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


Health: Belonging to a tribe

How come rampage killings occur in affluent or upper middle class communities and in rural towns with low crime rate and not in high crime urban neighborhoods?

How come that most rampage shootings by a lone gunman continue to increase since the 1980’s?

How come suicide is extremely high in most modern societies (e.g., USA) while extremely low  in traditional tribal societies?

How come the depression and anxiety rates in wealthy countries are eight times that of poor countries?

How come people in countries with the largest income disparity such as the United States have the highest lifelong risk of develop depression as compared to countries with the smallest income disparity?

How come babies feel scared at night?

How come when people reflect back at their suffering during war it was simultaneous the worsts and the best of times?

How come after 9/11 or other major crisis, suicide and crime rates went down?

How come post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is significantly higher for the rear based troops who suffer relatively few casualties as compared to the front line troops who engage in actual combat?

How come Israel Defense Forces have a very low PTSD rate compared to the USA military forces?

How come the elderly and so many people feel isolated, lonely and sad?

How come the streets and parks are covered with litter and buildings and surfaces are covered with graffiti?

The answers may not reside within the individual but in our pathological individualistic culture.  Through millions of years of evolution, we were a clan–a tribe.  And, as a tribe, we were mutually dependent and supportive. This is our biological and social DNA–we are social interdependent beings. The common theme underlying the questions above is that we are disconnected from others and our community. We are living apart from our evolutionary background where living together as tribe allowed us to survive and prosper for  thousands of generations. When we are part of a community and are welcomed back after  experiencing trauma, depression, anxiety, violence, PTSD,  and even littering is significantly lower.

The importance of community, being part of tribe, is superbly described by New York Times bestselling author, Sebastian Junger, in his book, Tribe-On Homecoming and Belonging.  This is a must read book to understand the hidden pathology created by our modern economic inequality American culture that worships the individual affluence over the common good. It suggests that we must return to our evolutionary origins, radically reduce economic inequality, work on community wide projects to enhance the common good, and actively participate in rebuilding our tribe. Being a meaningful part of a tribe can be much more healing than ingesting a profit based pharmaceutical drug for depression and PTSD. Let us support the common good over the individual increase in wealth.

Tribe by Sebastian Junger

As the poet John Donne wrote in 1624:

No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thy friend’s
Or of thine own were:
Any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; 
It tolls for thee.