Add title – Start Writing

When I open my blog editor with a fresh new page, WordPress exactly invites me to do that: Add a title – start writing. Once I put the cursor into the respective text field and I hit the first key, these suggestions disappear and I am presented with a blank space. Blogs, like their fanciful siblings called video blogs, or Vlogs, exactly do that: They invite people to produce a stream of conscienceness. Of course, one can easily get distracted in a discourse happening in real-life (I am notorius in that one), and the same works here in the blog universe. This is what is happening with this blog entry. I wanted to write about the effects of the Covid-pandemic on the fabric of our societies. Instead, I found myself distracted by the invitation “Add Title – Start Writing”. Reading these words, my mind went off into a different realm of issues I am grappling with. But okay, the initial idea for this blog entry is not lost, it is just for later. I decided this way, and within the ensuing creative process, the following product materialized.

Watch this movie: “The Social Dilemma“. It is on Netflix, and I should say, if you look it up, it has created a lot of controversial discussion itself. It left a huge impression on me. Judge for yourself. It is the main driver making me writing the following, and hopefully to continue with a series of more blog entries.

In my experience, blogging and vlogging platforms invite to produce a never ending stream of output. As a consequence of how human brains work, how the platform providers set up their business models, and most importantly, because of the Artificial Intelligence (AI) built in under the hood of these systems, more often than not this can create a binding spell not only for content consumers but also for content creators. They are being bound in ways which tend to hide the fact that there is a hidden intention on the side of platform providers, for which’s purpose they employ AI as a masterful tool. Consumers are encouraged to consume more, producers are encouraged to produce more, and limiting producers in admitting that partly or entirely they may do it for financial gain. Both groups being coerced into spending more and more of their lifetime in this digital relationship. For consumers it is true what they say: “If you are getting something for free, consider yourself being the object of other people’s choices and not the subject owning your own set of choices”.

I am an avid reader of news blogs, and for decades the use of RSS-feeds is hard-wired in how I choose reading my daily dose of news. These systems are working by allowing me to define the set of news sites I would like to subscribe to. I am the one who makes the choice. I choose the online editions of the “New York Times”, the “Washington Post”, the German magazine “Der Spiegel”, and so on. In effect I make a choice between sources of information, select these in my news reader application, and when I open up the news reader, I am getting stories from these sites, instead of having to visit them all. This is a more or less static undertaking. Sometimes I change the choice of sites, adding Buzzfeed, deleting a tech blog which just gave me annoying redundant news, stuff like that. But I am in the driver’s seat of choosing the source of my information. Mostly. Because whatever adblocker I use, it is a never ending race against the manipulative noise which comes together with my news through advertisements. Tapping at the wrong part of the screen when scrolling up or down, bang, something else is opening up. And more often than not, information about my choice is transmitted to some information crawlers in the background without my knowledge or consent, increasing chances that I will be presented with more of the stuff I tapped on, by mistake.

Then there are sites that present a carefully curated choice of news. Apple News (and the paid sibling Apple News+) is an example for it. They offer me content based on my preferences, and they stick to a business model which appears to include some values, about pluralism, truthfulness, content limitation, and so on. Yet, I can make choices which appear to be based less on what I call subconscious manipulation. In addition to my RSS-based newsreader, I also like to visit providers like these. And since I pay for the +-Version, I feel like I am contributing to freedom of press not making journalists solely depending on advertisements.

In this way, I am getting my news from digital editions since more than twenty years at least. I don’t read paper newspapers. I don’t watch the evening news at 8pm. I choose the sources which I like, and which I trust. I make a choice about what I want to read and see, and what I don’t. Importantly, I choose when to read my news, and it is my responsibility to make sure that I am not consumed by my news. Opportunities for others to change my choice, and efforts to lure me in, are somewhat reduced and slowed down. In this model, there is plenty of space for real-life discussions, getting incentives about new and interesting things from friends over a coffee, and then looking it up.

I will say that I deliberately choose to go off FaceBook in 2016, I have an extremely reduced Twitter account, I maintain a LinkedIn-account mainly for putting my profile out, I am not using Instagram, Tic Toc, or any other social media site. And because I found myself in the same situation of some social media site creeping in and taking control over ever more of my daily time, flicking pictures and glancing on pieces of information, my experience with dating sites led to the same decision: I entirely went off. They are just specialized sites for dating, they operate in very much a similar way like Social Media does. Except that there are “benefits” if you decide to become a paying subscriber: The brakes are off, and you can flick through profiles of people offering themselves to your heart’s content, you can see when you’re being noticed, you can control ways how to be seen, or not, you can pay for being put on top of “suggestion lists”, and so on. Amongst the several reasons why I went off social media, my experience with how they take over more and more of my daily time compulsively spent on them stands out. I know more about compulsion and addiction than I have written about on this blog, and this knowledge is including deep personal experiences.

Then I “discovered” Netflix. My relationship with Netflix now includes several years. Interestingly, and I will come to it in a little moment, my relationship with Netflix cooled off when a new lover entered my life: Youtube. But Netflix first: I used to buy movies on DVD, and I have quite an archive on high-powered harddisks. I still archive my movies, even after buying them in Apple’s movie store, and despite the fact that internet bandwidth has become a staple allowing me to watch old purchases over and over again, just online. Netflix is different, like Amazon Prime, HBO or else, for me three reasons stand out: (1) I can’t archive; (2) movies come and go; (3) I am presented with an AI-driven interface suggesting more of the same, to an extent very different from, for example, Apple Movies.

My relationship with Netflix is a love/hate-relationship. It is nice to flick through recommendations put up for me, to pick something for the evening, even to download it for later, or a long-distance flight. It is extremely annoying over time to get presented only with “more of the same”. If I watch movies from my beloved Marvel Universe, I get related offerings. The interface is increasingly hiding other choices I could make. It learns from my choices, and my choices narrow down my future choices. If I want to break through that invisible barrier, I have to make an active search effort. When I choose enough new stuff, the choice which is presented to me is gradually changing. But it is not getting me to a less narrow choice, it is just a different form of a new narrow choice. And over time, the purpose of the AI worked out fine: Though I have a paid Netflix account and I am not getting presented with ads, I watched more and more stuff on Netflix. All of us know it: We name it binging. Compulsively spending afternoons and evenings watching movies or series. When I have a favorite Science Fiction series, I watch three or four episodes before going to sleep. As a child, I had to wait for the next Enterprise episode for ONE WEEK…

We all know that experience. Which brings me to Youtube. Let me talk about how it started, because I know Youtube since decades, but I never allowed myself to dive in. Until my 12-year-old son wanted to operate a Youtube channel. As a family, we are operating with 6.500 kilometer between us, so often my contribution to parenting includes being the IT-expert for our growing kids, attempting to mitigate the many risks that come from online exposure. So, in order to advise my son about the do’s and don’ts, I often have to create an account myself to understand. Otherwise I would just be “the old man” advising on something I have no clue about.

That’s how I got myself a Youtube-account, which is, by definition, a Google-account which I have to link to Youtube. After that, I could happily subscribe to the little channel of my son where he is posting Minecraft videos. Dad and some ten kids, friends of my son. I have to add that a few months earlier my son made an experience on another site where a small video he posted went viral within days. Which was, and is, his biggest motivation for running such a channel. He dreams of getting a huge amount of subscribers, because that is what will make the money coming in.

Back to my own love affairs: I discovered Youtube channels. And this entirely replaced the time I was spending on Netflix. I allowed this to happen, deciding to make myself the object of my own experiment.

When I was interested, for professional reasons, in some videos explaining functions of weapons, I progressively entered a little universe of craziness: People firing weapons of all sorts on things of all sorts in some U.S. desert areas. And soon I bordered videos where other content, like right-wing fascism content, would have flooded my menu if I would have made only one mistake, only tapping on one “wrong” video. If somebody would have seen my home screen on Youtube during that time, you would have thought I am a weapons fanatic. And for a short while it was entertaining watching people creating and firing sophisticated crossbows, penetrating safes with high-powered assault rifles, of driving tanks and firing their cannons in the desert. Then I changed it, watched some videos about how turbines work. Soon I submerged in a world of people building turbines and rocket engines into cars in some Russian workshops. Nice, for a time. I changed it again, looking up chemical science of explosives, getting into that , sometimes really informative, universe. Slowly, the weapons crazies disappeared from my menu, useful stuff, but also other crazies, showed up. Changing it again, I began to watch movies about van life. Ending up with a small bunch of really nice and useful bloggers living a lifestyle which I embrace as well, I also was confronted with vlogs of broken people living a van life, and I saw their attempts to create followerships by inviting people into their crazy lifes.

Over time, I curated my list. But this being the consequence of an educated decision, even entirely going off YouTube for a while, allowing myself to experience the void. Yes, a void. Because part of the mechanism has to do with supporting compulsive and addictive patterns which can form a disorder, and often do.

Quite a group of those vloggers which I watched for a while, they do whatever works in order to get followers. Because YouTube will take you a little bit more serious in case you have a followership larger than 10.000. Money may flow in. You dream of 100.000. You dream of the big money. Like in a lottery, you fail to see that only a few people make big money, AI working together with human intelligence in finding out how to create more followers, in order to make more money. Result being the creation of narrow universes of followers. Combine this with the endless creativity of young people, and their wish to make money. Or: Combine this with the endless creativity of manipulative political operatives, and today’s bunch of conspiracy theorists.

The difference to Netflix? Whilst Youtube also offers a paid premium (and is constantly nagging me to give in, which I will not), I can dive into this universe, with all its useful and all its crazy forms, including content providers on the conspiracy theory side of things, for free. I have to accept the fact that I am bombarded with advertisements, and I soon discovered that checking for equipment on Amazon would lead to specific ads on Youtube. Also, the use of Virtual Private Networks aiming at hiding my IP-address would have limited or no success in avoiding this cross-fertilisation of the likes of Amazon, Google, Youtube, and whatever, with my user-data.

Since I am not using Social Media sites like FaceBook, I can not, from own experience, say who is “better”, or “worse” in applying AI-technology. But I see the tremendous impact of this technology in my experience with Youtube.

Watch this movie: “The Social Dilemma“.

My dystopian comments at the end of this blog entry: A global peepshow… People watching the lives of other people through windows on smartphone or computer screens. Unlike a sophisticated discourse in a Viennoise coffeehouse where I would sit around with likeminded, this blog entry is the product of a wild mixture of sitting on my couch, or in front of a PC, interrupted by taking a shower, sitting there in my pajamas, cleaning the kitchen, coming back to the screen with another idea, doing other stuff, honing my writing, creating something where you don’t see the messy process any longer. The product always communicates an illusion about how it has come together. Like YouTubers sharing their stories selectively, only focusing on the beautiful parts. Or the parts which stick. Watch some lifestreams on YouTube and you see the interaction between these actors and a never-ending stream of contents running up the screen, reflecting on every mundane, or also gross way people think and talk. Because of the business model underneath and mostly invisible, this influences the influencer. Which is, in a way, how life works. Were there not the amplifying effects of AI.

I’ll try to read and think more about it. As may have become clear, I do not condemn this modern technology. However, there are really scary things going on that, I believe, we need to understand better. Meanwhile, in order to get a glimpse of what I am trying to understand better, read today’s OpEd in the NYT, written by one my favorite authors, Yuval Noah Harari, on “When The World Seems Like One Big Conspiracy“. There is a link between what I wrote about, and this one. And there is another link to psychological impacts of the Covid-pandemic. Which I had wanted to write about in the first place. I hope it will come in one of my next entries.

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