“Man is what he believes” ~ Anton Chekhov
Have you ever wasted a Sunday watching videos on YouTube or Facebook? Or have you ever ended up sleeping late as you kept consuming hours of content on your phone?
If yes, then congratulations! You are another victim of an algorithm driving you towards addiction of content – any content that you like.
You are not alone in this addiction. In fact you might have spent around 2 extra days this year just watching videos on the internet.
Global consumers are expected to spend an average of 47.4 mins/day viewing videos online in 2017, up from 39.6 mins/day in 2016.
Recently a former Facebook executive Chamath Palihapitiya spoke about the harm the social network is doing to civil society around the world. He talked about how the short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops we’ve (Facebook) created are destroying how society works. Importantly, dopamine has a key role to play in the development of our belief systems.
20th Century — Advertising creating consumers
21st Century — Algorithms creating Addicts!
Algorithms simply maximize for the time you spend on the platform be if YouTube, Facebook, Instagram or Twitter.
A person who is leaning slightly on the right will end up seeing more videos that are leaning to the right, thus reinforcing his/her beliefs. Over time this person will end up watching more videos/content that reinforce his beliefs and moves him further right. Same is true for those who might be left of center.
The worst part of all this is that it is “highly personalized”. You start by indicating your interests to Facebook or Google and gradually end up getting exposed to the extremes of your point of view. All of this happens “gradually”. This is analogous to the boiling frog parable describing a frog being slowly boiled alive. The same is happening with your belief system. You don’t get exposed to the beliefs initially that are not in sync with your own as in that case it’ll be like putting the frog in a boiling water. It’ll jump out of it. You’ll leave the website if recommended content is not in tune with your beliefs. The algorithm learns to ensure that you spend more time on it.
What you like or dislike on the web gets captured and is used to ensure that you spend more time on a website (such as YouTube). This in turn manifests in to higher advertising dollars earned by the website, which means more money in developing more sophisticated algorithms to ensure that you end up spending more time.
The algorithm is like a drug that wants to you get high and addicted.
The problem is so severe that the reality (or its perception) might be completely different for 2 individuals. I can live in a reality where a right wing party can do nothing wrong and is winning and you can live in an alternate reality where the left wing is winning and is the best. Both sides are creating the same amount of content on the internet and the algorithms end up showing you more content on whichever side you were on in the first place. Same could be true for communities, religions, nationalities etc.
The truth is that your beliefs are important and valuable. Even accidental altering of these beliefs through higher consumption of content will only lead to consequences undesirable for you and the society at large.
Beliefs are basically the guiding principles in life that provide direction and meaning in life. Beliefs are the preset, organized filters to our perceptions of the world (external and internal). They are like ‘Internal commands’ to the brain as to how to represent what is happening, when we congruently believe something to be true.
When it comes to the truth — Each side has its version and the side you decided to explore first will eventually decide the truth for you. It is also highly likely that you will choose a set of beliefs because in the absence of beliefs or inability to tap into them, you will feel dis-empowered.
When what you believe is true has simply been guided by an algorithm it may not actually be true! This has implications on what you eat, who you vote for, what you wear, how you travel and almost everything consequential and inconsequential.
In the end, protect your mind. It is vulnerable to the content you get exposed to voluntarily or involuntarily on the internet.