June 6 2016 03:57 PM

The digital world is on a crash course with authoritarianism


    Over the past couple weeks in my other life, where I'm forced to make real money as opposed to journalism money, I've been doing some research and writing about the connection between technology, the internet, the human brain and societal behaviors.

    During this research, I've come across the work of several ethicists, engineers and tech designers, the combination of whom have led me to believe that unless people diligently maintain constant conscious realization of the implications and repercussions of our interaction with personal digital technology, there's a decent chance we'll all gradually devolve into narrow-minded brainwashed drones.

    And I'm not just talking about overt stuff, like the social media echo chamber that reinforces our established opinions while filtering out views and people who make us feel uncomfortable or disagree with the way we've decided to think. I'm talking about intrinsic elements of the digital experience that can't help but create a false equation of reality and potentially lead to a new kind of political authoritarianism.

    This school of thought originally caught my eye via the work of Canadian physicist Ursula Franklin, who gave a series of lectures on technology in the late 1980s on recognizing the ways technology can (and can't) make the world a better place.

    Franklin was no Luddite, but she was clear eyed about what she saw as the inherent insidious qualities of advancing technology as it influences the human brain. Her foundational premise is that technology limits the actions of people who use it, which inherently ripens the world for other kinds of control, and not a good kind but a repressive one.

    One particularly unsettling point Franklin makes: Even as technology talent creates cool tools and revolutionary techniques, it also creates a world in which "it's normal to do what we're told, and to do so without the ability to control and shape the process or the outcome."

    In other words, in order to make technology work, you always have to follow a certain pattern of behaviors—go here, click this, fill in that. For example: Even with the most revolutionary news website, if you want to get on their mailing list, you have to follow a series of defined behaviors.

    In this way, the technological structure of many modern products creates an innate "culture of compliance...ever more conditioned to accept orthodoxy as normal and to accept that there is only one way of doing 'it.'"

    Franklin's ultimate concern is that, as a "byproduct" of what we call progress, we have created societies easily ruled and monitored—and accustomed to following orders whose ends they don't question.

    From that unsettling premise, it wasn't a large leapfrog moment to Tristan Harris, who until early this year was the "design ethicist" at Google. Harris wrote a piece recently for Medium, pointing out example after example of how technology, user experience and user interface are being used to "hijack our psychological vulnerabilities."

    Harris literally used to be a magician, and his intriguing central premise is that too much of today's UX/UI exploits users by similarly "looking for blind spots, edges, vulnerabilities and limits of people's perception, so they can influence what people do without them even realizing it."

    I won't go over his whole piece, I'd rather you read it yourself (but not until you're done here, please). But considering one of America's greatest so-called freedoms in the freedom of choice, let's start with his example of how technology easily turns freedom of choice into the illusion of choice.

    First, we'll put it in contemporary capitalist terms that anybody can understand. If you go to a grocery store and it offers five toothpaste brands, but none are without fluoride, you have no choice but to buy one with fluoride (not meant as a pro/con about fluoride, just making note of the "choice").

    In the same way, if you are out with your friends and check Yelp for what's going on in your area for socializing, you might see a list of bars and pubs. Now everybody's checking out what's on tap, what's the bar's rating, cool pictures, etc. But is going out for another night of drinking really what the group wanted to do to begin with?

    Maybe it is. Maybe a bar is a good choice. It's just that Yelp has changed the question and is now offering an illusion of a complete set of choices when it actually isn't. By focusing on your phone and not what's around you, the group may miss a park across the street with a band. A pop-up gallery down the street. An impromptu meetup one block over.

    And yet, then again, without Yelp maybe you'd end up at a shitty restaurant instead of a good one because there were no reviews at your fingertips. Or if you got bad service there would be nowhere to go to complain—now at least you can rage on the keyboard and hope somebody cares. And doesn't think you're a bought 'bot.

    I'm increasingly unsure whether all the technological change is a double-edged sword or a deal with the devil. Certainly the increase in technology has not simplified our lives or cut back on our work hours, it's merely given us a different way of doing things and a whole lot more distractions.

    The quintessential example of this irony remains Facebook culture, the most ubiquitous societal shift of the 21st century. Just this week, I was lamenting in a private message to a friend of mine what a shit show Facebook has become, with its increased video auto plays in "real time" and relentless Orwellian "two minutes of hate" on Trump.

    And yet...the guy, who has become one of my more interesting friends, I only met through Facebook. He was a virtual friend of a real friend of mine, I was intrigued by a couple of his posts, invited him to be mine, we connected, we've corresponded, we've talked, I drove up to L.A. to have dinner with him and his wife a couple months back. Great guy. My life is better for having met him.

    What does it all mean? I honestly can't even say anymore. All I can do is share what some smart people say and spin a cautionary tale to keep it all in mind as we create, design and build our brave new world. Nobody wants to stop the train, I guess, but we better ride with our heads out the window so we can see what's coming.


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