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Your smartphone is built to hijack and harvest your mind

At the beginning of each semester I tell my students the very thing that journalist Zat Rana gets at in a recent article for Quartz when I deliver a mini-sermon about my complete ban on phones — and also, for almost all purposes, laptops — in my classroom. A smartphone or almost any cell phone in your hand, on your desk, or even in your pocket as you’re trying to concentrate on important other things is a vampire demon powered by dystopian corporate overlords whose sole purpose is to suck your soul by siphoning away your attention and immersing you in a portable customized Matrix.

Or as Rana says, in less metaphorical language:

One of the biggest problems of our generation is that while the ability to manage our attention is becoming increasingly valuable, the world around us is being designed to steal away as much of it as possible….Companies like Google and Facebook aren’t just creating products anymore. They’re building ecosystems. And the most effective way to monetize an ecosystem is to begin with engagement. It’s by designing their features to ensure that we give up as much of our attention as possible.

Full Text: “Technology is destroying the most important asset in your life

Rana offers three pieces of sound advice for helping to reclaim your attention (which is the asset referred to in the title): mindfulness meditation, “ruthless single-tasking,” and regular periods of deliberate detachment from the digital world.

Interestingly, it looks like there’s a mini-wave of this type of awareness building in the mediasphere. Rana’s article for Quartz was published on October 2. Four days later The Guardian published a provocative and alarming piece with this teaser: “Google, Twitter and Facebook workers who helped make technology so addictive are disconnecting themselves from the internet. Paul Lewis reports on the Silicon Valley refuseniks alarmed by a race for human attention.” It’s a very long and in-depth article. Here’s a taste:

There is growing concern that as well as addicting users, technology is contributing toward so-called “continuous partial attention”, severely limiting people’s ability to focus, and possibly lowering IQ. One recent study showed that the mere presence of smartphones damages cognitive capacity — even when the device is turned off. “Everyone is distracted,” Rosenstein says. “All of the time.”

But those concerns are trivial compared with the devastating impact upon the political system that some of Rosenstein’s peers believe can be attributed to the rise of social media and the attention-based market that drives it. . . .

Tech companies can exploit such vulnerabilities to keep people hooked; manipulating, for example, when people receive “likes” for their posts, ensuring they arrive when an individual is likely to feel vulnerable, or in need of approval, or maybe just bored. And the very same techniques can be sold to the highest bidder. . . .

“The dynamics of the attention economy are structurally set up to undermine the human will,” [ex-Google strategist James Williams] 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?”

Full Text: “‘Our minds can be hijacked’: The tech insiders who fear a smartphone dystopia

In the same vein, Nicholas Carr (no stranger to The Teeming Brain’s pages) published a similarly aimed — and even a similarly titled — essay in the Weekend Review section of The Wall Street Journal on the very day the Guardian article appeared (October 6). “Research suggests that as the brain grows dependent on phone technology, the intellect weakens,” says the teaser. Here’s a representative passage from the essay itself:

Scientists have long known that the brain is a monitoring system as well as a thinking system. Its attention is drawn toward any object in the environment that is new, intriguing or otherwise striking — that has, in the psychological jargon, “salience.” Media and communication devices, from telephones to TV sets, have always tapped into this instinct. Whether turned on or switched off, they promise an unending supply of information and experiences. By design, they grab and hold our attention in ways natural objects never could.

But even in the history of captivating media, the smartphone stands out. It’s an attention magnet unlike any our minds have had to grapple with before. Because the phone is packed with so many forms of information and so many useful and entertaining functions, it acts as what [Adrian] Ward calls a “supernormal stimulus,” one that can “hijack” attention whenever it’s part of the surroundings — which it always is. Imagine combining a mailbox, a newspaper, a TV, a radio, a photo album, a public library, and a boisterous party attended by everyone you know, and then compressing them all into a single, small, radiant object. That’s what a smartphone represents to us. No wonder we can’t take our minds off it.

Full Text: “How Smartphones Hijack Our Minds

At his blog Carr noted the simultaneous appearance of his essay and the Guardian article on the same day. He also noted the striking coincidence of the similarity between the titles, calling it a “telling coincidence” and commenting:

It’s been clear for some time that smartphones and social-media apps are powerful distraction machines. They routinely divide our attention. But the “hijack” metaphor — I took it from Adrian Ward’s article “Supernormal” — implies a phenomenon greater and more insidious than distraction. To hijack something is to seize control of it from its rightful owner. What’s up for grabs is your mind.

Perhaps the most astonishing thing about all of this is that John Carpenter warned us about it three decades ago, and not vaguely, but quite specifically and pointedly. The only difference is that the technology in his (quasi-)fictional presentation was television. Well, that, plus the fact that his evil overlords really were ill-intentioned, whereas ours may be in some cases as much victims of their own devices as we are. In any event:

There is a signal broadcast every second of every day through our television sets. Even when the set is turned off, the brain receives the input. . . . Our impulses are being redirected. We are living in an artificially induced state of consciousness that resembles sleep. . . . We have been lulled into a trance.

Art, creativity, and what Google doesn’t know

From an essay by Ed Finn, founding director of the Center for Science and the Imagination at Arizona State University:

We are all centaurs now, our aesthetics continuously enhanced by computation. Every photograph I take on my smartphone is silently improved by algorithms the second after I take it. Every document autocorrected, every digital file optimised. Musicians complain about the death of competence in the wake of Auto-Tune, just as they did in the wake of the synthesiser in the 1970s. It is difficult to think of a medium where creative practice has not been thoroughly transformed by computation and an attendant series of optimisations. . . .

Today, we experience art in collaboration with these algorithms. How can we disentangle the book critic, say, from the highly personalised algorithms managing her notes, communications, browsing history and filtered feeds on Facebook and Instagram? . . . .

The immediate creative consequence of this sea change is that we are building more technical competence into our tools. It is getting harder to take a really terrible digital photograph, and in correlation the average quality of photographs is rising. From automated essay critiques to algorithms that advise people on fashion errors and coordinating outfits, computation is changing aesthetics. When every art has its Auto-Tune, how will we distinguish great beauty from an increasingly perfect average? . . .

We are starting to perceive the world through computational filters, perhaps even organising our lives around the perfect selfie or defining our aesthetic worth around the endorsements of computationally mediated ‘friends’. . . .

Human creativity has always been a response to the immense strangeness of reality, and now its subject has evolved, as reality becomes increasingly codeterminate, and intermingled, with computation. If that statement seems extreme, consider the extent to which our fundamental perceptions of reality — from research in the physical sciences to finance to the little screens we constantly interject between ourselves in the world — have changed what it means to live, to feel, to know. As creators and appreciators of the arts, we would do well to remember all the things that Google does not know.

FULL TEXT: “Art by Algorithm


The Sad Failure of ‘Fahrenheit 451’ to Prevent the Future

Teeming Brain readers are familiar with my longtime focus on Fahrenheit 451 and my abiding sense that we’re currently caught up in a real-world version of its dystopian vision. This is not, of course, an opinion peculiar to me. Many others have held it, too, including, to an extent, Bradbury himself. I know that some of you, my readers, share it as well.

As of a couple of weeks ago, a writer for the pop culture analysis website Acculturated has publicly joined the fold:

Ray Bradbury often said that he wrote science fiction not to predict the future but to prevent it. On this score, Fahrenheit 451 seems to have failed. The free speech wars on college campuses, the siloing effect of technology, the intolerance of diverse political opinions, and the virtual cocoon provided by perpetual entertainment all suggest that Bradbury anticipated the future with an accuracy unparalleled elsewhere in science fiction literature.

It’s a strange irony that, in the age of the Internet, which was supposed to encourage more transparency and debate, the open exchange of ideas is under threat. This was pointed out by another famous science fiction writer, Michael Crichton. “In the information society,” says Ian Malcolm in Jurassic Park, “No one thinks. We expected to banish paper, but we actually banished thought.” Bradbury saw this coming many decades earlier, and he understood why. Exposure to new ideas is uncomfortable and potentially dangerous. Staying safe, comfortable, and equal requires that everyone think identically. Liberal learning, the crucible that forms the individual, is anathema to group identity and cannot be tolerated. If you disagree, you’re morally suspect.

Which is why we need Bradbury’s message today more than ever. In a coda to the 1979 printing of Fahrenheit 451, Bradbury wrote: “There is more than one way to burn a book. And the world is full of people running about with lit matches.”

Full Text: “Ray Bradbury Wrote ‘Fahrenheit 451’ to Prevent a Dystopia. Instead, He Predicted One

(If you click through to read the full text, be aware that the first paragraph of the piece presents a slightly inaccurate potted history of Bradbury’s career trajectory that implies he only rose to literary prominence with the publication of F451 in 1953. In fact, some of his previous books and stories, including, especially, 1950’s The Martian Chronicles, had already brought him considerable attention and acclaim.)

For more on the same theme, see my previous posts “On living well in Ray Bradbury’s dystopia: Notes toward a monastic response” and “Facebook, Fahrenheit 451, and the crossing of a cultural threshold,” as well as the Strange Horizons essay “The Failure of Fahrenheit 451.”

For thoughts from the author himself, see the 2007 LA Weekly piece Ray Bradbury: Fahrenheit 451 Misinterpreted,” featuring Bradbury’s comments on the reality of F451-like trends in contemporary society. (However, Bradbury’s comments in that article/interview should be read in tandem with this context-creating response from his biographer, Sam Weller.) Also see Bradbury’s interviews for A.V. Club and the Peoria Journal Star for more observations from him about the encroaching threat of his novel’s realization in the world around us. And see especially his 1998 interview for Wired, titled “Bradbury’s Tomorrowland,” in which he said the following:

Almost everything in Fahrenheit 451 has come about, one way or the other — the influence of television, the rise of local TV news, the neglect of education. As a result, one area of our society is brainless. But I utilized those things in the novel because I was trying to prevent a future, not predict one.

Our smartphone apocalypse, animated by Steve Cutts

This remarkable animation comes from the hand (or computer) of illustrator and animator Steve Cutts, famed for such things as 2012’s Man, which packs an unbelievable punch. So does the one I’ve chosen to post here. Cutts created it for last year’s hit song “Are You Lost in the World Like Me?” by Moby and The Void Pacific Choir. But I personally like this slight repurposing much better, where the musical accompaniment is changed to French composer Yann Tiersen’s “Comptine d’un autre été, l’après-midi” (best known for being featured in the soundtrack for the 2001 French film Amélie).

The story told by the visuals, and also by the piercingly beautiful and sad musical accompaniment, can stand without comment here, as Teeming Brain readers are well aware of my deep disturbance and unhappiness at the digital dystopia that has emerged in the age of the smartphone. I consider Cutts something of a genius, both for his choice of animation style and for his devastating accuracy in calling out the dark and despairing heart of this cultural dead end in fairly visionary fashion. And no, the fact that his creation of this animation, and my sharing of it here, and your reading of it, is all facilitated by the existence of networked computers doesn’t invalidate the message with a fatal irony. We could probably do better, culturally and humanly speaking, in our uses of these technologies. But instead we’re apparently inclined to give way, en masse, to our lowest impulses, resulting in a kind of digital Dante’s Inferno whose factual reality isn’t really all that far from the only slightly exaggerated version presented by Cutts.

A grateful acknowledgment goes out to Jesús Olmo, who introduced me to Cutts by sending me a link to Man last month.

Our Craving for Apocalypse: ‘Dispatches from the Ruins’ (short video)

This brief video essay on the source of our collective craving for “the awful futures of apocalyptic fiction” is really well done. Skillfully executed and thought-provoking. A worthwhile investment of five reflective minutes. Here’s the description:

In the first two decades of the new millennium, stories of the post-apocalypse have permeated pop culture, from books such as Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (2006), Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl (2009) and Emily St John Mandel’s Station Eleven (2014) to films and TV programmes such as The Walking Dead (2010-), the Hunger Games series (2012-15) and Mad Max: Fury Road (2015). While post-apocalyptic fictions of previous eras largely served as cautionary tales — against nuclear brinksmanship in On the Beach (1959) or weaponised biology in The Stand (1978) — today’s versions of these tales depict less alterable, more oblique and diffuse visions of our doom. So why can’t we seem to get enough of humanity’s unavoidable collapse and its bleak aftermath?

Dispatches from the Ruins reflects on what these stories — set among crumbling buildings, overgrown lots and barren wastelands — might be telling us about modern fears and fantasies. This Aeon original video is adapted from an Aeon essay by the US writer Frank Bures. Bures is also the author of The Geography of Madness (2016), a book about cultural syndromes across the world. His work has been included in the Best American Travel Writing and appeared in Harper’s, Lapham’s Quarterly and the Washington Post Magazine, among others.


Orwell Meets Frankenstein: The Internet as a Monster of Mass Surveillance and Social Control

The following paragraphs are from a talk delivered by Pinboard founder Maciej Cegłowski at the recent Emerging Technologies for the Enterprise conference in Philadelphia.  Citing as Exhibit A the colossal train wreck that was the 2016 American presidential election, Cegłowski basically explains how, in the current version of the Internet that has emerged over the past decade-plus, we have collectively created a technology that is perfectly calibrated for undermining Western democratic societies and ideals.

But as incisive as his analysis is, I seriously doubt that his (equally incisive) proposed solutions, described later in the piece, will ever be implemented to any meaningful extent. I mean, if we’re going to employ the explicitly Frankensteinian metaphor of “building a monster,” then it’s important to bear in mind that Victor Frankenstein and his wretched creation did not find their way to anything resembling a happy ending. (And note that Cegłowski himself acknowledges as much at the end of his piece when he closes his discussion of proposed solutions by asserting that “even though we’re likely to fail, all we can do is try.”)

This year especially there’s an uncomfortable feeling in the tech industry that we did something wrong, that in following our credo of “move fast and break things,” some of what we knocked down were the load-bearing walls of our democracy. . . .

A question few are asking is whether the tools of mass surveillance and social control we spent the last decade building could have had anything to do with the debacle of the 2017 [sic] election, or whether destroying local journalism and making national journalism so dependent on our platforms was, in retrospect, a good idea. . . .

We built the commercial internet by mastering techniques of persuasion and surveillance that we’ve extended to billions of people, including essentially the entire population of the Western democracies. But admitting that this tool of social control might be conducive to authoritarianism is not something we’re ready to face. After all, we’re good people. We like freedom. How could we have built tools that subvert it? . . .

The economic basis of the Internet is surveillance. Every interaction with a computing device leaves a data trail, and whole industries exist to consume this data. Unlike dystopian visions from the past, this surveillance is not just being conducted by governments or faceless corporations. Instead, it’s the work of a small number of sympathetic tech companies with likable founders, whose real dream is to build robots and Mars rockets and do cool things that make the world better. Surveillance just pays the bills. . . .

Orwell imagined a world in which the state could shamelessly rewrite the past. The Internet has taught us that people are happy to do this work themselves, provided they have their peer group with them, and a common enemy to unite against. They will happily construct alternative realities for themselves, and adjust them as necessary to fit the changing facts . . . .

A lot of what we call “disruption” in the tech industry has just been killing flawed but established institutions, and mining them for parts. When we do this, we make a dangerous assumption about our ability to undo our own bad decisions, or the time span required to build institutions that match the needs of new realities.

Right now, a small caste of programmers is in charge of the surveillance economy, and has broad latitude to change it. But this situation will not last for long. The kinds of black-box machine learning that have been so successful in the age of mass surveillance are going to become commoditized and will no longer require skilled artisans to deploy. . . .

Unless something happens to mobilize the tech workforce, or unless the advertising bubble finally bursts, we can expect the weird, topsy-turvy status quo of 2017 to solidify into the new reality.

FULL TEXT: “Build a Better Monster: Morality, Machine Learning, and Mass Surveillance

Big Data, Artificial Intelligence, and Dehumanization: Surrendering to the Death of Democracy


Greetings, Teeming Brainers. I’m just peeking in from the digital wings, amid much ongoing blog silence, to observe that many of the issues and developments — sociocultural, technological, and more — that I began furiously tracking here way back in 2006 are continuing to head in pretty much the same direction. A case in point is provided by the alarming information, presented in a frankly alarmed tone, that appears in this new piece from Scientific American (originally published in SA’s German-language sister publication, Spektrum der Wissenschaft):

Everything started quite harmlessly. Search engines and recommendation platforms began to offer us personalised suggestions for products and services. This information is based on personal and meta-data that has been gathered from previous searches, purchases and mobility behaviour, as well as social interactions. While officially, the identity of the user is protected, it can, in practice, be inferred quite easily. Today, algorithms know pretty well what we do, what we think and how we feel — possibly even better than our friends and family or even ourselves. Often the recommendations we are offered fit so well that the resulting decisions feel as if they were our own, even though they are actually not our decisions. In fact, we are being remotely controlled ever more successfully in this manner. The more is known about us, the less likely our choices are to be free and not predetermined by others.

But it won’t stop there. Some software platforms are moving towards “persuasive computing.” In the future, using sophisticated manipulation technologies, these platforms will be able to steer us through entire courses of action, be it for the execution of complex work processes or to generate free content for Internet platforms, from which corporations earn billions. The trend goes from programming computers to programming people. . . .

[I]t can be said that we are now at a crossroads. Big data, artificial intelligence, cybernetics and behavioral economics are shaping our society — for better or worse. If such widespread technologies are not compatible with our society’s core values, sooner or later they will cause extensive damage. They could lead to an automated society with totalitarian features. In the worst case, a centralized artificial intelligence would control what we know, what we think and how we act. We are at the historic moment, where we have to decide on the right path — a path that allows us all to benefit from the digital revolution

Oh, and for a concrete illustration of all the above, check this out:

How would behavioural and social control impact our lives? The concept of a Citizen Score, which is now being implemented in China, gives an idea. There, all citizens are rated on a one-dimensional ranking scale. Everything they do gives plus or minus points. This is not only aimed at mass surveillance. The score depends on an individual’s clicks on the Internet and their politically-correct conduct or not, and it determines their credit terms, their access to certain jobs, and travel visas. Therefore, the Citizen Score is about behavioural and social control. Even the behaviour of friends and acquaintances affects this score, i.e. the principle of clan liability is also applied: everyone becomes both a guardian of virtue and a kind of snooping informant, at the same time; unorthodox thinkers are isolated. Were similar principles to spread in democratic countries, it would be ultimately irrelevant whether it was the state or influential companies that set the rules. In both cases, the pillars of democracy would be directly threatened.

FULL ARTICLE: Will Democracy Survive Big Data and Artificial Intelligence?

Of course, none of this is real news to anybody who has been paying attention. It’s just something that people like me, and maybe like you, find troubling enough to highlight and comment on. And maybe, in the end, Cipher from The Matrix will turn out to have been right: Maybe ignorance really is bliss. Because from where I’m sitting, there doesn’t appear to be anything one can do to stop this streamrollering, metastasizing, runaway train-like dystopian trend. Talking about it is just that: talk. Which is one reason why I’ve lost a portion of the will that originally kept me blogging here for so many years. You can only play the role of Cassandra for so long before the intrinsic attraction begins to dissipate. Read the rest of this entry

Short Film: ‘2084’

Remember: You must conform.

Better yet: Doughnut thing. (Watch for explanation.)

Utopia, dystopia, and the eternal present of Amish time


Traditional Amish Buggy. By Ad Meskens (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 ( or GFDL (], via Wikimedia Commons

When I was a kid, the first time I ever heard of the Amish was when I watched the movie Witness for the first time. Much later, in the first decade of the aughts, I lived for seven years right in the heart of Missouri Amish country, where horse-drawn buggies on the shoulder of the road were a frequent sight, and where I regularly rubbed shoulders with Amish people in stores, at garage sales, and elsewhere. Between those two extremes, I took an undergraduate college sociology course at Mizzou titled simply “The Old Order Amish,” taught by a highly respected professor who had himself grown up in an Old Order Mennonite community (and who, as I just now discovered, died only two months ago). So all of that amplifies my personal interest in this brief and thoughtful reflection by University of Wyoming English professor Arielle Zibrak on the possible meaning and lessons of “Amish time” for a 21st-century technological society that has become obsessed with future visions and intimations of collapse and dystopia:

Wendell Berry wrote that American society’s inability to see the Amish for what they are is indicative of the most basic flaws of the American progress narrative. I think we’re beginning to see the frayed edges of that narrative’s unraveling. While the future used to appear to us as Marty Mcfly’s hoverboard, robo cops, and casual space travel, it now seems more frequently to come in the form of close-knit roving communities that communicate via flare and cook game over open fires, e.g. McCarthy’s The Road or Frank Darabont’s “The Walking Dead.”

We usually cast these fictional futures as dystopias. But if Margaret Atwood is right — and she should know — “within every dystopia there’s a little utopia.” And I can’t help but wonder if, as our vision of the future continues to shift, our view of the Amish will shift with it. For now, the best I can do is to try to learn from the Amish.

These days, after another move, I’m living out west, where my little sedan is itself a buggy parked alongside the giant pickups at the superstore. I can’t be around the Amish anymore in the sense of space. But I can try to be closer to where they are in the sense of time, which is neither the past nor precisely the future (even if there’s a zombie apocalypse or the hipsters keep defecting to dairy farms and haberdasheries) but is squarely inside of the mystery of the present.

MORE: “On Amish Time

Dehumanized in a dark age


Fire_of_Troy_by_Kerstiaen de Keuninck (Coninck)

“Fire of Troy” by Kerstiaen de Keuninck (Coninck), 17th cent. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

NOTE: This post was originally published in January 2007 in a different form. Based on various circumstances — including the publication just yesterday of a post titled “Collective Brainwashing & Modern Concentration Camps” over at Daily Grail, which calls out the below-transcribed portion of My Dinner with Andre — now seems like a good time to re-present this in a slightly revised and enhanced form.

* * *

One of the most nightmarish things about a dark age is the degradation it entails for life’s overall tone, not least in the dehumanization that occurs when a people’s intellectual, emotional, moral, spiritual, political, social, and cultural life in general is reduced to a ghastly level of brutishness and ignorance. As is now plainly evident all around us in the industrialized world of present-day info-technocracy, this coarsening of life can occur even in circumstances of relative material prosperity. It doesn’t always have to be a dark age like the one that gripped Europe in the aftermath of Rome’s fall, when starvation and plague were rampant and most people barely scraped by at a miserable subsistence level. A dark age can unfold and exist right in the middle of outward conditions that may appear enlightened to those who don’t look too closely or deeply.

Sometimes it’s oddly comforting to dwell on the words of people who have seen today’s dark age of dehumanization unfolding. When it feels like the world is full of robots instead of people, or when it begins to feel like we really are living on the planet of the apes (as Robert Anton Wilson liked to put it), it can be a powerfully affirming experience to be reminded that other people have observed the same thing.

With this in mind, here are three of my own favorite articulations of these things, which, based on my own experience, I recommend you ingest, digest, memorize, and keep mentally handy for reciting to yourself on a rainy day. There are no solutions offered here. There’s just the satisfaction of being confronted by grim realities and looking them full in the face. Read the rest of this entry