Our society is being hijacked by technology.
What began as a race to monetize our attention is now eroding the pillars of our society: mental health, democracy, social relationships, and our children.
What we feel as addiction is part of something much bigger.
There's an invisible problem that's affecting all of society.
Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Google have produced amazing products that have benefited the world enormously. But these companies are also caught in a zero-sum race for our finite attention, which they need to make money. Constantly forced to outperform their competitors, they must use increasingly persuasive techniques to keep us glued. They point AI-driven news feeds, content, and notifications at our minds, continually learning how to hook us more deeply—from our own behavior.
Unfortunately, what's best for capturing our attention isn't best for our well-being:
- Snapchat turns conversations into streaks, redefining how our children measure friendship.
- Instagram glorifies the picture-perfect life, eroding our self worth.
- Facebook segregates us into echo chambers, fragmenting our communities.
- YouTube autoplays the next video within seconds, even if it eats into our sleep.
These are not neutral products.
They are part of a system designed to addict us.
The race for attention is eroding the pillars of our society.
The race to keep us on screen 24/7 makes it harder to disconnect, increasing stress, anxiety, and reducing sleep.
The race to keep children’s attention trains them to replace their self-worth with likes, encourages comparison with others, and creates the constant illusion of missing out.
The race for attention forces social media to prefer virtual interactions and rewards (likes, shares) on screens over face-to-face community.
Social media rewards outrage, false facts, and filter bubbles – which are better at capturing attention – and divides us so we can no longer agree on truth.
The whole system is vulnerable to manipulation.
Phones, apps, and the web are so indispensable to our daily lives—a testament to the benefits they give us—that we’ve become a captive audience. With two billion people plugged into these devices, technology companies have inadvertently enabled a direct channel to manipulate entire societies with unprecedented precision.
Technology platforms make it easier than ever for bad actors to cause havoc:
- Pushing lies directly to specific zip codes, races, or religions.
- Finding people who are already prone to conspiracies or racism, and automatically reaching similar users with “Lookalike” targeting.
- Delivering messages timed to prey on us when we are most emotionally vulnerable (e.g., Facebook found depressed teens buy more makeup).
- Creating millions of fake accounts and bots impersonating real people with real-sounding names and photos, fooling millions with the false impression of consensus.
Meanwhile, the platform companies profit from growth in users and activity.
Won't we just adapt? Four reasons why it's different this time.
People always worry that new technology will harm society. Four distinct forces make today different from anything in the past, including TV, radio, and computers:
No other media drew on massive supercomputers to predict what it could show to perfectly keep you scrolling, swiping or sharing.
No other media steered two billion people’s thoughts 24/7 – checking 150 times per day – from the moment we wake up until we fall asleep.
No other media redefined the terms of our social lives: self-esteem, when we believe we are missing out, and the perception that others agree with us.
No other media used a precise, personalized profile of everything we've said, shared, clicked, and watched to influence our behavior at this scale.
Exponentially-growing platforms are easily exploited.
As content grows exponentially, platform companies rely increasingly on automation:
- YouTube automates billions of videos to play next for 1.5 billion users.
- Facebook automates millions of ads shown to 2 billion users.
- Twitter automates showing millions of #trending topics to hundreds of millions of users.
Unfortunately, these automatic algorithms are easily gamed to manipulate society at a massive scale, because platforms lack the capacity to reliably check for conspiracies, lies, and fake users.
Profiting from the problem, platforms won’t change on their own.
We can’t expect attention-extraction companies like YouTube, Facebook, Snapchat, or Twitter to change, because it’s against their business model.
Platforms would lose money if they solved the problem:
- Facebook would lose revenue if they blocked advertisers from micro-targeting lies and conspiracies to the people most likely to be persuaded.
- Twitter’s stock price would fall if they were to remove the millions of bots on their platform, which academics estimate at 15% of their user base.
- Facebook would lose revenue if their tools didn’t allow advertisers to automatically test millions of variations of content — word choices, color, images — to capture the most minds.
So we have to change the rules of the game.