How the Internet turned inwards
BY MANUEL CEBRIAN AND IYAD RAHWAN
Charlie Brooker, our 21st century’s Philip K. Dick, chose the title of his series carefully. With “Black Mirror,” he saw that the seed of all present dystopias was our use of technology as a reflecting mirror. The Internet will always provide a more compelling reflection of ourselves — and fool us into thinking that others like it — than in alluring us to engage with the struggle of collective endeavour.
The biggest technological mystery of the 21st century is how the technology that finally connected the whole world, has made reality irrelevant. The Internet started with people searching the world for interesting things and people first, forming search parties to discovering other objects we hadn’t even imagined later. But thanks to social media’s latest incarnation, fuelled by machine learning and personalisation, now everything comes to them, shifting from a push to a pull model of the Internet. Hence, filter bubbles, fake news, cheap virtue signalling, etc. People’s tendency to look inwards — seek mirrors through which to see themselves — consume content that makes them feel better about themselves and feels like they belong to a community — which actually does not exist, as a community cannot exist without an agreed mission.
Facebook creates filter bubbles. Reddit becomes self-referencing, produces comments as reactions to replies to previous comments. Tinder is just an ego boost; people collect romantic matches as if it were a videogame. Youtubers turn the camera back on themselves and broadcast their feelings about video games they are playing. Twitter creates massive viral chains which ultimately reveal themselves to be a hoax. News are fake, tailored for what we want to hear. The story seems to be going like this: A new Internet platform emerges with the promise to help you see the real world through it. Then, the platform helps you see the world through how you and your friends, see it. Next, the system helps you see your friends. Finally, the system helps you see how friends see you. The only object more absorbing than a fascinating image of desire is the possibility that you can, in fact, be that fascinating image of desire the world is looking for. An impenetrable mystery emerges: The technology that finally connected humanity to the world as a whole has made reality completely irrelevant.
In 1967, Guy Debord published “The Society of the Spectacle,” a cultural critique which came to be known as “The Das Kapital” of the 20th century. Debord proposed that the next phase of capitalism would not be dominated by material commodities or financial wealth, but by a vast system of readily available, spectacular imagery, which would first absorb the individual, and alienate society in its later stages. The new commodity was the spectacle. Producers of spectacle would accumulate all power. Consumers would surrender theirs. A new class struggle between the entertainers, and the entertained. Debord would have been correct in his dystopian view of the future if the Internet had continued natural evolution. But it did not.
With its promise of seamless, instantaneous connection, the Internet provided the capacity to find those thrilling objects of the spectacle. A scavenger hunt for the rarest bits of information previously concealed in the complexity of the world. The individual was to be attached to a new social form of organization, the Web Project, which would aim at forming search parties to seek first, then curate those hidden treasures. The world was vast, unknown, and wild, yet we were building a complex web of machine powered highways for navigating it. Early Crowdsourcing, the “Search Phase,” where we built the digital roads to navigate the Internet, had arrived as a promise for a new societal order: the society of exploration. In this exploratory nature of the social web, identity was utterly irrelevant: The Internet could be seen here as a control room from where you could observe the whole world; yet even the most laborious security guard in a control room is just an anonymous red light blinking in the surveillance camera.
Once the highways were built, we entered the second stage of Crowdsourcing, the “Discovery Phase.” We found collective solutions to problems that were impossible when limited to working in small groups of expert: Protein Folding (Fold-it), Finding New Stars (Zooniverse), The Quest for the Lost Tomb of Ghengis Kahn (Valley of the Khans), then Ten Red Balloons (DARPA Network Challenge), among others. However, this Discovery conception of the Internet still undermined personal identity. If we are all part of a massive crowdsourced system, it does not matter much who we are as individuals. Even the most laborious ant of an ant colony is still just an ant.
Identity, the result of an advanced evolutionary machinery mediated by consciousness, is, perhaps, the most compelling force of personal preservation. We must defend the system that we are, learn about who would help to us, detect who is coming to harm us. Identity differentiation may have arisen as an evolutionary accident, exploiting a new cultural combination to optimize our environment. Feeling peril of extinction, identity fought back, becoming first, a symbiont growing inside the Internet, then a organism taking over its host in its most recent stages. This was possibly only because Social Media cracked the open problem of identity in an online world. Once true identity was digitally possible, it will start engulfing the whole Internet.
Social media indeed shifted silently but steadily the incentives set in place by the crowdsourced model of the Internet. The net saw the world as a search network, first, a discovery process later, with individuals acting as its nodes, routing the search towards the target, the work towards the solution. That model became gradually replaced by another with a similar structure but reversed incentives. The nodes were now spending all energy in being found by the world. The work was being put in delving deeper and deeper in signalling their identity, broadcasting what made them special. The system was no longer a means to explore what was out there and to solve whatever roadblocks encountered, but a sophisticated device for the individual to become the target of the treasure hunt.
When did the person become the center of the Internet? It is hard to grapple with this monumental shift, without understanding the technologies that were fueling Crowdsourcing and Social Media. Optimization, the science of collective discovering solutions to complex problems was supporting the rise of a Crowdsourced society. Societal challenges, from maintaining a functional government to eradicating poverty, to reducing violence, were massive puzzles on which society had made slow progress across history, in search for better local optima. As it is characteristic of optimization processes, one often moves one step forward towards a solution, two backward when trying out future improvements that eventually may fail. Problems that society faces are ‘hard,’ progress is perilous.
Optimization experts, however, understood this well. They had been for decades classifying problem into classes of complexity; from the difficult to the nearly impossible. Indeed, most of the pressing societal problems inhabit the hardest classes, where tradeoffs must be met between those who benefit from changes and those who lose their statuses due to these shifts until a new equilibrium is found where everyone is better off. The gradual realization that a connected world did not alter the complexity of the problems dawned on society. Crowdsourcing would put humanity in its best shape to tackle these challenges — we no longer were constrained to having brick and mortar institutions with limited space and bounded resources for dealing with those massive problems — we could all be part of the solution. At the same time, we could do nothing to alter the underlying nature of the problem’s difficulty. Societal problems would continue to be hard and would continue to progress slowly. For the common understanding that technological ideas have unlimited growth — were we ready to endure the struggle of hard problems?
During the same period, technology fuelling Social Media made huge strides. Machine Learning, withs its ability to predict personal traits as well as personal connections from how we navigated and made use of the Internet, advanced swiftly. Massive gains in advertising, the one trick pony of Social Media Monetisation, were followed by an almost unstoppable refinement in the hyper-targeting of word-of-mouth, creating filter bubbles first, alternative online realities at last. These echo chambers made sure that the right people were consuming our identity signals to max avail. We ushered in a new era of personalisation, customisation, and self-expression. Reinvention came along: if what we did not have an audience, we could change it: our jobs, positions, our skills, our countries, our core beliefs or affiliations were potentially more malleable than ever before. We no longer bowled alone, we had our own bowling alleys.
Machine Learning became the technology of identity, both to discover what amazing treasures were inside us, but also to identify to whom we would cater them to. In a way, Machine Learning made possible a unified market where the only commodity being traded was our identities. If Liquid Modernity saw social and organisational structures melting to withstand and adapt to external change, the age of social media would see identity itself liquifying to accommodate the current valuation of their features on the Internet.
It turned out that uncovering one’s identity was a far more accessible (and short-term profitable) endeavour that finding a way in which we could all work together. Such was the speed at which tools for inferring traits were advancing, that science started to think about how to put a stop to it. Privacy became a center stage academic and societal issue. Privacy-protection startups sprung up overnight. Technology knew better than us who we were; we wanted to make sure it only shared that information with a few selected one, at the right time (who could appreciate how awesome we were and reward us for it with compliments and discount coupons). Privacy today has the underlying idea of just buying time while we try out new personas before we unveil them to the world. One can guess at a tenuous link between the current nationalistic, anti-globalization trend and technologies that emphasize people’s differences to make them salient.
At an individual level, the act of entering, understanding, and belonging to a community is not one without many struggles. Many consensus, debate, re-consense operations that consume much of our emotional, cognitive, and mental energy have to be executed. On the one hand, the community ‘exists,’ in itself, and we must solve the optimization problem of where (and if) we fit in that community. It is a stable, resilient, social object, which cannot be reconfigured to our will. On the other hand, our ego-network is always under control: we can add, delete, mute, phase out, filter individuals as we see fit — this operation makes us feel more empowered yet, computationally and cognitively speaking, is much less cumbersome. Crafting our network is, again, easier than entering a social community. In a social media system, the (computationally) harder the problem is, the less computing time will be invested in it.
At the same time, history has taught that any social technology platform that does not lead to community building will prompt, first, to the deterioration of society, and, along the way, the demise of the social platform itself. Growth and engagement are current social media primary metrics, but as community building is a hindrance, not a promoter to these two — again, because community building requires a large computation investment — it will not likely enter into the short-term strategic calculus of social media. What could replace it when the social media way of doing things takes over all our social structures happens? Probably ever more controllable network, one where the humans either do not exist at all, being simulations of people (The Matrix Scenario) or one where we only Interact with replicants that have been designed to please us (The Westworld Scenario.) As it can be easily seen, none of them have any sense of community — the individual is always alone enjoying a fake.
We today live in a world where our social ties serve as mere reflections of ourselves, and that seems a good bet for the road ahead. This scenario fills us with loneliness, feeling forsaken even in a room crowded with our friends. As soon as people around us stop shedding the right light on us, they vanish first, then we vanish into a new narcissistic search inside us, and for other people who could fit us better. An epidemic of loneliness ensues.
Social media is good at spreading a form of human behavior conducive to the use of even more technological consumption. But it is not necessarily good at increasing the productivity of individual or groups. It mostly reduces their attention span, without making the gap back in tools for enhanced coordination, or an increase of individual performance or creativity. The networked spread of information may be conducive to the amount of innovation we experience in our lives, but it also reduces human capacity to be creative and innovate.
Automation may ultimately not take our jobs by being better than us at performing them, but by us being worse and worse at effecting even the most simple tasks, such a reading a document for ten minutes. Robots may also not replace our lovers and friends but not by being as good as them and giving warmth and companionship, but by technology making us worse at dealing with real people. Losing to automation may be a much more banal process that we conjecture it to be. Machines may not need to catch up, if we drop the ball as fast as we seem to be dropping it.
These days, the overwhelming amount of computation that goes into running a social media platform is invested solving problems related to identity (personalization, targeting, linking) whereas there is a tiny amount of computing the system is investing in collaborative coordination functions (scheduling, coordination, combination, consensus). These online systems are, as a result, are turning inwards driven by the gradient on what computation is working on. Indeed, one could define the directionality of a social media platform as the ratio of the amount computation being invested in “personalization” algorithms (inferences about the individual) vs. the amount of computation being put on coordination (aggregating individual contributions into a collective problem.). A system is in balance if this ratio is close to one. The early days of the Internet (Search and Discovery) had ratios smaller much than one (individuals were, essentially, anonymous) most of the computation going on in systems like Google building PageRank (collective computation for Search and Discovery) or Wikipedia (the content matters, the authors don’t). Now, it has completely shifted: most of the computation is in personalization (for all the current discussion about content, who wrote it tends to matter much more). Inward, we march forward.
The relative difference of individual gains afforded by the technologies of Combinatorial Optimization and Machine Learning explain the shift in emphasis from the Crowdsourcing to Social Media at Internet’s center stage. By better targeting people who wanted to hear about you, you got more benefit that by joining a crowdsourced project. You could be a small, unsuccessful actor in an Internet crowd. But you were always the lead in your very own movie. If only the world knew who we are, why would they look elsewhere?
The evolution of societal systems can not be understood only from the perspective of its design, but also from the relative success of the rogue elements that try to blow up its structure. The Internet Troll targeted Crowdsourced systems and Social Media alike at their core value proposition. However, the damage varied widely. On the Social Media front, the Troll targeted the identity of the person in the form of hatred, contempt, or prejudice against particular status signals. The attack, despite emotionally devastating to the individual, did no damage to Social Media’s critical mission at sharpening identity. If anything, an attack on identity provided the reinforcement of identity itself. I attack you because you are X. I must, then, defend my belonging to X. An X-group must exist precisely to protect us from people who hate X — without the troll, the group loses its definition. Identity had to fight back harder than ever. On the Crowdsourcing end, however, the Troll’s damage toll was far superior. Picture the damage that a single evil hand can do to a delicate coordinated society put together by a million collaborating hands. The troll’s capacity to do damage to crowdsourcing efforts is based on the inherent asymmetry of crowdsourcing problems. Building progress is hard, and needs many, erasing it is trivial and requires only one lone wolf.
Society evolves through the path of less resistance. We are happy to change, to embrace new technology, but change never comes to us as one single choice. We always encounter a fork. Involving ourselves in crowdsourced projects would have led to the re-discovery of Communities, first, then Institutions on the Internet. After that, new Institutions that we cannot even imagine today, more powerful al solving societal problems than anything we have designed yet. We would have then, surrendered some of our agency to a greater goal. Some of us could have a significant role to play in some stages, then a smaller, less spectacular one in others. Many species before us had, through evolution, adopted this collaborative larger-than-the-individual form or organisation.
All missions for progress are, in essence, suicidal — you give up a bit of your life in hopes that the rest of humanity will live in a better world. By delivering heightened promises of us becoming Debord’s object of desire, Social Media has proved to be a far more absorbing device than any fascinating treasure that the Internet manhunt could ever find for us to contemplate. The real treasures are out there for us to find them together. Some of us will make it back with the proceeds; others will be mourned and praised for being part of something bigger than themselves. But our survival as a species depends on looking, together, outside.
Debord’s intellectual contribution did not stop, however at the identification of the problem, i.e. pointing spectacular images as alienating objects. He fueled the rise of Situationism, an intellectual movement that tried to hijack the visual power of these images by a series of artistic guerrilla tactics (‘detourment,’ ‘rerouting,’ ´cultural jamming´). The idea was to alter images (e.g. spectacular Marlboro Ad in a city’s downtown, high exposure area) in a way that would go against the image itself (e.g. using the same banner to display that smoking was detrimental to your health). Shock the individual, wake him up from his absorbing entertainment. By a series of artistic interventions, most prominently represented by the Adbusters Group, the situationist manipulated public images to produce mass cognitive dissonance among the observers, making them aware of the situation they were in. The success of their tactics is a subject for another essay, but important gains were made, changes that the advertising industry itself had to respond to. You cannot always win, but you can prompt your enemy to alter the way they way in which they make you lose.
How can we, however, jam the current architecture of social media? How do we design technologies that are identity-proof, that prevent the identity from broadcasting itself unlimitedly? By putting an individual at the center, social media may be using us as “human shields” to protect itself. It is much easier to detour a banner art portraying an actor than to perform the intervention on a picture of a real person in their living room petting their cat. How do you show somebody that he is as valuable as everyone, but not that unique and attention worthy? That their real value may lie on embarking on crowdsourcing projects that may lead to online Institutions.
Ideology can only be destroyed from the inside. That is why we believe that current line of work of escaping Social Media by re-kindling the real world (recovering the art of the conversation, promoting face-to-face interaction, disconnecting temporarily or permanently from technology) is doomed to fail. The real world cannot succeed at derailing the strategic calculus of social media, as engaging with the physical world, as precisely documenting such participation in the form of online posts, is a central part of that calculation itself.
Peter Thiel’s famous quote “we wanted flying cars — instead, we got 140 characters” aims to illustrate the tremendous pessimism in today’s technological progress. We agree with Thiel not so much in that we do not have the amazing physical inventions we fantasized about decades ago. At the end of the day flying cars won’t bring us to the next step in social evolution. But in that, today’s social media aims to be “no worse than the real world.” Experts claim that Facebook does not generate more filter bubbles than people themselves, that online dating operates just like meeting in a bar, that Twitter is no worse than a traditional media at spreading a fact-checking misinformation. But wasn’t the Internet supposed to do more than this? As opposed to real society, a few monopolies today have not only access to the modern superhighways of information, but to the algorithms that regulate them. There’s nothing today stopping social media behemoths from recommending us people we could build a community with instead of people we could have a beer with. Nonprofits we can join instead of fun trips to book. Government roles we can occupy instead of the next cool kitesurfing course.
We believe that understanding how to harness tendencies for collective problem solving will pave the next revolution. The network society must stop feeding identity and give rise to the problem-solving society. We have developed the techniques for being constantly connected to each other. Now we must do something useful to do with that connection.
See accompanying installation THE EVER CONTRACTING VOID by Micah Epstein.
Partially sponsored by MIT Media Lab, Data61, Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, and Spam Church. Special thanks to Christian Almenar, Ziv Epstein, Matt Groh for their thoughtful comments on the manuscript.
Learn more about this project on the Media Lab website.