.” Democracy and markets work when people can make choices aligned with their interests. The online advertisement-driven business model subverts choice and represents a foundational threat to markets, election integrity and democracy itself. [Link]

Indeed, the comment about on-line reminds me of advertising itself. I just did a blog post on it yesterday.

More importantly, very powerful lines above. The point to note here is obvious: it is not the subversion of the tech. platforms by populists, demagogues, far-Right and other extremists that is the issue. The platform is the subversion.

That is why it was disappointing to read that Stanley Druckenmiller, otherwise an intelligent man, criticise the Trump Administration’s consideration of anti-trust investigations of the tech. companies in the USA.

So, Zuboff is not exactly wrong. It is ‘dark’ for the rest of us because we don’t know (or cannot be bothered to fathom) how the ‘rich’ and the ‘connected’ operate. Looks like that is the stuff of the second and, even more so, the third book reviewed.

The second book he reviews is Darkness by Design: The Hidden Power in Global Capital Markets by Walter Mattli. A key paragrph from the review:

Mattli shows how the shape of financial governance—and lack thereof—was pushed by a small elite of investment entities. The advantages gained by those able to make costly investments in computerization began to concentrate wealth at the upper end of exchange’s members, including the “national commercial and non-U.S. ‘universal’ banks” that deregulation had allowed to enter. By 2000, the twenty-five second-tier firms had less than 10 percent of the market capitalization of the top ten. Household name titans such as Barclays, Credit Suisse, Citigroup, Deutsche Bank, Goldman Sachs, Merrill Lynch, Morgan Stanley, and JP Morgan dominated. 

The third book he reviews is Katharina Pistor’s The Code of Capital.

In fact, he summarises it very well:

Katharina Pistor’s The Code of Capital is also an urgent tract. The difference, in her telling, is that the law doesn’t always ride a white horse. It comes as often to perpetuate injustice as redress it.

Further, the following statements are both profound and true. In other words, the State is the protector – or it ought to be – and the villain. The problem is, in other words, the State is captured and hence, aids the evasion of taxes by the rich whom it supposedly has to now bring back into its tax net!:

The concentration of wealth and its evasion of state attempts at its capture through taxation also do not happen by escaping law or the state, but through the law and the state—through projects of legal “encoding,” to use Pistor’s dominant metaphor.

Quinn Slobodian highlights a few things from Pistor’s book that ought to be of interest to those in Finance. Very few would even be aware of them:

Pistor introduces us to new sites and conventions created to offer protection for capital mobility and insulation from democratic states, places with their own acronyms, where PRIME Finance (Panel of Recognized International market Experts in finance) protects PRIMA (the Place of Relevant Intermediary Approach convention).

So, the point is that it is not about shining light on people operating covertly, in darkness, outside the pale of law. There is collusion. There is capture. State and the law have facilitated it.

Perhaps Pistor’s book is similar to the one by Brink Lindsey and Steven M. Teles: ‘The Captured Economy‘. I have begun reading it.

What it costs the world for Alexa to answer your queries?

My friend and co-author Gulzar Natarajan pointed me to an article by Gillian Tett in FT on how private equity has grown over the years when public markets and public listing were the fashion since the Eighties. I then caught up with a few others of hers. One of them was on what it costs humans to be able to use their modern technological gadgets and devices that are founded on ‘artificial intelligence’.

That article had a link to this one: ‘Anatomy of an AI system’. It could be one of the most important articles you would read in 2019.

To me, the article underscores, for the umpteenth time, the fact that humans are incapable of grasping (let alone comprehending) what they unleash. They wade into waters that they can scarcely fathom and the splash and the spillovers are something that they cannot ever hope to get a grip on or control. Sample this:

it took Intel more than four years to understand its supply line well enough to ensure that no tantalum from the Congo was in its microprocessor products. As a semiconductor chip manufacturer, Intel supplies Apple with processors. In order to do so, Intel has its own multi-tiered supply chain of more than 19,000 suppliers in over 100 countries providing direct materials for their production processes, tools and machines for their factories, and logistics and packaging services. 20 That it took over four years for a leading technology company just to understand its own supply chain, reveals just how hard this process can be to grasp from the inside, let alone for external researchers, journalists and academics.

We are doomed not because we have damaged the environment, not becasue we are running out of water; not because we have run up too much debt; not because we have accumulated too much wealth in too few hands but because we know not and refuse to admit we know not.

Whose sufferance?

This is not a long article but makes some important points. It is about technology taking over our lives. AS always, it is an outcome of ‘means’ becoming the ‘end’. Technology was the means to a comfortable life. But, because we chased it too hard, technology has become the ‘end’ in itself and it is now dominating our lives.

IF you are not convinced about the conflation of ‘means’ and ‘ends’, read this paragraph by George Dyson:

The search engine is no longer a model of human knowledge, it is human knowledge. What began as a mapping of human meaning now defines human meaning, and has begun to control, rather than simply catalog or index, human thought. No one is at the controls. If enough drivers subscribe to a real-time map, traffic is controlled, with no central model except the traffic itself. The successful social network is no longer a model of the social graph, it is the social graph. This is why it is a winner-take-all game. Governments, with an allegiance to antiquated models and control systems, are being left behind. [Emphasis mine; link]

This warning by a MIT professor in 1970 was very prescient:

While Minsky believed that A.I. might solve the world’s problems, he also recognized how it could all go drastically awry. In an interview with Life magazine in November of 1970, Minsky warned: “Once the computers get control, we might never get it back. We would survive at their sufferance.” In one of his more famous premonitions, he posited, “If we’re lucky, the [machines] might decide to keep us as pets.” [Link]

The reference to the work of Arthur C. Clarke, ‘Childhood’s End’ is interesting. One should check it out.

Perhaps, this tribal community in Nagaland, in its own way, is showing us the way?