Ending Engagement Addiction

Jaron Lanier is concerned the operant conditioning of social media is reducing us to childish impulses

Ending Engagement Addiction

Here’s an interesting goal for a media initiative:

. . . to create a structure that is friendlier to human cognition and to the ways people really are.

These words come toward the end of an article in the Guardian featuring a discussion with Jaron Lanier, the tech futurist who has long been worried about the direction the Internet has been taking us.

I’ve been reading and listening to Lanier for years now, and always find his insights bracing, challenging, and fearless. In 2010, I reviewed his book “You Are Not a Gadget,” with his critiques of “open” culture standing out:

Lanier’s most damning points revolve around what he calls “open culture” — the movement spurred by advocates of open access, open standards, open data, open, open, open. While it all sounds good, what it’s actually created is an amoral world in which consequences aren’t considered, the victims are blamed, technical solutions are thought to be better than common sense, creativity has been stifled, commerce is abandoned, and gee-whiz wonderment conceals deeply cynical plays by scheming companies

Lanier believes in the marketplace of ideas, and in intermediaries, but only to a point — a point we overshot years ago due to another concept he discusses, the “power law” effect of scale on information purveyors. This was mentioned in a 2013 IEEE interview with Lanier, in which he discussed how what once was a bell curve of differing amounts of influence has become skewed by power laws, such that a handful of companies can dominate the information landscape, cutting down on options, opinions, and resources, effectively killing the information “middle class” — publishers, news sources, and voices that had flourished in the pre-Internet days. Intermediaries become algorithms, or impossibly unwieldy and ineffective.

In some cases, intermediaries are gutted to the point that they become more or less a joke — or, in other cases, become corrupted in ways we barely comprehend. Worries about TikTok are one point on this spectrum, while the abdication of responsibility by those at preprint servers serve as another point.

Now, Lanier is worried about the toll social media is taking on us via operant conditioning, which he feels is being used by the companies, their advertisers, and state-level actors to shape the minds of users in ways that drive us to our most base instincts.

In a New York Times editorial, Lanier describes this as “a behavior modification scheme” that makes distinct individuals deprecate themselves due to “Twitter poisoning,” with a playground of taunts bringing out childish behaviors:

When we feel those old humiliations, anxieties and sadisms again as adults — over and over, because the algorithm has settled on that pattern as a powerful way to engage us — habit formation restimulates old patterns that had been dormant. We become children again, not in a positive, imaginative sense, but in a pathetic way.

Twitter poisoning makes sufferers feel more oppressed than is reasonable in response to reasonable rules. The scope of fun is constricted to transgressions. Unfortunately, scale changes everything. Taunts become dangerous hate when amplified. A Twitter-poisoned soul will often complain of a loss of fun when someone succeeds at moderating the spew of hate.

He sees the simultaneous meltdowns of Trump, Ye, and Musk as symptomatic, while the other end of the political spectrum has become full of schoolyard tattles and scolds.

We’ve been reduced to childishness — a trend that has been developing for the bulk of this century, as this generation of adults seems to be the first to actively seek to emulate its children. Hence, there are often calls for an “adult in the room” when it comes to out-of-control technology or business initiatives.

Restoring dignity to ourselves and our media means restoring the marketplace of ideas, and that means distributing market forces more equitably in addition to being serious about evaluating what enters it. To this end, Lanier embraces the idea of micropayments, which Clay Shirky dismissed a decade ago. Yet, here we are, and with the recent launch of Post.News, the idea of micropayments in social exchanges is back in a big way.

Using Post is a very different experience from using more traditional social media. One simple and powerful design feature — a tab that gathers posts from only those you follow — solves so many addiction problems. Add to this the reverse-chronology motif of the site, and the chances of operant conditioning and addiction are far lower. The site is a calmer, more news-focused outpost. In essense, you check there to see if your scouts have found anything new, and if not, you move on with your life. No rabbit holes of attention, sinkholes of outrage, or bowls of algorithm poison.

Unfortunately, OA orthodoxy may preclude — for an extended period — similar innovation in our space, as user-pays has fallen out of favor. Or, perhaps, micropayments may become the side door through which user-pays re-enters the picture. It creates interesting and useful possibilities.

“Twitter poison” has seeped into our elevated plane. Altmetric considers itself a measure of attention, most of it driven by social media. I was alarmed when bioRxiv started tweeting every time a preprint was posted, because it became clear that their priorities were about engagement and attention, and not about getting authors pre-submission evaluations from relevant experts. How has that worked? Not well, according to a preprint which I’ll allow myself to quote because the authors just won’t admit that commenting on these sites (bioRxiv and medRxiv) is a failure when they assert that 7.3% of postings received a comment over the following 7.5 months (I wonder why they expanded it to that arbitrary length?), and that on average the comments consisted of 43 words, which is not exactly a robust and careful review.

Maybe if these preprint servers were to acknowledge it was wrong to abandon the intermediary role to such a shameful extent, they might be able to:

. . . create a structure that is friendlier to human cognition and to the ways people really are.

But that’s hardly the kind of thing that an engagement addict could tolerate . . .