“The mind-forg’d manacles I hear” –William Blake, London
Willliam Gibson, the near-enough future science fiction writer, described this Tokyo street scene in his novel Idoru (page 128):
There was a man on stilts at the intersection nearest the hotel. He wore a hooded white paper suit, a gas mask, and a pair of rectangular sign-boards. Messages scrolled down the boards in Japanese as he shifted his weight to maintain balance. Streams of pedestrian traffic flowed around and past him.
“What’s that?” Laney asked, indicating the man on stilts.
“A sect,” Arleigh McCrae said. ” ‘New Logic.’ They say the world will end when the combined weight of all the human nervous tissue on the planet reaches a specific figure.”
A very long multi-digit number went scrolling down.
“Is that it?” Laney asked.
“No,” she said, “that’s their latest estimate of the current total weight.”
Laney saw the man’s eyes through the transparent visor as they passed. A look of grim patience. The stilts were the kind workers wore to put up ceilings, articulated alloy sprung with steel.
“What’s supposed to happen when there’s enough nervous tissue?”
“A new order of being. They don’t talk about it. Rez [the rock star with whom both Laney and Creigh have a gig] was interested in them, apparently. He tried to arrange an audience with the founder.”
“The founder declined. He said that he , and that that made him untouchable.”
Idoru was written in 1996. Facebook was released in 2004.
I have the sense that NC readers are below average in their social media usage; after the late unpleasantness, I abandoned Facebook almost entirely, though I still frequent the Twitter. However, in 2017, there were about 2.46 billion social media users in the world; that’s a lot of nervous tissue. The global advertising revenue for social media is estimated at $23.39 billion U.S. dollars worldwide in 2017 for mobile, and $8.63 billion for desktop; that’s real money, even today. So even if you don’t use social media yourself, I bet you have friends and family members who are users.
As it turns out, we’ve had a recent spate of stories about some Facebook executives having second thoughts about manipulating human nervous tissue. Sean Parker was a Facebook co-founder, and he unloaded recently at an Axios conference. From November 9, 2017:
“…. The thought process that went into building these applications, Facebook being the first of them, … was all about: ‘How do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible?’ And that means that we need to sort of give you a little dopamine hit every once in a while, because someone liked or commented on a photo or a post or whatever. And that’s going to get you to contribute more content, and that’s going to get you … more likes and comments. It’s a social-validation feedback loop … exactly the kind of thing that a hacker like myself would come up with, because you’re exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology. The inventors, creators — it’s me, it’s Mark [Zuckerberg], it’s Kevin Systrom on Instagram, it’s all of these people — understood this consciously. And we did it anyway.”
Parker’s remarks seem to have been a one-day’s wonder, lost in the “news” flow, but they were reinforced by a former Facebook executive, Chamath Palihapitiya. From December 11, 2017:
Another former Facebook executive has spoken out about the harm [Facebook] is doing to civil society around the world. Chamath Palihapitiya, who joined Facebook in 2007 and became its vice president for user growth, said he feels “tremendous guilt” about the company he helped make. “I think we have created tools that are ripping apart the social fabric of how society works,” he told an audience at Stanford Graduate School of Business, before recommending people take a “hard break” from social media.
Palihapitiya’s criticisms were aimed not only at Facebook, but the wider online ecosystem. “ we’ve created are destroying how society works,” he said, referring to online interactions driven by “hearts, likes, thumbs-up.” “No civil discourse, no cooperation; misinformation, mistruth. And it’s not an American problem — this is not about Russians ads. This is a global problem.” He says he tries to use Facebook as little as possible, and that He later adds, though, that he believes the company “overwhelmingly does good in the world.”
Of course he does. (See Charlie Stross for another descrption of the “dopamine loop.”) So what is this dopamine loop?
The existence of a “dopamine loop” created by social media likes and clicks is conventional wisdom in Silicon Valley, but I haven’t been able to find the original science behind it. (It is possible that it’s a phrase that is used because it sticks in the mind and makes the user sound authoritative, like “kompromat.”) The Atlantic describes the dopamine loop as “neuroscience” (hmm) in 2012:
Thanks to neuroscience, we’re beginning to understand that achieving a goal or anticipating the reward of new content for completing a task can excite the neurons in the ventral tegmental area of the midbrain, which releases the neurotransmitter dopamine into the brain’s pleasure centers. This in turn causes the experience to be perceived as pleasurable. As a result, some people can become obsessed with these pleasure-seeking experiences and engage in compulsive behavior such as a need to keep playing a game, constantly check email, or compulsively gamble online. A recent Newsweek cover story described some of the harmful effects of being trapped in the compulsion loop.
(Gibson’s Pattern Recognition describes a heroine who checks her mail if not obsessively, at least extremely frequently; “refresh” captures the tiny rush quite nicely. I’ve had the same habit.)
Here’s another description, this time not from the world of middlebrow neuroscience, but from the American Marketing Association. From 2015:
According to a study of Australian consumers by San Francisco-based media-buying firm RadiumOne, social media usage is a dopamine gold mine. “Every time we post, share, ‘like,’ comment or send an invitation online, we are creating an expectation,” according to the study. “We feel a sense of belonging and advance our concept of self through sharing.”
The findings are compelling not only because they help explain why we feel compelled to click “like” so often, but also because they lay bare the power that marketers can wield by creating “likable,” shareable social content. As the study puts it: “Building sharing events into any marketing strategy is a valuable step in realizing this opportunity. The benefits and insights gained can ultimately inform abrand’s entire marketing approachand improve results.”
[Mauricio Delgado, associate professor of psychology at Rutgers University in Newark, N.J., says] that when you share those things that naturally give you a dopamine kick—your workout, a dinner date—you get a second shot of dopamine from the sharing and “liking” aspect, he says. “It’s a daisy chain of dopamine.”
I have no doubt that for a conservative, liking and sharing to “own the libs” on social media creates what could be called a dopamine rush; and the same for likes and shares for performative speech, “calling out,” and virtue signaling by liberals. However, I don’t think we have to buy into the “dopamine loop” as a construct — absent the science I have been able to find — to agree that social media is about the “manipulation of human nervous tissue.” There’s an enormous body of literature on this, and I’m no expert on brain chemistry, so these citations only scratch the surface:
For example: “Viewing photos with many (compared with few) likes was associated with greater activity in neural regions implicated in reward processing, social cognition, imitation, and attention” (Psychol Sci. 2016 Jul;27(7):1027-35).
For example: “Popular photographs elicited greater activity in multiple brain regions, including the nucleus accumbens (NAcc), a hub of the brain’s reward circuitry” (Child Dev. 2018 Jan;89(1):37-47).
For example: “Receiving a text message has been shown to light up the same area of the brain stimulated by highly addictive drugs such as heroin or cocaine” (Yale Daily News).
For example: “In the current study, 22 adolescents (average age 16.98) underwent neuroimaging (functional magnetic resonance imaging) while viewing and rating emotions shown in brief video clips featuring themselves, their parents, or an unfamiliar peer…. The results suggest neural correlates of the adolescent social reorientation toward peers and away from parents that may be associated with adolescents’ real-life risk-taking behaviors and social relationships” (Soc Neurosci. 2015;10(6):592-604).
For example: “Here, we test recent theories that individuals place high subjective value on opportunities to communicate their thoughts and feelings to others and that doing so engages neural and cognitive mechanisms associated with reward. Five studies provided support for this hypothesis. Self-disclosure was strongly associated with increased activation in brain regions that form the mesolimbic dopamine system, including the nucleus accumbens and ventral tegmental area. Moreover, individuals were willing to forgo money to disclose about the self” (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol. 109 no. 21, 8038–8043).
And so let me circle round to the programmer. Here’s an example of manipulating human nervous tissue at Instagram (owned by Facebook). From the Toronto Globe and Mail:
The makers of smartphone apps rightly believe that part of the reason we’re so curious about those notifications is that people are desperately insecure and crave positive feedback with a kneejerk desperation. Matt Mayberry, who works at a California startup called Dopamine Labs, says it’s common knowledge in the industry that Instagram exploits this craving by . If the photo-sharing app decides you need to use the service more often, it’ll show only a fraction of the likes you’ve received on a given post at first, hoping you’ll be disappointed with your haul and check back again in a minute or two. “They’re tying in to your greatest insecurities,” Mr. Mayberry said.
(I like that word “haul.”) Above, we saw a Facebook executive — not Zuckerberg — say:
The inventors, creators — it’s me, it’s Mark [Zuckerberg], it’s Kevin Systrom on Instagram, it’s all of these people — understood this consciously. And we did it anyway.”
But what about the software engineers who also “did it anyway”? That horrid little piece of manipulation — “strategically withholding ‘likes'” — was implemented by a team. There was a manager, there was a whiteboard, there were design sessions, there was testing, there was coding, all for software engineered to treat humans like cattle. And even if the “likes” weren’t being withheld, isn’t taking advantage of “desperately insecure people” a bad thing, in and of itself? Something that you would not want children to grow up to do? Especially when practiced “at scale,” impacting billions of users? Is a life spent forging manacles for other minds a life worth living?  Jaron Lanier, in a recent interview:
It helps that he avoids all social media.
“It’s like, why would you go sign up for an evil hypnotist who’s explicitly saying that his whole purpose is to get you to do things that people have paid him to get you to do, but he won’t tell you who they are?”
Concluding by looking at the bright side, Lanier has the only sensible explanation I’ve ever heard for the plethora of cat videos on the web:
“I think we know that Facebook is turning us into trained dogs,” he says. “We know we’re being trained. We can feel ourselves being turned into trained circus animals. And we long for that independence that cats show. So when you look at a cat video, what you’re really seeing is this receding identity that you want to cling to and find again.”
And so I will conclude with a cat video. Here is Maru getting into and out of a box:
I’m with the “New Logic” guy on stilts. We need a lot of new logic.
 I have a carefully curated list. Twitter is wonderful because a lot of journalists, writers, scientists, artists, and activists frequent it, so I get many fascinating links and insights from all over the world that I would never find otherwise. Twitter is horrible because it takes every aspect of American politics that is currently horrible, and amplifies it, and the short form may itself encourage more horribleness. On the whole, however, I prefer Twitter because I curate my news feed — I suppose it could be said that I titrate my dosage — and not Facebook’s faceless engineers.
 Of course, neoliberalism produces plenty of desperation. “The good autocrat provides many opportunities for failure in the populace” –Frank Herbert, Children of Dune.
 Here is an interesting article, from a Google “Design Ethicist,” that frames these issues at a higher level, considering deception, “magic,” con artistry, and so forth.
 Aside, that is, from their intrinsic adorableness.