"There's No Ethics."

[Content Note: Emotional abuse.]

This piece by Paul Lewis at the Guardian is one of the most chilling things I've read in quite some time (which is really saying something): 'Our Minds Can Be Hijacked': The Tech Insiders Who Fear a Smartphone Dystopia.

It's chilling for a whole lot of reasons, including the fact that not a single woman was interviewed for the piece. (Former Facebook project manager Leah Pearlman is mentioned, but not quoted.) That Silicon Valley and its tech is overwhelmingly controlled by (mostly white) men is hardly news, but the absence of women's voices in this piece was particularly stark to me, for reasons I trust are evident.

The entire piece is a must-read, but two passages in particular stood out to me, which I want to highlight. First, this:
The techniques these companies use are not always generic: they can be algorithmically tailored to each person. An internal Facebook report leaked this year, for example, revealed that the company can identify when teens feel "insecure," "worthless," and "need a confidence boost." Such granular information, Harris adds, is "a perfect model of what buttons you can push in a particular person."

Tech companies can exploit such vulnerabilities to keep people hooked; manipulating, for example, when people receive "likes" for their posts, ensuring they arrive when an individual is likely to feel vulnerable, or in need of approval, or maybe just bored. And the very same techniques can be sold to the highest bidder. "There's no ethics," he says.
Fucking hell. I am pretty damn cynical and even I never considered that Facebook might be waiting to deliver likes until they perceive that one "needs" them.

And if you're a person who has come to be dependent on likes in order to boost your mood, then, by withholding those likes, Facebook is potentially putting you in a down mood, thus controlling your emotions by strategically deploying notifications.

Which only increases one's need for feedback.

I'm hardly the only person who has noted that allowing abuse to run rampant on their platforms seems to be a central part of social media companies' business strategy — and here we see why that is: Failing to police harassment increases the likelihood of creating among targeted users an emotional state in which a positive boost would be welcome.

That is: "Likes" have more weight if Nazis are abundant on the platform.

And then there's this:
Since the US election, [James Williams, a former Google strategist who built the metrics system for the company's global search advertising business and is now pursuing a doctorate at Oxford exploring the ethics of persuasive design] has explored another dimension to today's brave new world. If the attention economy erodes our ability to remember, to reason, to make decisions for ourselves — faculties that are essential to self-governance — what hope is there for democracy itself?

"The dynamics of the attention economy are structurally set up to undermine the human will," he says. "If politics is an expression of our human will, on individual and collective levels, then the attention economy is directly undermining the assumptions that democracy rests on." If Apple, Facebook, Google, Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat are gradually chipping away at our ability to control our own minds, could there come a point, I ask, at which democracy no longer functions?

"Will we be able to recognise it, if and when it happens?" Williams replies. "And if we can't, then how do we know it hasn't happened already?"

[H/T to Shaker SKM.]

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