Our Precious

I’ve long theorized that one’s moral character is inversely proportional to the number of syllables in one’s Starbucks order. (Yes, this is a tech column. We’ll get to that. Have faith.) To which a friend pointed out that what Starbucks offers is control — your drink, exactly how you want it — and the smaller and pettier your life outside the coffee shop, the more control you want.

Meanwhile, yesterday on Twitter I encountered what was, for a bred-in-the-bone Tolkien fan like me, the creepiest thing I’ve seen in a long while:

Yeah. “It has been so growing on my mind lately. Sometimes I have felt it was like an eye looking at me. And I am always wanting to put it on and disappear, don’t you know; or wondering if it is safe, and pulling it out to make sure. I tried locking it up, but I found I couldn’t rest without it in my pocket.” The One Ring of Sauron … or your smartphone?

Let’s not start handwringing about technology changing culture. That is both welcome and inevitable. There is nothing intrinsically creepy about carrying a supercomputer in your pocket with immediate access to sizable fractions of both the rest of humanity and all human knowledge. That part is intrinsically wonderful.

It’s the way we use them; more specifically, the way we’re enticed to use them. Dopamine hits. Dark patterns, Nudges. Badging. Notifications. Amplifying outrage, heightening drama, maximizing uncertainty, and feelings of incompletion, until nerves shriek. Weaponizing and monetizing the animal instincts lurking inside our cortexes, our automatic responses to social stress, hints of danger, suggestions of collapse, spectacular faraway warnings. The neurological equivalent of constant smoke from distant but raging wildfires.

(As an aside: please please please stop marking yourself safe on Facebook if/when something bad happens in your town. When you do so you are making this all even worse.)

I think people are beginning to realize that our phones have been compromised. And I don’t mean in that the-NSA-is-spying-on-you way, although “sometimes I have felt it was like an eye looking at me” sure keeps on resonating, doesn’t it? I mean that our perfectly healthy and natural desire to keep up with our friends, acquaintances, localities, communities, and world have been hijacked by attention oligarchs seeking to keep us glued to their offerings, for as long as possible, by any means necessary.

Oh, sure, lip service is paid to doing otherwise. “You’re all caught up!” Instagram cheerfully informs you. (And indeed Instagram still seems the most pleasant, least harmful head of the Facebook hydra.) Mark Zuckerberg knows there’s a problem, and says he wants to help “build supportive communities.” This is admirable. But it is also a mission diametrically opposed to Facebook’s mission to show as many ads as possible to as many closely targeted people as possible. Those two objectives are not orthogonal; they are opposites.

This is anecdotal, but I see more and more people stepping away from Facebook, or Twitter, or social media entirely. I have certainly seen far more “this is my final Facebook post” posts this year than in all previous years combined. Others take breaks. Others delete the apps, but still use the web sites. Let’s not confuse this with some kind of useful periodic digital detox. Every time someone does anything like that, they are tacitly saying: shit is fucked up. Facebook and its ilk are exploiting and weaponizing our anxieties.

It wasn’t always like this. I was a big Facebook fan as recently as a few years ago. Most people were. (But no longer: studies show Facebook’s net favorability has plummeted in the last year.) Certainly the polarized, hate-filled politics of the last few years are a major contributing factor … but then, you can make a pretty excellent case that Facebook and Twitter were major contributing factors to the polarizing, hate-filled politics of the last few years.

It’s more than just the politics, though. It’s the way that every negativity is amplified to eleven, because that’s how you get reach, and attention, and resharing. It’s Orwell’s Two-Minute Hates, whether provoked by politics, culture, or anything else, except hourly instead of daily.

Again, I don’t think this is intrinsic to increased human connectivity. I don’t even think this is intrinsic to social media. But I do think it is intrinsic to social media which is strongly incentivized to amplify outrage in order to maximize attention and emotional intensity.

Starbucks attracts a lot of hate too, for reasons I’ve never understood; all it does is sell overpriced coffee in pleasant surroundings … along with that aforementioned moment of absolute control. My testable hypothesis is that the average complexity of Starbucks orders has increased over time, and will keep increasing, as people try to use the crutch of control over their coffees to counteract the sense of chaos induced by the phones in their pockets; the feeling that our world is careening out of control, which in turn provokes the need to stay always connected, always informed, lest we miss the hour the barbarians actually arrive at the gate.

Perhaps, though, we actually missed that warning bell some time ago. Perhaps, as Walt Kelly once said, we have already met the enemy, and they are us.