When Free Is not Free: Pavlov’s Humans and Behavior Modification Empires
A Behavior Modification Empire is an organization that establishes the means of human interaction via highly addictive technologies that elicit Pavlovian reactions to social rewards and punishments and then sells the right to manipulate participants to third-parties. (See video below.)
Jaron Lanier, a Virtual Reality pioneer and important Internet luminary, begins a 2018 TED talk by referring to an early computer scientist named Norbert Wiener. Weiner wrote a book called “The Human Use of Human Beings,” in which he envisioned a dystopian future governed by a computer system that would gather “data from people and [provide] feedback to those people in real time in order to put them . . . in a Skinner box, in a behaviorist system.” Lanier paraphrases a particularly poignant passage from the book,
One could imagine a global computer system where everybody has devices on them all the time, and the devices are giving them feedback based on what they did, and the whole population is subject to a degree of behavior modification. And such a society would be insane, could not survive, could not face its problems.
Of course, Weiner’s notion proved to be eerily prophetic, and now that it’s happened, Lanier believes we have to figure out how to survive it.
Lanier argues that social networks are designed to be addictive, to create a Pavlovian response in users. We make a post and then wait for positive reinforcement. If we get it, we continue to make similar posts. If we get negative reinforcement, we modify our behavior to get better outcomes.
Lanier is so convinced of this phenomenon that in this TED talk, he rebrands social networks as “Behavior Modification Empires:”
Now the customers of these behavior modification empires are on a very fast loop. They’re almost like high-frequency traders. They’re getting feedbacks from their . . . activities . . . , and they see what’s working, and then they do more of that.
Lanier believes these “empires” could lead to the devolution of culture and society, if not worse. “I don’t believe our species can survive unless we fix this,” states Lanier. His dystopian view is based on two catalysts — human nature and the freemium business model employed by tech giants.
According to behavioral theory, negativity spreads at a much faster rate than positivity. Consequently, users of social networks get more engagement from negative content, a reality that perpetuates negative content posts.
Freemium Business Models
Because anyone can use these social networks for free, companies utilize an advertizing model to pay the bills. From Lanier’s perspective, this advertizing business model is the real culprit. Lanier considers the social networks, themselves, to be addictive agents, but he’s quick to add that it’s the advertisers who programmatically modify our behavior to their advantage. So for Lanier, “free” is not actually free. We’re all giving up our data and, to some degree, our personal choice, which is constantly being manipulated.
Lanier points out that big tech is “hooked on this model, just like [its] own users. They’re in the same trap . . . .” And because social networks need the ad revenue, they allow negative content posts to dominate billions of news feeds — whatever pays the bills.
Peak Social Networks
Lanier believes the problem can be fixed, but it will involve what he calls “Peak Social Networks,” a term he borrows from the TV world, where some of the best shows are now on subscription services, such as Netflix, HBO, and Amazon Prime. In simple terms, Lanier believes that social networks, including search engines, need a different business model — one not based on the Pavlovian responses currently being employed as a vehicle for pushing ads through news feeds.
In simple terms, Lanier is saying we’d be better off paying for search, social networking, etc. than to undergo the constant manipulation of advertisers. What’s more, he argues that people would pay for it (just as they pay for Netflix), assuming a content and experience upgrade.
From Lanier’s viewpoint, “we cannot have a society in which, if two people wish to communicate, the only way that can happen is if it’s financed by a third person who wishes to manipulate them.”
Bad Content vs. Censorship
While I certainly respect Lanier’s viewpoint and agree with him on several points — we are systematically being reprogrammed by social networks, and this phenomenon, given its size and scope, is shredding our own psyches and society as a whole.
But I’m not convinced that changing the business model would yield the result he’s envisioning. Social networks would still be addictive. And forcing people to pay wouldn’t stop them from posting negative, misleading, or outright false content.
I for one would prefer a subscription model, but not because I’m being manipulated by Toyota and Coca Cola. Rather, if a subscription fee would get me search results unskewed by a third-party’s world view, I’d buy in immediately, Just as I’d gladly pay to belong to a social network where free speech was sacrosanct, entirely unpoliced, despite the fact that someone might say something I don’t like.