Posts Tagged ‘Internet addiction’

A short story of the haunted Internet

August 9, 2020

The Basilisk by Paul Kingsnorth for emergence magazine.

Jaron Lanier on addictive social media

September 21, 2018

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These are notes for a presentation to the drop-in discussion group at First Universalist Church of Rochester, 150 S. Clinton Ave., Rochester, N.Y. at 9:15 a.m. on Sunday, Sept. 23.

Free market capitalism + technological change = addictiveness.

Free market capitalism + technological change + artificial intelligence + behavioral psychology + advertising-based social media = maximum addictiveness.

In 2010, a venture capitalist named Paul Graham wrote an essay entitled “The Acceleration of Addictiveness.”  He said that in a free market, the most addictive products would be the most successful, and technological progress would accelerate addictiveness.

He didn’t have a good answer for this, because he didn’t want to give up the benefits of either the free market or technology, except for individuals to understand this process and shield themselves from it.

This has happened in social media. Addiction is a business model.  Research centers, such as the Stanford University Persuasive Technology Laboratory, perfected ways to use technology to modify behavior. Companies use behavioral psychology—positive and negative reinforcement—to make video games and social networks compulsive. 

Jaron Lanier in Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now explains that Internet addiction is a real thing.  It is by design.

A vast amount of data is collected about you, moment to moment, including your facial expressions, the way your body moves, who you know, what you read, where you goes, what you eat, and your likely susceptibility to assorted attempts at persuasion.  This data is then used by algorithms to create feeds of stimuli – both paid ads and unpaid posts – that are designed to boost your “engagement” and increase the effectiveness of “advertisements.”  (The honest terms would be “addiction” and “behavior modification stimuli.” Indeed, Facebook executives have written that they deliberately incorporated addictive techniques into their service.) 

Advertising was previously a mostly one-way street; the advertiser sent forth the ad and hoped for the best.  But now you are closely monitored to measure the effect of what is called an ad so that a personalized stream of stimuli can be incrementally adjusted until the person’s behavior is finally altered.  Most of you are now living in automated virtual Skinner Boxes.

Everyone is susceptible of being influenced on the biochemical level by positive and negative stimuli.

On social media, positive stimuli conveyed might include being retweeted, friended, or made momentarily viral.  Negative stimuli include the familiar occurrences of being made to feel unappreciated, unnoticed, or ridiculed.  Unfortunately, positive and negative online stimuli are pitted against each other in an unfair fight. 

Positive and negative emotions have comparable ultimate power over us, but they exhibit crucially different timing.  Positive emotions typically take longer to build and can be lost quickly, while negative ones can come on faster and dissipate more slowly.  It takes longer to build trust than to lose it.  One can become scared or angry quickly, but it takes longer for the feelings to fade. 

Those who use social media to exert influence – whether human or algorithm – are a little like high frequency traders, constantly watching results and adjusting.  The feedback loop is tight and fast. 

The sour and lousy consequence, which no one foresaw, is that the negative emotions are the most often emphasized, because positive ones take too long to show up in the feedback loop that influences how paying customers and dark actors use these services to manipulate ordinary users and society.

Whatever divisions exist in society are likely to be widened by social media.  The Internet can be a means of bringing people together, but anger, paranoia, xenophobia and conspiracy theories are more engaging.


Addiction as a successful business model

August 2, 2018

The problem is not just pornography.   Promoting addictiveness is a widespread business model.

A venture capitalist named Paul Graham, writing in 2010, said it is the nature of free market capitalism to make products addictive.

He wasn’t speaking of pornography in particular, but of everything from tobacco to gambling to compulsive viewing of the Internet.

The logic of the marketplace is that the person who makes the most addictive product wins the largest market share.

More recent Jaron Lanier, a famous virtual reality pioneer, wrote a book giving 10 Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now, which is about addictive social media companies.  The business model for companies such as Facebook is behavior modification, he wrote; they cannot give that model up and stay in business.

Their artificial intelligence systems use personal information, social science information and psychology to create “engagement” — which laymen would call “addiction” — by means of advertising and propaganda.  The systems are constantly at work to increase the power of their algorithms.

Stanford University has a Persuasive Technology Laboratory, which learns how to design interactive technology to alter human thoughts and behavior in the interests of advertisers and politicians, not the individuals targeted.

Richard Freed wrote about B.J. Fogg, the head of the laboratory, and how psychological research is used not to liberate people from addictive and compulsive behavior, but the opposite.

Click to enlarge

The “Fogg Behavior Model” is a well-tested method to change behavior and, in its simplified form, involves three primary factors: motivation, ability, and triggers.

Describing how his formula is effective at getting people to use a social network, the psychologist says in an academic paper that a key motivator is users’ desire for “social acceptance,” although he says an even more powerful motivator is the desire “to avoid being socially rejected.”

Regarding ability, Fogg suggests that digital products should be made so that users don’t have to “think hard.”  Hence, social networks are designed for ease of use.

Finally, Fogg says that potential users need to be triggered to use a site.  This is accomplished by a myriad of digital tricks, including the sending of incessant notifications urging users to view friends’ pictures, telling them they are missing out while not on the social network, or suggesting that they check — yet again — to see if anyone liked their post or photo.


Connected but disembodied

August 14, 2012

I’m 75, and don’t have much contact with young people, but friends of mine who teach in college and public schools constantly complain about how their students are wedded to their i-Phones and other electronic devices, and are more engrossed in their text messages than in what the teacher has to say.

Sherry Turkle, in her TED talk shown above, said this is an example of how technology is changing how we relate to the world.  Her idea is that people nowadays don’t want to be alone, so they keep in touch with friends constantly by text messaging and e-mail; on the other hand, they don’t want to be too up close and personal, so text messaging and e-mail also keep people at a distance.  So, she said, our technology keeps us connected but alone.  There’s something to this, but how new is it?  I can remember the pre-electronic era when the great complaint about teenagers was that they were always on the telephone.

Electronic communications media are great for introverts.  I’m an introvert myself.  I grew up before the age of electronic communication, but I’m addicted to print.  I’ve gotten a lot out of a lifetime of reading, but I recognize that to some extent, it has been a substitute for mixing with people.  One reason I became a newspaper reporter instead of an academic was to counteract this tendency in myself.   We should not attribute to technologies that which is a reflection of our personalities.

As I see it, electronic technologies do not disconnect us from other people so much as they disconnect us from physical reality.  We speak of “virtual reality” as if it were an alternative to real reality; we speak of cyberspace as if it were an alternative to so-called “meat space”.  But we are physical beings, not disembodied minds.  In the virtual reality of the Internet and the electronic media, we can pretend that the world is what the postmodern philosophers say it is, a purely mental construct of our own creation.  But there is a real reality that will catch up with us, whether we believe in it or not.

I find electronic communications technology highly useful and highly addictive.  I don’t own a cell phone, I don’t have a Facebook page and I don’t Tweet or Twitter, but I check my e-mail several times a day and I post on this blog almost every day, and I feel deprived if my e-mail or Internet service is unavailable for any reason.  Interacting with the Internet is a form of operant conditioning.  I press a key and (usually) get a stimulus.  Our human brains are hard-wired to like stimulus.

Then, too, the Internet, like books, offers a form of escape.  I know people who spend hours a day interacting with the World of Warcraft, which in many ways is more appealing than the actual world.  In the World of Warcraft, ingenuity and hard work pay off, and no mistake or bad luck is ever irrevocable.

Click on The Acceleration of Addictiveness for Paul Graham’s classic essay on Internet addiction.

Click on Dead Souls for Dimitry Orlov’s classic essay on virtual reality as a substitute for real reality.

Kicking the Internet habit

September 22, 2011

When I worked for newspapers, I often would get home from work late at night, flop down on my sofa and start flipping through TV channels.  Even when I didn’t find anything I liked, I would sit in a mindless stupor and keep on going through the channels.  The next morning I would wake up tired and wonder why I wasted my time this way.

Nowadays I hardly ever watch television, and I only subscribe to the Basic cable service.  But sometimes I duplicate this mindlessly addictive pattern in my Internet use.  I go mindlessly flipping through different web logs, even though I’m not looking for anything in particular and don’t find any new or interesting information.

Scientific research indicates that just as people and animals can become conditioned to seek pleasure, they can be conditioned to seek novelty.  Other research indicates that the most effective form of conditioning is random reinforcement.  You keep trying even when there is no reward because (as the New York Lottery ads say) hey, you never know.

I enjoy writing on this web log, and am pleased that there are people who find it interesting, but sometimes it becomes an obsession, too, taking away more than is good from the rest of my life.   My reward is the number of page views.  I am conditioned, I supposed, to seek approval, even the approval of people I don’t know and will never meet.

I don’t want to make too much of this, but I am reminded of the devil Screwtape in C.S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters, who tells his nephew that the most elegant form of damnation is to lure the subject away from doing what he ought to do to something that does not even give him real pleasure.

The on-line cartoonist “xkcd” posted ideas on how to break out of this conditioning.

I made it a rule that as soon as I finished any task, or got bored with it, I had to power off my computer.

I could turn it back on right away—this wasn’t about trying to use the computer less.  The rule was just that the moment I finished (or lost interest in) the thing I was doing, and felt like checking Google News et. al., before I had time to think too much, I’d start the shutdown process.  There was no struggle of willpower; I knew that after I hit the button, I could decide to do anything I wanted.   But if I decided to look at a website, I’d have to wait through the startup, and once I was done, I’d have to turn it off again before doing anything else. … … …

There’s some interesting research about novelty and dopamine, suggesting (tentatively) that for some people exposure to novelty may activate the same reward system that drug abuse does.   In my case, I felt like my problem was that whenever I was trying to focus on a (rewarding) project, these sites were always in the background offering a quicker and easier rush. I’d sit down to write code, draw something, build something, or clean, and the moment I hit a little bump—math I wasn’t sure how to handle, a sentence I couldn’t word right, an electronic part I couldn’t find, or a sock without a mate—I’d find myself switching to one of these sites and refreshing. 

Reward was briefly unavailable from the project, but constantly available from the internet.   Adding the time-delay removed the promise of instant novelty, and perhaps helped disconnect the action from the reward in my head.   Without that connection dominating my decisions, I could think more clearly about whether the task was really important to me. … …

It was remarkable how quickly the urges to constantly check those sites vanished.   Also remarkable was that for the first time in years, I was keeping my room clean.  Since the computer was no longer an instant novelty dispenser, when I got antsy or bored I’d look around my room for a distraction, and wind up picking up a random object and putting it away.

Click on Distraction Affliction Correction Extension for the full post.

Click on Resist Virtual Reality Addiction for the thoughts of young “Frost” on his Freedom Twenty-Five web log.

Click on How to Read for more of Frost’s ideas.  I don’t follow any of these suggestions myself, but that doesn’t mean they’re not good.

Click on The Acceleration of Addictiveness for the thoughts of entrepreneur-essayist Paul Graham.