It’s gradually becoming clear that social media and tech companies are the new big tobacco and that smartphones are the new smoking. Other comparisons could be to pay-day loan institutions or fossil fuel corporations. Choose your analogy, but the upshot is that (although superficially attractive) it’s not good for us in the long term.
If you’re already convinced then feel free to skip ahead and Take Back Control. Otherwise, read on.
It’s not simply the absence of a positive agenda (marketing aside), not tackling big important problems (that they’re in a perfect position to solve) or locking up talent on trite tasks. Reliance on advertising revenue has created behaviour tracking, privacy invading and attention maximising machines with little thought for reasonable boundaries.
You may have seen recently that Nick Clegg has been appointed as the head of global affairs and communications at Facebook. I’ve got more time for him than many but I hope he actually has a positive influence rather than just managing a message and dissuading the much-needed EU regulation.
It Looks Like You’re Writing A Doomsday Device
There is a common example used to highlight the dangers of unexpected side-effects in AI called the paper clip maximiser. The idea is that an AI doesn’t have to be intentionally evil to achieve a bad outcome for us. If you were to instruct a powerful AI to optimise for production of paper clips without any boundaries then it could destroy the world in the process of striving for its goal.
An AI doesn’t have to refer to only software, although that is playing an ever-increasing role. Corporations are machines made of people and processes that can be thought of as an AI, although they operate at a much slower speed. You could argue that the profit maximising motives of these artificial persons has already inflicted much damage.
As far as I know, nobody is building an AI paper clip maximiser and indeed the use of paper clips is probably decreasing as more information goes digital. However, we do appear to be building an attention maximiser without too much thought for the wider consequences.
It appears to be working. Everywhere you look, people are slaves to their smartphones. As I write this, I witness a man totally engrossed in tending to his attention-seeking pocket pet, seemingly at the expense of basic situational awareness. People walk around with their eyes focussed on tiny screens, sometimes holding arrays of pointy sticks at eye-level (more commonly known as umbrellas) in the other hand.
People also use their phones while driving, despite it being illegal in almost all jurisdictions. I wonder how many accidents, injuries and even deaths have been caused by our gamification of people’s attention. Tech companies like to put the responsibility on the individual, and take none themselves, but is that fair when they employ some of the smartest (yet ethically challenged) people to manipulate the behaviours of the masses.
In much the same way as packaging manufacturers are starting to take some responsibility for the litter and waste that they produce, tech should act in a less user-hostile manner. Perhaps some sort of oath would be helpful. When I was a member of an engineering institution we all pledged an oath forbidding us from using our skills to cause harm (with an exception for defence of the realm, which is why I don’t work in defence). Maybe the ideas in this Coding Horror post are a good place to start.
It’s not just the attention demanding arms race to fuel the advertising revenue that is a potential problem. Do we want to rely on communication platforms run by parties whose fundamental business models are based on manipulating us? Or at least selling our eyeballs to be manipulated by the highest bidder.
Doomed to Repeat
This is not as new a problem as you might imagine and history has a habit of repeating itself. There are strong parallels here to the early days of the original digital communication medium, the telegraph.
Telegraph companies would use their control of the wires to influence elections and confer a significant advantage for their preferred party. This problem was solved by regulation and designating the telegraph (and later telephone) a common carrier, like the postal system. This meant that they were forbidden from discriminating against messages based on content.
The modern equivalent of the common carrier is called net neutrality but that appears to be having some setbacks. For more on the history of communication regulation you can read The Master Switch by Tim Wu.
Perhaps regulation in the age of hyper-targeted messaging needs to go even further than common carriers. How do we adapt strict political campaigning rules for this medium and shine a light on hidden customised propaganda?
It’s wise to follow the money and I know it’s a cliché, but if you’re not paying then you’re usually the product. Unfortunately it’s not always as clear as this; sometimes you pay and are still the product and of course there is plenty of genuinely free open source software out there.
Take Back Control
Clearly it is still useful to have a pocket computer that can contact practically every person on the planet and has access to the sum of almost all human knowledge. It’s a wonder of modern technology and if you understand what’s involved, incredibly impressive. However, it is a tool for you and not a tool for others to exert influence over you.
There are two main parts to making your devices work for you and in your best interests:
- Reduce attention grabbing and distractions
- Cut down on tracking and advertising
The key to increasing focus and improving self-control is to understand how you are being played. One technique that is used to keep your attention is called intermittent variable rewards. This is the same game mechanic used in slot machines but if you break the feedback cycle then it is easy to overcome.
The most significant change you can make is to configure your phone to notify you only for important events. The following tips are somewhat focussed on Android (as I am more familiar with it) but they should be applicable to iOS and other platforms too.
Some things to try:
- Set up schedules to stay in do-not-disturb modes
- Silence apart from for contacts during the day (“priority only”)
- “Alarms only” or “total silence” at night
- Put in aeroplane mode or switch off when not required
- Leave your phone at home when you pop out
- Don’t keep it in the bedroom overnight (and not next to your head)
- Get a separate alarm clock (which will be more reliable)
- Wear a watch so you don’t need to look at your phone for the time
- Check emails and messages periodically (no push messaging)
- Turn off read receipts and presence indication in messaging apps
- Turn off WiFi and Bluetooth when not required
- Turn off location services and enable (GPS only) when required
Advertising is not inherently bad and it pays for much of the content online. It’s the distraction and tracking that’s the problem as there’s not much to complain about with plain text. However, it’s hard to discriminate, so many people feel it’s easier to block all ads. This also helps reduce security threats, uses less data and increases performance.
Be careful which extensions you trust and turn off auto-updates. You don’t want one to go rogue on you. However, there is less need for these now that Firefox has built-in tracking protection.
- Privacy Badger
- Blocks tracking bugs (e.g. like buttons)
- HTTPS Everywhere
- Prevents SSL stripping
- uBlock Origin
- Lightweight ad and tracking blocker
Network Level Blocking
Filtering on your LAN can be safer and more effective. It works on all of your devices, outside just the browser and has less access to your data.
- Local DNS server with blacklist on a Raspberry Pi
- Works with browsers, apps and appliances
- Tunnel your internet connection
- Prevent tracking by your ISP / government
- Tunnel your mobile devices back to use ad blocking
- Use alternative upstream DNS to ISP default
- Prevent unknown domain hijacking
- E.g. Cloudflare DNS (not Google - bad for tracking)
You can choose to use alternative services to the dominant ones that rely on invasive tracking for ad targeting.
Some alternative ideas:
- Duck Duck Go
- Open Street Map
- Most paid hosting really
- Self-host if you’re brave
- Linux for desktop
- Custom ROMs without vendor/Google bloat for mobile
- Firefox (desktop and mobile)
This can help prevent ads following you around the web, trying to lure you back in and distract your attention. This is known in the industry as re-targeting but you can opt-out and clear your cookies regularly.
As a technologist and developer you can help. Don’t embed third party code such as Google Analytics or Facebook like buttons in sites and apps. These give away far too much control of what happens in your software to others. Note that there are none on this blog.
Finally, as our built-environment becomes ever more digital we can extend this protection into the real world. To start, get some polarised sunglasses and you should find that you can no longer see the portrait advertising display screens that are appearing everywhere. Yay physics!