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The Machines are Not To Blame

This is the second in my series of Victory Mind blogs exploring the ways in which we can gird our minds against the incursions of Big Tech, sleeplessness, lack of focus and disconnection from Nature. This one is looking at the impact of the "attention industries" on our ability to think deeply and steadily about the world we live in.

The first thing to recognise here is that we cannot un-invent mobile phones or the internet. Nor would we want to. Just as we wouldn’t want to un-invent penicillin or dental anaesthesia. But big tech companies often try to make the choice sound that binary: “Well, if you don’t like TikTok and Twitter then throw away your mobile phone”.

That is not the choice here. It would be like saying: “Well, if you don’t want Harold Shipman* then you can’t have painkillers”. The immeasurable boons of the Internet (saving on all those business flights, keeping us connected during Covid, spreading Buddhist dharma) do not mean we have to sanction those who are using it to cause harm.

Especially those who are using it to make money out of harm.

When James Williams, ex-Google, now internet ethicist, spoke to a large group of high-level Silicon Valley engineers and asked them, “Who here wants to live in the world that you are designing?”, not one person in the room put up their hand. This is an image that chills me. These are some of the brightest (and best-paid) minds in the world and they are creating software that is destroying the minds of the people who use it. They are - to a certain extent, - well aware of this because they know that they don’t want to live in it. But still, it gets rolled out in every software update, in every iteration of Facebook, Twitter, TikTok and Google.

It’s not the phones. It’s not the internet, It is the software and interfaces that big tech companies like Meta, Google, Apple and Microsoft create that intentionally snare our awareness. In the 20th Century, big tobacco companies made money from addictions they intentionally created and their products went on to cause untold suffering from cancer deaths and tremendous costs to our healthcare systems. In the 21st century, big technology companies are making obscene amounts of money from addictions that they are intentionally creating, and which are having a personal impact on people’s mental health and hollowing out the nation’s ability to deal with overarching problems.

There is a phrase, first used by the philosopher Lauren Berlant, “cruel optimism” which describes a plausible, upbeat solution to a complex and intractable problem. So for example, if someone is very overweight, you can suggest doing some daily affirmations and cutting out all carbs. This sounds like it might be good but it obscures the deeper features that will ultimately doom it - so, for example, the massive marketing campaigns for junk food, the flooding of the food chain with sugar, ultra-high-processed food and salt and the economic hurdles that face many low-income families who might want to eat more healthily. Instead of addressing these deep, systemic factors, the fat person is made to feel that it’s their fault, a personal failing and ‘if only they tried a bit harder’ then the weight would fall off. It’s cruel optimism because it’s doomed to fail and because it acts as a smokescreen to hide the big external players that get away scot-free in this model.

Johann Hari has a brilliant image for this: "Trying to lose weight in the environment we've built is like trying to run up an escalator that is constantly carrying you down. A few people might heroically sprint to the top – but most of us will find ourselves back at the bottom, feeling like, it's our fault" [Stolen Focus, p 147]

The same cruel optimism is fed to us addicts to apps and mobile phone software. "If you tweak your notifications, limit your ‘screentime’ and abide by the guidelines on social media then you might have a chance of winning your minds back". But this ignores the fact that well-paid Silicon Valley engineers spent hundreds of hours trying to work out how to keep you doom-scrolling. It ignores that they came up with the whole structure of “likes”, “follows” and the little red circles that tell you to check your notifications. And it also ignores the fact that the very motor of Facebook and Twitter is fed by extreme polarising of views and a rewarding of divisive and aggressive behaviour:

"The top words to get traffic on YouTube are "hates, obliterates, slams, destroys," [a] study by the Pew Research Centre found. If you fill your Facebook post with "indignant disagreement" you'll double your likes and shares." [Ibid p 126]

The sooner we can recognise that this is not a personal issue but a structural issue and that combatting the blandishments of the “distraction industry” is an act of real resistance the better.

Yes, of course, we should use the clever settings on our iPhones to get our notifications delivered in two blocks not willy-nilly throughout the day. Yes, we should only check our emails twice a day and let people know (with a footer on your emails) that this is what we’re going to do. Yes, we should delete Twitter, TikTok and Instagram from our phones (or at least hide their apps away from the first screen). Yes, we should leave our phones at home when we go for a walk. Yes, we should see what it feels like to have a weekend without the internet. All of these are good self-care.

But we should also recognise that we’re innocently the target of a guerilla war launched against our minds by companies who know very well what they are doing. Having interviewed many of the big players in Silicon Valley and many of those who have spoken out against this monetising of our attention, (like James Williams and Tristan Harris), the journalist Johann Hari outlines six ways in which these tech industries are harming our minds:

1. These sites and apps are designed to train our minds to crave frequent rewards. "It's very hard to be with reality, the physical world, the built world – because it doesn't offer as frequent, and as immediate rewards as this [mobile phone] does" (Tristan Harris)

2. These sites push you to switch tasks more frequently

3. They learn how to "frack" you - learn your special triggers, and what will particularly distract you.

4. Because of the way the algorithms work, these sites make you angry a lot of the time

5. In addition to making you angry, these sites make you feel that you are surrounded by other people's anger

6. These sites set society on fire

This is really serious. Losing the ability to focus the mind is disastrous for deep thinking. And having minds primed to go to extremes and to choose anger over cooperation is pretty much exactly what we do not need as a species right now.

Right now, more than at any other time in human existence, we need to sit down and think deeply and collaboratively about the most complex thing we’ve ever had to consider: climate collapse. Coincidentally or not, this is exactly the moment that software and attentional technology are undermining those abilities - for profit.

This is why, in part, I chose to use the word Victory Mind in this campaign. Although I would never use such martial language if I were discussing meditation, this is not about meditation. It is about a wider social and cultural struggle that we cannot idly sit back and do nothing about. Netflix, TikTok and Facebook are all about sitting back and doing nothing for a (long) while.

We all know the saying about the person who does nothing to oppose tyranny is tacitly condoning it. And although I would not flatter these big companies by calling them tyrants, they do profit enormously from our indifference. Worse, they actually engineer the indifference and apathy that permits their fracking of our minds.

Thus it is a struggle, in the way that Civil Rights, Women’s Rights and LGBTQ Rights were and are a struggle. And I don’t think those wonderful movements succeeded by demonising their opponents. They succeeded by recognising what was happening and (very loudly) calling attention towards it. And then, in light of that awareness, demanding change.

The upcoming Victory Mind online course (which will be free) will outline some of the ways we can work with the technology of distraction. But this blog is an opening salvo.

Please do add any thoughts or insight you might have on this mighty subject. I am very aware that there are many complexities at play here. And I'm also aware that you might be reading this on a mobile phone and indeed, using this as a distraction from something! But I would love to hear your thoughts on this epochal issue.

*Harold Shipman was an English GP who killed almost 250 of his elderly patients with lethal overdoses of painkillers.

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