Exploiting evolutionary traps: Netflix’s new movie, The Social Dilemma

Addicted to the screen (Photo from the Netflix’s docudrama, The Social Dilemma)

Apple founder Steve Jobs didn’t let his kids use the iPad, or really any product their dad invented, As Steve Jobs stated, “They haven’t used it,” “We limit how much technology our kids use at home.” (Bilton, 2014).

In 2007, Bill Gates, the former CEO of Microsoft, implemented a cap on screen time when his daughter started developing an unhealthy attachment to a video game. He also didn’t let his kids get cell phones until they turned 14 (Akhtar & Ward, 2020).

What is it that these two titans of the tech revolution and the many Silicon Valley insiders know and discuss in the  Netflix docudrama, The Social Dilemma?

They recognized the harm that occurs when monetary incentives are the singular driver to optimize the hardware (the look and feel of the cellphone)  and much more important  the software algorithms to capture the attention of the user.  It is interesting that there are only two industries that label their customers as users, illegal drugs and software (Kalsim 2020).

The longer a user is captured by the screen, the more the user responds to notifications, the more the user clicks to other sites, the more money the corporation earns from its advertisers. The algorithms continuously optimize what the user sees and hears so that they stay captured. Thus, the algorithms are designed to exploit the evolutionary response patterns that allowed us to survive and thrive. Evolutionary traps occur when adaptive behaviors that were once successful become maladaptive or even harmful. When this occurs, cues that were protective or beneficial can lead to reduced health and fitness (Peper, Harvey & Faass 2020).

Companies exploit evolutionary traps for the purpose of improving profits. This potentially constitutes a major health risk for humanity.  As quoted from the The Social Dilemma, “Your attention is the product that is being sold to advertisers”

Google, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, and others are designed to be highly addictive and incorporate some of the following evolutionary traps (Peper, Harvey & Faass, 2020):

  • We are wired to see artificial images and to hear reproduced sounds as real. The brain does not discriminate between actual and visual-auditory images that are artificial, which explains one aspect of our attraction to our phones, to binge-watching, and to gaming.
  • We are wired to react to any stimuli that suggests potential danger or the presence of game animals. Whether the stimuli is auditory, visual, tactile, or kinesthetic, it triggers excessive arousal. This makes us vulnerable to screen addiction, because our biology compels us to respond.
  • We are wired to attend to social information about power within our group, a major factor in social media addiction.

If you concerned about false news, political polarization, radicalization, increased anxiety, depression, suicides  and mental health in people, watch Netflix, The Social Dilemma and the powerful presentation by Sacha Baron Cohen’s superb presentation, Never is Now, the 2019 Anti-Defamation League Leadership Award.

What makes this film so powerful is that it is told by the same people who were the designers, developers, and programmers for the different social media companies.  

From: https://www.netflix.com/title/81254224

For an outstanding critique of social media and the power of Facebook, Twitter, and Google, watch Sacha Baron Cohen’s superb presentation at the 2019 Anti-Defamation League Leadership Award.

References:

Akhtar, A. & Ward, M. (2020, May 15). Bill Gates and Steve Jobs raised their kids with limited tech — and it should have been a red flag about our own smartphone use. Business Insider.

Bilton, N. (Sept 10, 2014). Steve Jobs was a low-tech parent. New York Times.

Kalsi, H. (2020, September 15). “It’s 2.7 billion Truman Shows”: Why ‘The Social Dilemma’ is a must-watch. Lifestle Asia Culture.

Peper, E. & Harvey, R. (2020, January 17). Evolutionary traps: How screens, digital notifications and gaming software exploits fundamental survival mechanisms. the peper perspective.

Peper, E., Harvey, R., & Faass, N. (2020). TechStress-How Technology is Hijacking our Lives, Strategies for Coping and Pragmatic Ergonomics. Berkeley: North Atlantic Books


Social media: Alone or together?

Pushing a baby carriage the caretaker texts or talks on the phone instead of cooing the infant. Dining at restaurants, couples check emails, search the web, text, or tweet telling others what they are doing instead of talking with each other. In hallways at universities students  collapse against the walls looking at their tablets or smart phones instead of meeting other students. In lecture halls students text or search the web instead of processing the class materials. In their cubicle at work employees email and text instead of walking over to the next cubicle to share information. On the sidewalk pedestrians text while being oblivious to the environment.

Presentation2

All new innovations and inventions have a positive and negative side (e.g., nuclear medicine and atomic weapons). When adopting the new social media and technologies, use the precautionary principle by respecting our evolutionary background.  In-depth communication and sharing is healing and nurturing, thus create/demand enough time to explore and connect in actual face-to-face synchronous communication with family, friends and colleagues.

Most new technology has been met with naysayers until it has been integrated appropriately into our lives. Nevertheless, I am concerned how social media may substitute for actual communication. It may allow us to present our persona and hide our real self as our messages ping back and forth. This same asynchronous communication is also true for letter writing except that it takes much longer to receive feedback in return. The obvious difference between texting/tweeting and letter writing is the possible depth and length of the communication. The addictive social media communication may hinder social and emotional growth which is developed during actual face-to-face communication. Before deciding whether the social media causes harm –anything that is beneficial may also in excessive dosages cause harm– read Alison Gonik’ essay, The kid who wouldn’t let go of ‘the device which was published in the March 22-23, 2014 issue of the Wall Street Journal.

Although there are many advantages of the new digital devices, there may also be unintended consequences. These consequences are superbly explored by professor Sherry Turkle,  founder and director of the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self,  in her book,  Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other and in her Ted talk, Connected but all alone.

These concepts are also graphically illustrated in the video clip, The innovation of loneliness.