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Hugh Hewitt Book Club

For Everything There is a Season…

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The host, a major proponent of the blogging revolution, stunned me yesterday when he suggested that it might be time to regulate social media.  He did so off the cuff and as evidence offered simply brief statements about the rapid dissemination of false information and the ever worsening disintegration of public discourse.  He specifically mentioned Facebook and Twitter, but I assume by extension that he would also include Snapchat, Reddit and other less widespread, but probably more corrosive, forms of social media.  He also glancingly mentioned national security in that these forms of media have been, we know, used by our enemies and have probably played a role in recruiting for terrorist organizations.

As an argument for regulation, I would like to add this article from The Guardian.  It makes a very convincing case the social media, specifically as manifested in devices like phones and tablets, is addictive.  We generally control addictive substances in this nations so why not addictive technology?  Now, the Guardian being the Guardian, the piece offers as evidence of the dystopia-inducing possibilities of this technology the election of Donald Trump and Brexit.  Needless to say conservatives might point to different phenomena as such evidence, but the essential contention of the piece remains quite valid and quite interesting.  The article is largely based on anecdotes from social media developers that are unplugging.

All of which, Williams says, is not only distorting the way we view politics but, over time, may be changing the way we think, making us less rational and more impulsive. “We’ve habituated ourselves into a perpetual cognitive style of outrage, by internalising the dynamics of the medium,” he says.  [emphasis added]

Of course the addictive properties of social media were not intended to be addictive as such, or socially corrosive, they were simply intended to attract eyeballs for advertisers.

Now, sometimes the developers quoted sound like a scientist worried that their creation will be corrupted by their evil corporate masters:

Since the US election, Williams has explored another dimension to today’s brave new world. If the attention economy erodes our ability to remember, to reason, to make decisions for ourselves – faculties that are essential to self-governance – what hope is there for democracy itself?

“The dynamics of the attention economy are structurally set up to undermine the human will,” he says. “If politics is an expression of our human will, on individual and collective levels, then the attention economy is directly undermining the assumptions that democracy rests on.” If Apple, Facebook, Google, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat are gradually chipping away at our ability to control our own minds, could there come a point, I ask, at which democracy no longer functions?

“Will we be able to recognise it, if and when it happens?” Williams replies. “And if we can’t, then how do we know it hasn’t happened already?”

But regardless I think there is meat on these bones.  From my own anecdotal perspective I have been dealing with Facebook since before the days of devices, when it was purely a browser-based deal.  I in fact still prefer to interact with it via browser on my PC.  I note the coarsening of the medium, that became overwhelmingly evident after the election of Donald Trump, began with the advent of devices.

The article points to two primary innovations that created the addictive nature of social media, the “Like” and notifications.  I have noted even in my own behavior Pavlovian type responses to getting “Likes.”  I am reminded of videos I saw in college psych class of rats being trained via respondent conditioning methods to obtain food when they press a lever.  The rats tend to get a little obsessive.  I for one find notifications annoying, but then I’m old and very set in my ways.  I am not sure conditioning rises to the point of sapping human will but it can be problematic.

You put all this together and there is a case to be made for regulating social media.  But the far more important question is in what fashion to do so?  Is there a way to control the addictive nature, and thus behavior-shaping aspects,  of the medium without interfering with the free exchange of ideas?

When the host wrote his book on blogging he envisioned the continuance of gatekeepers within the democratization of the press.  But blogging is only a precursor to social media – what has emerged since has blown the doors off of any gatekeeping possibilities and in fact created myriad bubbles of self-reinforcing communities feeding ignorance and misguided thinking to each other.  Is there a way to reinsert gatekeeping to such pure social media?

I am not equipped to answer these questions, but I do know they are worth asking.  But I also think the problems lie deeper. More on that in the next post I put up.


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