I haven’t spent any time on social media and I don’t plan to start. An insight into behavioral psychology, particularly the concept of intermittent reinforcement, made me realize the heady jolt that acquiring “friends”, collecting “likes” and accumulating followers, as well as the ever-increasing thirst for more. Pecking at a keyboard for a reward that may or may not be forthcoming fits BF Skinner’s mid-century pigeon operant conditioning all too well.
My first encounter with the dystopian future of human interaction happened on a New York City bus in the early 1990s when a guy got on, sat behind me, and made a call consisting of “I am on the bus. Immediately after thinking (wickedly) “that was really stupid”, I realized two things: the first was that invention had become the mother of necessity, rather than the other way around. The only apparent reason for the call was the phone. He had probably taken that same bus hundreds of times before without needing to report where he was.
The second was that when this did spread it would be a real pain in the ass which turned out to be true enough but was obviously a monumental understatement of the importance of a part of global cell phone culture and their potential; the warp speed at which this occurred; and how excruciating the pain would be. I may have imagined at the time that phones would eventually be a ubiquitous accessory, but I’ve never seen them rise to the level of the extra body part that they’ve become, especially for our generation. children and beyond.
And now, if walking through open manholes, walking through traffic and exiting subway platforms weren’t enough, we learn that preoccupation with social media is also making America stupid. Writing in the current Atlantic magazine, Jonathan Haidt explores something that went “terribly wrong very suddenly. We are bewildered, unable to speak the same language or recognize the same truth…it has been clear for quite a while now” according to Haidt “that red America and blue America are becoming like two different countries claiming the same territory with different versions of the Constitution, economy and history.
Starting innocently enough, social media was once a place to share photos, family updates, links to friends’ pages or to favorite music venues. Things started to go off the rails with Facebook’s introduction of the ‘Like’ button, followed closely by Twitter’s ‘retweet’ and universal ‘share’, paving the way for algorithms designed to deliver content to users. likely to generate a positive response. Research has since shown that posts that trigger emotions – particularly anger at “out” groups – are most frequently shared with others, spawning a kind of high-stakes contest according to Haidt, which would see posts “that become go viral and make you internet famous for a few days.” If you slip up, “you could find yourself buried in hateful comments.”
This “new game encouraged dishonesty and crowd dynamics” with users guided not so much by their preference “but by their past experiences of reward and punishment and predictions of how others would react”. Haidt goes on to say that social media has “both amplified and weaponized the frivolous,” leading to an inadvertent “burn in trust,” warning that while autocracies can get by with propaganda and fear, “the Democracy depends on the largely internalized acceptance of the legitimacy of rules, norms and institutions.
It is the erosion of this trust that finds us in the world of Kelly Ann Conway’s “alternative facts”, initially treated as an absurd joke by those who still believed that real facts mattered. Little did we know that Conway’s flippant remark was prescient and the true facts were on life support, soon to be irrelevant.
Skinner’s Pigeons also came out innocently at first, introduced to the public in the 1950s, playing piano and ping-pong, but for the behaviorist’s original intentions, designing a missile controlled by pigeon passengers who could see the target through the windows and keep the projectile lit. target by choosing the appropriate code. Their accuracy, according to Skinner, was near perfect.
The military, having created more sophisticated guidance systems, eventually abandoned the kamikaze pigeons, but Skinner was undeterred and moved on to education. His “teaching machines” – still used today in some places – immediately reinforce correct answers, hoping they will be repeated, have been dubbed by reviewers as “essentially pigeon training with a sleeker interface”.
The gravitational pull of social media likes, shares and retweets works on the same behavioral principles as Skinner’s pecking pigeons or even Pavlov’s salivating dogs, responding to stimuli, working for a reward and confirming my suspicions (and those from at least one research study) that typing and texting are “motivated by the same principle as reward training in animals”. And if the simple fact of hypnotized humans unwittingly becoming lab rats in a global existential struggle, there’s a whole lot more, and it’s going to get worse.
Haidt cites former presidential adviser Steve Bannon’s recipe for dealing with the media: “Flood the area…with Sh*t,” a description of the “fire hose of lies” originally floated by disinformation programs Russians to keep Americans confused, bewildered and angry. This capability, along with the growth of artificial intelligence, is poised to allow nearly unlimited dissemination of “highly credible” but deeply false information. AI programs are already so good, according to Haidt, that “you can give it a topic and a tone, and it will spit out as many tries as you want, usually with perfect grammar and a surprising level of consistency.” As AI technology improves, spreading convincing lies will become even easier, further damaging the shared reality that remains.
From this perspective, the NYC cell call “I’m on the bus” seems like a trifle, nothing more than a new communication tool, as boring as I might have found it. While I had a small intuition that it would change the world, like most others, I never saw the magnitude of what was to come until it was too late.
Walt Amses lives in the north of Calais.