It is a canard to think that math can’t fail. All you need to do is look at the way society constructs algorithms – from job and college applications to Facebook feeds to find out that sorting can be wrong and biased.
In the case of the 2016 election, algorithms did more harm than good. Facebook fed the internet silos with fake news. As Cathy O’Neil author of Weapons of Math Destruction puts it in a 99% Invisible podcast: “The internet is a propaganda machine.”
We’ve adopted the factory mindset of mass-sorting, leaving the anxiety of decision-making up to machines. Humans are pieces of data, waiting to be organized by the least valuable candidate or customer.
There’s too many of us and not enough time to make individual considerations. But a conversation around algorithmic frailty might do us some good. Making generalizations impedes the magic of a discovering an outlier.
The newest app, the latest iPhone — we make an excuse to spend more time with our smartphones. What can be perceived as self-absorption is also hypnosis, as the phone’s rectangular glow grips us into a ludic loop.
Social networks intend to get us out of a trance and sting us into experiencing the world; at least that’s what Instagram and Pinterest promised to do at their inception. Instead, our phones have our first, second, and third eye, recording memories so we can consume and forget about them again later. We are walking zombies, skilled without an iota of consciousness.
The smartphone is an arsenal of distraction, a computer, tv, stereo, and communications device propping up the thumbs of our hands. But it’s also the most liberating tool we’ve ever had. Used wisely, we can shape it to goad our curiosity, make new friends, and explore our creative instincts.
Last weekend I was fortunate enough to see my brother Ryan Baum graduate from SCI-Arc, an architecture school in downtown Los Angeles.
Each student was responsible for presenting their thesis in front of faculty and special guests. For his final project, my brother put some renderings together over the Stahl House to recreate the iconic modernist house built by American architect Pierre Koenig in the hills of Los Angeles in 1969. He also redesigned the interior dining room and living room with sculpture.
You may have seen the Stahl house in fashion ads and movies like the Big Lebowski, or most famously in black and white photographs taken by Julius Shulman who helped spread modernist Southern California architecture with his “one-point perspective.”
Inspired by the technological blurred paintings of Gerhard Richter, Ryan 3D painted the house’s corrugated facade.
As you can see, Ryan’s contemporary redesign purposely blends in his with the house, making it look authentic. But it his short, hilarious Lebowski-esque film that takes the masquerade metaphor once step further, adding to the mystery of why the home could never sell. The Stahl House was finally declared a LA-historic monument in 1999, before becoming listed as National History place in 2013.
It was a mass of niches. In many ways, it still is a collection of echo chambers.
But the web feels smaller today than it used to. The big fish seem to drown out the rest of the noise. Tv is the web, the web is tv, constructed for the masses.
Meanwhile, the same-looking images reappear on Instagram: food porn, selfies, and sunsets, leaving scant room for variation. Perspective is hard to find.
Those with a unique point of view get lost in the shuffle, discarded idiosyncrasies of the Internet-factory era. The only difference now is that people can market to the micro. You only need 1,000 true fans to build a business out of the long-tail!
Nevertheless, the web appears to be a less human and little more robotic. It is predictable and stale, sameness portends scale!
What is the dark web if we can’t even see through the light?
Social networks are specifically designed to keep us hooked as long as possible. No matter how aware we are of the entrapment, the exit door never tempts us enough to permanently leave.
Yet we ‘users’ are literally the ones being used and tracked so big brother can sell our data to advertisers. We permit cookies to follow our behavior all over the web, from shopping to googling health related issues.
While the internet offers us a marketplace of ideas, instead we find ourselves collecting resources and stealing other people’s opinions to reconfirm our own.
Rather than tapping into a common goodness of those who disagree with us, we pat the backs and converse with those who serve us their boilerplate bullshit.
Stuck in boxes, spied on and taxed, it’s no wonder the internet makes us so antsy we can’t get along. Writer Noah Smith puts it best: “15 years ago, the internet was an escape from the real world. Now, the real world is an escape from the internet.”
Dopamine is a superpower. Our brain hunts it down in the expectation of feeding it with some type of satisfaction, be it coffee or social media.
But our anticipation often exceeds reality. The coffee aroma smells better than the grounded beans actually taste. Capturing the photo and preparing to share it feels better than receiving all the likes.
Our imagination swims in desire, all the while ignoring the risks for drowning in it. Like a magnet, we are drawn to the pleasures of irreality. There’s no stopping us from swinging into a narcotic sunset.
Social networks are unique places. They are no different than hangout spots; the bar and the coffee shop each contains its own set of memes and culture. However, using the same language from one into the other could make you look like a tourist.
“One user’s home platform is another’s foreign land. A point made by a subculture at home on Facebook might look funny to another on Twitter, which can read as evidence of a conspiracy to yet another on YouTube, which might be seen as offensive on Tumblr, which could be a joke on Reddit.”
Knowing the ins and outs of each channel comes with frequent use. And while most sharing is trial and error — virality is mostly luck — replicating content between environments is a bound to fall flat. Posting a witty tweet makes no sense in the feed of a Facebook friend who’s looking for something with sticky emotional value.
The old adage rings true: the medium is the message.
Good social media contributors are tweakers. They tailor a message to each network to maximize engagement, down to the file type. They may upload an image to Instagram but a similar video version to Facebook and Twitter, and a GIF for Reddit.
Social media is still the Wild West. You must pick and choose an audience carefully or risk being misunderstood, which happens to most people anyway, even on their own turf.
Photos get consumed and are promptly forgotten, not because the image doesn’t stick — it’s impossible to ignore the ‘facticity‘ of a picture — but because it’s erased by the next one.
In the age of Instagram, images are fodder for boredom. Scrolling fills time, inspiring an emotion and quick dopamine shot for the same time the viewer consumes it. And then we shift back to reality, looking at the world like running images on a wall.
Photography tempts the eyeballs to glance but when will it do something other than staring at its contents.
The only threat to the longevity of Facebook is that it makes people feel like shit.
Facebook’s relationship with its users, the product, is deeply psychological. It wants us to post whatever want, but all we end up doing is comparing our lives to other people in our own cocoons. We are ambiently aware of what everyone in our feed is doing.
The internet is a vast space of potential connectedness yet our relationships are usually with like-minded people. Our ideological bunkers reconfirm our beliefs, whether the content is real or fake.
The benefit of connectedness is proximity at scale — we can chat with a friend from the couch while Facebook surrounds us with ads like we’re standing in the middle of Times Square. Facebook is surveillance, and we give Big Brother the benefit of the doubt in selling our information to marketers in exchange for the ease of communication with so-called ‘friends.’
Facebook wants us to present our best selves online. It could care less about authenticity since it is our curated selves generate clicks and thereby give Facebook Ads a chance to make more money.
Facebook purports to be to the social network that upholds your real identity but its attention-based algorithm is psychologically damaging. The platform profits from fantasy, loneliness, and mimetic desire. Facebook persuades us to live the life we don’t want, thereby infringing on the personal liberty of making decisions that are key to our heart. Impressing others drains the soul of what we really want to do: express our uniqueness.
Facebook is the world’s biggest copy machine. It tries to box us in and disregard the person we really want to be. We are hooked on to its expectations of conformity and insularity.