Food for the Matrix: How Big Tech Companies Are Destroying Us (and we're helping) by Andréa Fekete
“Never before in history have 50 designers, a group of white guys, 20 to 30 years old, made decisions that would impact 2 billion people. Today, 2 billion people will have thoughts they didn’t intend to have because a designer at Google said, this is how notifications work."
–Tristan Harris, former Design Ethicist at Google, CEO of Center for Humane Technology
Do social media platforms set out to impact you as a user beyond merely influencing what you purchase? Are your individually tailored social media experiences meant to induce political extremism, to transform you into a more reactionary, less empathetic, more biased, more misinformed, depressed, and anxious person? Tristan Harris says this is exactly what we’re becoming.
Tristan Harris left Google as design ethicist to become CEO of Center for Humane Technology and has been dubbed by The Atlantic as “the closest thing Silicon Valley has to a conscience.” He now has a Netflix documentary hitting number 1 in many nations called, “The Social Dilemma” which features tech experts and former social media executives critical of Big Tech companies like Google, taking an especially critical look at social media platforms.
In the Social-Media Matrix, They’ve Built Your Voodoo Doll—and They Pass it Around to Their Friends
Tech companies like Google and Facebook have stored every detail of your online behavior to create what Tristan Harris calls a “voodoo doll” of you and they even share it with other Big Tech for a price. "They no longer need your data. They’ve created an avatar of you so lifelike, they can predict your behavior,” he explained in a TED Talk. These companies know what you’ll probably do, how you think, how you’ll vote, and what you’ll want to buy before you even Google it.
“That’s why it seems they’re listening to your conversations,” he continued. They know and manipulate you so intricately, they are predicting your thoughts." His talk was a call to arms, to pressure Big Tech to shift to a new paradigm, one he envisions as “cruelty-free” and “humane.”
Like manipulating a voodoo doll, knowing what pin to shove where to elicit a specific reaction, algorithms know which Facebook groups to suggest you join, which YouTube videos to watch, which ads and posts to show most often and when.
Facebook isn’t the product, “your attention is the product, you are the product,” Harris explains. Forbes contributor Kalev Leetaru, eloquently sums it up when describing language inside Facebook’s internal business documents. “It seems that Facebook’s account holders are not ‘customers’ since that would afford them a certain level of dignity and a relationship based around the company providing them a valuable service in a mutual transaction. They are only ‘people’ when it comes to public statements and in the context of extracting monetizable behaviors from them.”
Techie Jaron Lanier explains in his book Ten Arguments to Delete Your Social Media Accounts Now, “It’s important to note the only other business where customers are called ‘users’ is in the illicit drug market. Lanier is considered a founding father of virtual reality. Like Harris, Lanier is a part of the very tech community he now presses to develop a humane business model. Lanier’s book outlines in detail the behavioral science behind why you can’t stop mindlessly scrolling and reasons the wealthiest companies in the history of the world don’t want you to stop scrolling, in what ways this deeply damages individuals and undermines a healthy, functional society, not just in the US, but globally.
Lanier explains a dark “accident” of these tech developments; the algorithm doesn’t just keep you glued to your screen, consuming inaccurate representations of the real world “out there,” the algorithm actually micromanages your emotions in real-time, changing who you are overtime, and does so, he asserts, “in a manner undetected by you.” Lanier calls this manipulation “behavior modification.” He invented the acronym BUMMER to explain the business model: “Behavior of Users Modified and Made into an Empire for Rent.” BUMMER is a “statistical machine that lives in the clouds.”
He asserts there are large-scale cultural ramifications to high numbers of people using social media under its current business model. Some of these more large-scale ramifications are explored in The Great Hack, a documentary covering the Cambridge Analytica scandal involving the 2016 US Presidential election and Facebook.
So how are they keeping us addicted?
In the Social-Media Matrix, Your IV is a Dopamine Drip
Harris called the tech industry’s competitive search for the most addictive, manipulative algorithms the “race to the lowest part of the brain stem,” referring to the exploitation of instinctual, unconscious drives.
Dopamine, a powerful neurotransmitter in the pleasure and reward centers of the brain impacting behavior and addiction is activated by social media use. According to an article by Harvard University researcher Trevor Haynes, when you get a social media notification, your brain sends dopamine along the reward pathway.
Facebook gives you a “hit” when you get a new “like.” Chronic drug use is believed to decrease dopaminergic function and contribute to drug-seeking.
When restricted of dopamine after experiencing long periods of “hits,” you experience powerful negative emotions, withdrawal. Candace Pert, American neuroscientist and pharmacologist, was a Johns Hopkins researcher who discovered the opiate receptor, the cellular binding site for endorphins in the brain. Much of her body of work went on to explore how humans can become addicted not only to substances but also emotions, both negative and positive such as rage, victimization, love.
Social media algorithms use the constant refreshing of information as a tool of positive intermittent reinforcement, an old trick of manipulation first discovered by founding fathers of classical conditioning Ivan Pavlov and BF Skinner. Pavlov trained a dog to physically respond, not merely emotionally, to the simple ring of a bell, an artificial reward, in the absence of tangible rewards like treats. Artificial rewards abound on social media and humans lap them up like salivating dogs.
When you learn through classical conditioning, an automatic conditioned response is paired with a specific stimulus. This pairing results in a behavior. “It’s a gradual, imperceptible change in your behavior that is the product,” states Jaron Lanier.
Posts and ads inducing negative emotions will appear often in your feed, not because social media designers were intent on destroying humanity with jealousy, narcissism, and greed, but because they designed the algorithms to keep you hooked, and unfortunately for humans, we are most often addicted to social feedback loops spurred by not only positive reinforcement, but punishment: self-comparison, feelings of rejection, even bullying.
Feeling more hated than supported for the social or political group with which you identify? The algorithm naturally encourages tribalism and feelings of victimization. No matter your identity, politics, or ideologies, these will be weaponized to keep you scrolling, angrily, fearfully, anxiously for as long as you allow.
We’re All Depressed in The Social-Media Matrix
One study carried out at the University of Pennsylvania and published in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology showed its devastating impact on mental health. "Here's the bottom line," said study author Melissa G. Hunt in a statement. "Using less social media than you normally would leads to significant decreases in both depression and loneliness.” There’s great irony of feeling less lonely when one participates less on a platform which calls itself “social.” The founder of Snapchat, Evan Spiegel states, “The combination of social and media has yielded incredible business results but undermines our relationships.”
But the harm of this business model goes beyond the individual, driving rifts in cultures. Former Facebook executive Chamath Palihapitiya states, “The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops that we have created are destroying how society work.” There’s a dramatic correlation between the rise of social media use and the rise of self-harming behaviors among girls, for example. Research at the University College of London supports findings depression is much higher among girls who use social media. But social media is as detrimental to young women as proven in one study out of York University in Canada. Harris points out our brains are not evolutionarily equipped to handle the amount of information with which we’re faced. We aren’t wired to cope with peer pressure and rejection on such an enormous scale.
The Social-Media Matrix is Making You an Extremist (and you don't even realize it)
“Cultural cognition refers to the tendency of individuals to conform their beliefs about disputed matters of fact (e.g., whether humans are causing global warming; whether the death penalty deters murder; whether gun control makes society more safe or less) to values that define their cultural identities.” Yale University. The Cultural Cognition Project
Were these platforms purposefully designed to induce feelings of victimization and encourage divides along the same old fault lines of race, economic status, political party, and gender identity? Did the algorithms set out to divide America into arguably the most politically polarized, culturally volatile, ignorant version of itself since the American Civil War? The answer to these questions is not exactly and absolutely.
Tendencies toward tribalism and cultural cognition are natural, human tendencies, with the potential for great negative impacts on a given society, but social media is an unprecedented artificial intelligence factoring into these otherwise controllable, manageable tendencies. One particularly sinister aspect of these algorithms is the exploitation of the human tendency to take on values as cultural identities and ignore facts due to said group identification, resulting in extremist views, tribalism, and cultural conflict. The modern trend in the US is anything someone disagrees with is dubbed, “fake news” whether it’s fake or not.
Yale Law School is currently studying the phenomenon known as cultural cognition. Studies conducted by Harvard and Yale identify discrete psychological processes that connect individuals’ values to their beliefs. Their data suggests individuals selectively both credit and dismiss information to conform to the beliefs of the group with which they identify. These psychological processes result in divisive conflict, regardless of facts.
Unfortunately, the algorithms built to perpetuate the most powerfully addictive content present a skewed worldview often frightening to its users, and no two user’s feed looks the same. The “real world,” as presented by highly individualized social media experiences, appears extreme to many users, encouraging extreme reactions. This leads to breakdowns in civil discourse, people break into groups and engage in “groupthink,” each group with its own unique set of values and beliefs growing more and more suspicious of and hostile toward the others while consuming a steady social media diet of misinformation, outrage, and fear.
Complicating the toxicity of this environment are “trolls”, fake profiles, fake organizations, and Russian bots strategically infiltrating social media to create civil unrest in the US and abroad. If such tactics didn’t work, would the Russian government bother to do it? Russian’s also launch fake civil rights “activist” accounts posting inflammatory content such as the case of the fake Blacktivist accounts linked to the Russian government. Such accounts inflame and ignite racism. Real users attempt to “impact racism” by bellowing into an echo chamber or following accounts that may or may not be real. Heated debates and rage-posting triggers that same reptilian part of the brain fed by artificial praise.
We talk at each other. Over each other. Never to each other. There is no one agreed upon “reality.” Jaron Lanier states, “Imagine looking up a term on Wikipedia and every user was given a different definition for that same word. Think of how dangerous that would be if we could not agree on what truth is. That’s the world of social media.” It’s important to note, he says, that when you look up a search term on Google, the results are also tailored depending on where you are in the world and other factors. Type in “climate change” and you’re liable to see very different results than your friends.
How Do We Unplug from the Social-Media Matrix?
We aren’t powerless. Culture is made up of individuals, and everyone plays their small role. Until users stop using social media and other “free” tracking apps or seriously limit their use, Big Tech will have little incentive to change this highly profitable, but highly exploitative, business model. Harris, Lanier, and many other former executives admit there’s no clear-cut answer as the problems with Big Tech isn’t a small one, but systemic.
Harris stated, “The thing we really need, the thing that scales to the challenge, is a cultural awakening, a cultural movement that knows we are living inside inhumane technology platforms, and we need a humane protocol about how we show up in those platforms.” It’s Big Tech’s job to solve it, he says, but users must also demand better.
If you’re an average social media user, your free will, attention-span, worldview, and emotional stability has been temporarily damaged, like a glitch in the matrix. Although your own awakening is necessary to change the business model currently exploiting and controlling all of us around the globe, you will resist this essay and the facts herein like a cat resists a bath, like Keanu Reeves as Neo initially resisting the truth in the film The Matrix, where he was merely living in a fake reality while his body served as a battery for machines.
But like Neo, we’ve got to choose to unplug if we are to become more than food for a machine. If you’re in business, and must keep that account, only use it for business. For anyone who doesn’t depend on social media for their financial livelihood, delete your social media accounts and do it now. Step out into the real world.
Mark Zuckerburg, Apple, and Google will be forced to follow us and build a new Big Tech, one where our psychological and physiological weaknesses aren’t exploited, weaponized, and monetized, but one that inspires and employs our most beloved human characteristics such as hope, unity, creativity, ingenuity, and love.
In undergraduate college, this generation x-er loved her mostly tech-free and totally social-media free world. Here’s to partying like it’s 1999, which incidentally, is when the film The Matrix was released.
I posted a link to this essay on Facebook in what will be my very last Facebook post. You can follow my publishing work on Instagram (for now).
Andréa Fekete is a freelance journalist, poet, and author of the historical fiction novel of the WV coal mine wars, Waters Run Wild (2010, re-reissued 2018). Her fiction and poetry often appear in journals such as Chiron Review, Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review, Kentucky Review, Montucky Review, Adirondack Review, and in such anthologies as Eyes Glowing at the Edge of the Woods: Fiction and Poetry from West Virginia. She co-curated a collection of poetry and essays by and about women's lives, Feminine Rising (2019) with author Lara Lillibridge. It won 2nd place in the women’s studies category for Foreword Review’s 2019 Indie Book of the Year Award. She holds an MA in English and MFA in Creative Writing. She is a recovering adjunct professor who misses teaching even though it paid in peanuts, well, peanut shells.