It seems by now that everyone but me has seen this new Netflix documentary. Either that or you have seen one of the main contributors Tristan Harris on the Joe Rogan show talking about the documentary. I’m usually behind the curve on these kind of things but I finally had a chance to check it out over the weekend and listened to a bit of the podcast as well. Tristan Harris is a whistleblower of sorts. He formerly worked for Google’s g-mail team and after experiencing some of the, what he believes to be, unethical behavior going on inside the company he decided to tell the world about how the Google algorithms can control your life. So the premise of the documentary is that social media is bad for most people, that the algorithms involved are purely profit driven and their only goal is to keep your eyes on not only your device, but on their specific site for as long as possible so they can sell ad space based on your viewership. I certainly agree that most people in the general population are addicted to screens, myself included. There is a broad understanding that the algorithm is a little bit scary, it seems to know everything about you and can even predict certain behavior. I also agree that all of this seems like a bad thing and we as humans need to figure out how to adapt to this new landscape, where the creators lose me is with what appears to be an underlying support of censorship by these tech companies. Even if it is not done by these tech companies there seems to be a desire for someone, anyone, to control the flow of information. I reject that idea full stop.
The YouTube Rabbit Hole
There is a lot of talk in this documentary about extremism. There seems to be a belief that the algorithms will inevitably lead you to more extreme positions and increase division among people. I think this is a case of correlation without causation. Meaning that just because we are seeing higher levels of division in the country does not mean that it is due to the google algorithms. Just like the idea that because ice cream sales and murder both spike in the summer does not mean that increased ice cream consumption causes people to be come homicidal. This idea has been debated across the internet for quite a while in fact, it implies that if you start out watching fairly main stream content like Ben Shapiro that the algorithm will take that and eventually you will be watching nothing but far right white supremacist content by suggesting videos that will cause you to go down the dreaded “YouTube Rabbit Hole”. The NYT wrote an article about this which talked about a specific tale of a man’s fall into right wing radicalism. The problem I see with the article is that it disproves it’s own narrative right up front. It tells you in the first paragraph that Mr. Cain is currently a Democrat and has made the switch back to the left. So if YouTube is radicalizing people into warring factions, how did Mr. Cain manage to fight the algorithm and make it back to the left? The answer is obvious, free will. Everyone has free will, the YouTube algorithm can suggest all the videos it wants but it is YOU that has to decide to click on it and watch it. If you don’t click then eventually YouTube will start to suggest different videos that will hold your attention. The article even lays out how Mr. Cain eventually watched a debate where he felt that the left wing debater won and this started his slow march back to the left. Which I think is probably one of the most important parts of the entire article. It shows the importance of having a free and open platform whether there is an algorithm or not. The marketplace of ideas allows you to make decisions with all of the information available. The point is that the YouTube rabbit hole is largely a creation of people who would rather censor what people can say than deal with the fact that people should be allowed to decide what content they want to see. The people who talk about this phenomenon can’t even properly label these YouTube personalities they label fairly mainstream conservatives and libertarians as far right Nazi types and claim that left wing figures like Joe Rogan are going to lead you to the far right because he sometimes has on conservative guests. The whole concept is “Crazy Towns” to borrow a phrase from Tristan Harris. People choose what they want to watch, the algorithm can only suggest things based on what you already want to watch.
Censorship Is Not The Answer
The undercurrent of the documentary seems to suggest that we were better off back when there were “Gatekeepers” in the form of journalists that could “filter” information and make sure that what the general public is getting is the truth. This idea seems to me to be far more frightening than the idea that there is an algorithm out there that is trying to get me to spend more time on my phone by suggesting videos. There is a lot of talk in the documentary about flat earth videos, and joining certain mom groups inevitably leading you towards anti-vaccine pages and chem trails. I feel that the documentary tries to use these extreme ideas in an attempt to frighten you into accepting censorship. In my opinion the market place of ideas is the best way to stamp out certain ideas. The algorithm can’t tell the difference between a video titled “The Earth Is Flat” and “The Earth Is Flat-Debunked!”. I know this because I find the flat earth concept fascination, now don’t go and take that the wrong way. I fully understand that the earth is not flat. I simply find conspiracies of all kinds fascinating, I like to try to understand certain people’s logic and where and how it breaks down. So what I know is that whenever I watch a video where someone debunks the idea that the earth is flat, there is always a little fact check below the video that points out that flat earth is an archaic and untrue idea. So the algorithm is putting that there even though the video itself is designed to combat the misinformation about the flat earth concept. This is the important idea, whenever you have a free and open platform there will be people that will make flat earth videos, and there will be people who make anti-flat earth videos. There will be pro-vaccine, and anti-vaccine videos. In this way people make there own decisions on what to watch and what to believe. If you like the flat earth videos you will get more of those videos suggested but that doesn’t mean you believe them. You might be like me, sitting there watching these videos wondering how on earth these people can believe these things. Giving some person or group of people the ability to censor speech is a terrifying thought, short of specific calls to violence or libel and slander I think censorship is a bad idea and it frightens me that this documentary seems to be suggesting that this is a better route.
Humans Are Adaptable
The other major factor that is explored in this documentary is the idea that humans are not well equipped to deal with this changing landscape of social media. This is another idea that I disagree with. Humans are an extremely adaptable species. It has what has allowed us to dominate this planet in what seems to be a new and unique way. We are able to live in nearly any climate on the globe, eat a massive variety of foods, and generally bend our environment to our will. The concept here is that this new digital space is too much for us. That our evolution on earth has not prepared us for this specific threat. It seems to me, however, that the very existence of the documentary says otherwise. It shows me that our adaptability as a species has allowed us to recognize the danger in becoming addicted to technology. I also think that people tend to misunderstand the time scale involved in human adaptability. We didn’t figure out how to live in polar regions over night. These things take time, each generation has a small amount of movement. However over the course of a couple of generations we can make drastic changes. We adapted from horse and buggy to the automobile in just a generation or two. I exist in the generation that started life without real access to the internet and had to figure it out as we went along. Now the next generation grew up immersed in online culture and with social media. I think this documentary points out many important negative effects that social media is having on the youth of this country, but I believe this is something that can be overcome. I recognize the signs in myself, I am certainly addicted to my phone. I see the problems this is causing for the generation coming after me. With this knowledge I can make decisions as a parent about how I want my children to interact with technology in a healthier way. Personal responsibility is key, I am responsible for how my children turn out. There will be new challenges that I won’t be ready for that my children will have to recognize when they are older and help shield their own children in turn. I believe we as humans can adapt to any new situation given the proper information. Certain people among us have made us aware of what the algorithms are doing and how they are trying to manipulate us. This brings us back to the free will argument, do we have it or not? You are under no obligation to use any of these social media sites. You could delete your Facebook account tomorrow if you felt like it. If you watch this documentary and don’t want to be a part of it then you could turn in your smartphone for a flip phone and move on. These are all decisions we have to make. The markets will adapt. If Google’s algorithm starts to lose them money because people get fed up and start ditching their smart phones then they will adapt as well. What I want to leave you with in all of this is to not fear that we won’t be able to adapt to changing technology. You should fear those who want to be the arbiters of speech. Those who want to appoint people to tell you what is truth and what is not. I want you not to fear the responsibility of having to make these decisions every day, I want you to embrace what it means to be human. Don’t let anyone take that from you, be adaptable and most importantly make sure you don’t lose your freedom to the tech overlords even if they seem benevolent.