Algorithms are the perfect tool for delivering individualized exploitation to billions. They may yet have potential for mobilizing collective power at scale.
Buy Me a Sandwich
Out in California, my friend is working on a new kind of energy storage startup. Here’s what they do. They buy electricity from the grid when it’s cheap (middle of the night), and store it in a battery in your house for you to use during the day, when demand is high. Participants will be able to save 20%-30% on their energy bills. And the best part is you don’t even have to do anything. The whole thing runs on algorithms.
Customers in the UK will soon find out. Recent reports suggest that three of the country’s largest supermarket chains are rolling out surge pricing in select stores. This means that prices will rise and fall over the course of the day in response to demand. Buying lunch at lunchtime will be like ordering an Uber at rush hour.
But what if an algorithm bought it for you at midnight instead?
Amid the infinite churn of natural and political terrors— juxtaposed with photos of babies made by people I love — blowing up my Facebook feed, I keep seeing a hipster hostage video selling me something called Paribus.
“Stores change their prices all the time — and many of them have price guarantees,” explains Paribus’ App Store description. “Paribus gets you money when prices drop. So if you buy something online from one of these retailers and it goes on sale later, Paribus automatically works to get you the price adjustment.”
Most likely the reason Facebook expects I’d be interested in this service (more on this later) is because I already have an app duking it out with Comcast to lower my bill.
It sends me updates via Facebook Messenger to let me know its progress:
And I message it back choose-your-own-adveture style responses:
This feature is part of a service called Trim, which positions itself as “a personal assistant that saves money for you.” (It makes money by taking a cut of the recovered charges.)
Trim calls its Comcast negotiator bot, knowingly:
And, indeed — we should all be thinking about the possibilities for algorithm defense.
Buy Me A Monopoly
The day Amazon announced its purchase of Whole Foods, shares in both Kroger and Walmart — which generates more than half its revenue from grocery sales — went into free-fall. Kroger’s in particular fell 8% in a matter of hours.
“Amazon has demonstrated that it is willing to invest to dominate the categories that it decides to compete in,” said Mark Baum, a senior vice president at the Food Marketing Institute. But the way Amazon “decides to compete” is to actually make the category uncompetitive, driving other players out until it has become the category.
Amazon isn’t abandoning online retail for brick-and-mortar. Rather, it’s planning to fuse the two. It’s going to digitize our daily lives in ways that make surge-pricing your groceries look primitive by comparison. It’s going to expand Silicon Valley’s surveillance-based business model into physical space, and make money from monitoring everything we do.
Concepts like Paribus, or Trim’s “Comcast Defense” are still primitive now, too, but extrapolate the possibilities out at scale. Imagine hundreds of thousands of people on a negotiation platform like this. That becomes the ability to exert real power. To pit Comcast and Verizon and AT&T against each other for who will offer the best deal, and have the leverage to switch all your members over en masse.
Reading Trim’s about page, it seems possible the thought could have crossed their minds:
So far, we’ve saved our users millions of dollars by automating little pieces of their day-to-day finances.
Now we’re starting to work on the hard stuff. Will I have enough money to retire someday? Which credit card should I get? Can my car insurance switch automatically to a cheaper provider?
Maybe Trim’s already thinking of the power of collective negotiating. Or maybe someone else will. The idea isn’t even all that new. It’s essentially how group insurance plans work. And unions. We’ve come up with it before. But we’ve never really tried it with code.
Buy Me A Pen
art by Curtis Mead
“When mass culture breaks apart,” Chris Anderson wrote a decade ago, in The Long Tail, “It doesn’t re-form into a different mass. Instead it turns into millions of microcultures, which coexist and interact in a baffling array of ways.”
On this new landscape of “massively parallel culture,” as Anderson called it, hyper-segmentation has become our manifest destiny.
Now we atomize the universal, dividing into ever nicher niches. We invent new market subsegments where none previously existed, or need to. We splash pink onto pens to create “differentiated” product lines:
Facebook knows your phone ID and can add it to your Facebook ID. It puts that together with the rest of your online activity: not just every site you’ve ever visited, but every click you’ve ever made. Facebook sees you, everywhere. Now, thanks to its partnerships with the old-school credit firms, Facebook knew who everybody was, where they lived, and everything they’d ever bought with plastic in a real-world offline shop. All this information is used for a purpose which is, in the final analysis, profoundly bathetic. It is to sell you things via online ads.
Buy Me Clicks
All day long, Facebook’s News Feed algorithm “is mapping your brain, seeking patterns of engagement,” writes Tobias Rose. “It can predict what you’ll click on better than anyone you know. It shows you stories, tracks your responses, and filters out the ones that you are least likely to respond to. It follows the videos you watch, the photos you hover over, and every link you click on.”
And Facebook follows you even when you’re not on Facebook. “Because every website you’ve ever visited (more or less) has planted a cookie on your web browser,” writes Lanchester, “when you go to a new site, there is a real-time auction, in millionths of a second, to decide what your eyeballs are worth and what ads should be served to them, based on what your interests, and income level and whatnot, are known to be.”
Facebook’s algorithms can create not only a private, personal pipeline of media, but an entirely individualized reality where information is repackaged for you — like pink pens — dynamically, in real-time, to whatever color, shape, or price point will extract the most value out of you specifically.
Four researchers based in Spain creat[ed] automated [shopper] personas to behave as if, in one case, ‘budget conscious’ and in another ‘affluent’, and then checking to see if their different behaviour led to different prices. It did: a search for headphones returned a set of results which were on average four times more expensive for the affluent persona. An airline-ticket discount site charged higher fares to the affluent consumer. In general, the location of the searcher caused prices to vary by as much as 166 per cent.
An anti-Clinton ad repeating a notorious speech she made in 1996 on the subject of ‘super-predators’… was sent to African-American voters in areas where the Republicans were trying, successfully as it turned out, to suppress the Democrat vote. Nobody else saw the ads.
“As consumers,” Tarnoff writes, “we’re nearly powerless, but as citizens, we can demand more democratic control of our data. The only solution is political.”
I’ve had the same thought. In an article last year about how technology has gotten so good at degrading us even some of its creators are starting to have enough, I wrote, “We take it for granted now, that cars have seat-belts to keep the squishy humans inside from flying through a meat-grinder of glass and metal during a collision. But they didn’t always. How did we ever get so clever? Regulation.”
We’ve been classified and stereotyped and divided and conquered by algorithms. Lines of code deliver custom-targeted exploitation to billions of earthlings at once.
Can our individual fragments of power be scaled towards something bigger by them as well?
“Addressing our biggest issues as a species — from climate change, to pandemics, to poverty —” (to Jesus Christ, have you tried ever canceling your Comcast account?) “— requires us to have a common narrative of the honest problems we face,” writes Rose. “Without this, we are undermining our greatest strength — our unique ability to cooperate and share the careful and important burdens of being human.”
As individuals we are indeed basically powerless, and algorithms have proven a stunningly effective tool for extracting ever greater value out of our atomization. We have perhaps yet to imagine the potential of what algorithms deployed to concentrate our individual power into a group force can achieve at a global scale.
One thing is for certain — we ned to start thinking about defense.
Technology has gotten so good at degrading people, even its creators are starting to have enough.
Last year I had what you could call an existential crisis. This psychological hangover was induced by the dissolution of an app I’d launched, which had amassed millions of users but not enough money to keep it alive, a divorce from a second startup I co-founded that cost me layer’s fees and the price of a dear friendship, and topped off finally with a roofie of heartbreak.
It felt for a while like I had fallen through the trap door of the universe. I had discovered what everyone up on the floorboards above, walking noisily about, convinced they were going somewhere, was too blind to see: nothing mattered.
While in the void, I saw Apple unveil the Apple Pencil and thought about how vehemently opposed to a product like this Steve Jobs had been during his lifetime. “God gave us 10 styluses,” proclaimed a man not known for a belief in a power higher than himself, “let’s not invent another.” This prophetic aversion had led directly to the invention the iPhone, a touch-screen device that in a few years had wholly remade the world in its self-images.
“As soon as you have a stylus, you’re dead,” Jobs had famously declared. But, of course, at 56, Steve Jobs was dead, and as soon as he was, Apple had a stylus.
“Think about that when you’re fighting for some creative idea at work today,” I’d tell people.
All meaning we ascribed to anything we did with our lives seemed ridiculous; an absurd delusion. I wanted to do nothing. I wanted to pursue nothing. I wanted to create nothing. There was no point to any of it.
All of this felt compounded — and if I stared too long into the glare of the digital sun, perpetuated — by an increasingly paralyzing rupture I was watching run down the fabric of the culture.
“Our technology is turning us into objects,” I’d written in a 2013 post titled Objectionable, tracing the trajectory from selfies to self-objectification to dehumanization. In a ubiquitously mediated environment, I argued, re-conceiving ourselves and one another as media products was inevitable. “We are all selfies. We are all profiles. We are all objects. And we can’t stop. And the trouble is, it doesn’t matter how you treat objects,” I wrote. “It’s not like they’re people.”
Then came Tinder.
“By reducing people to one-time-use bodies and sex to an on-demand exchange, dating apps have made what they yield us disposable and cheap,” I wrote in an An App For Love. “From swipe to sex, the relentless, grinding repetitiveness inherent in every aspect of the ‘swipe app’ experience sabotages the very mechanics that trigger the brain system for romantic love,” I wrote, referencing Helen Fisher’s extensive neuroscience research on the phenomenon. “Love knows what it likes. And we could be building tech engineered for it — creating a match between the research and the product experience, as it were. But we aren’t. Love has been, literally, written out of the code for a generation afraid to catch feelings. Instead we swipe through thousands of instant people. We learn nothing of them and share nothing of ourselves to be known. We strip ourselves down to anatomy and we become invisible.”
We had succeeded, I wrote in the summer of 2015, in disrupting love. That would be the last thing I’d write before nothing became worth writing about.
In the fall of 2016 there is a toxic sense pervading the culture that no one is deserving of dignity anymore. You can feel it too as you sense your own being swiped away. It’s not just in our politics. It’s in our pockets. It’s in the nameless dread we feel of our devices now. Their myriad manipulations invading our attention, degrading our autonomy, making us sick. One third of us would rather give up sex than our smartphone. The rest of us can’t even get out of bed in the morning without first tapping the black, glass syringe. We have accepted our addiction to digital dopamine so thoroughly we take its unrelenting coercion for granted. We all live under the tyranny of technology now. It’s gotten to the point that even some technology creators are recoiling at the results their creations have wrought on our brave new world, and trying to find ways to design different.
The capacity of slot machines to keep people transfixed is now the engine of Las Vegas’s economy. Over the last 20 years, roulette wheels and craps tables have been swept away to make space for a new generation of machines: no longer mechanical contraptions (they have no lever), they contain complex computers produced in collaborations between software engineers, mathematicians, script writers and graphic artists.
The casinos aim to maximise what they call “time-on-device”. The environment in which the machines sit is designed to keep people playing. Gamblers can order drinks and food from the screen. Lighting, decor, noise levels, even the way the machines smell — everything is meticulously calibrated. Not just the brightness, but also the angle of the lighting is deliberate: research has found that light drains gamblers’ energy fastest when it hits their foreheads.
But it is the variation in rewards that is the key to time-on-device. The machines are programmed to create near misses: winning symbols appear just above or below the “payline” far more often than chance alone would dictate. Losses are thus reframed as potential wins, motivating [players] to try again. Mathematicians design payout schedules to ensure that people keep playing while they steadily lose money. Alternative schedules are matched to different types of players, with differing appetites for risk: some gamblers are drawn towards the possibility of big wins and big losses, others prefer a drip-feed of little payouts (as a game designer told Schüll, “Some people want to be bled slowly”). The mathematicians are constantly refining their models and experimenting with new ones, wrapping their formulae around the contours of the cerebral cortex.
Gamblers themselves talk about “the machine zone”: a mental state in which their attention is locked into the screen in front of them, and the rest of the world fades away. “You’re in a trance,” one gambler explains to Schüll. “The zone is like a magnet,” says another. “It just pulls you in and holds you there.”
Of course, these days we’re all captive to a screen explicitly designed to exploit our psychology and maximize time-on-device every waking moment, everywhere we go. The average person checks their phone 150 times a day, and each compulsive tug on our own, private slot machine is not the result of conscious choice or weak willpower. It’s engineered.
“There’s a thousand people on the other side of the screen whose job is to break down whatever responsibility I can maintain,” explains Tristan Harris, formerly Google’s Design Ethicist.
Designers, technologists, product managers, data scientists, ad sales executives — the job of all these people, as Harris says, “is to hook people.”
“I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness starving hysterical,” wrote the beat poet Alan Ginsberg in his 1956 magnum opus, Howl.
There is a huge incentive for technology companies to keep us in thrall to their machine zone. From small startups to the massive, public corporations that are now America’s most valuable companies, the dual motivators of reward from advertisers, and punishment from stockholders or investors compel them to make sure they keep you, me, and everyone we know constantly and increasingly engaged.
The emails that induce you to buy right away, the apps and games that rivet your attention, the online forms that nudge you towards one decision over another: all are designed to hack the human brain and capitalise on its instincts, quirks and flaws.
When you get to the end of an episode of “House of Cards” on Netflix, the next episode plays automatically. It is harder to stop than to carry on. Facebook gives your new profile photo a special prominence in the news feeds of your friends, because it knows that this is a moment when you are vulnerable to social approval, and that “likes” and comments will draw you in repeatedly. LinkedIn sends you an invitation to connect, which gives you a little rush of dopamine — how important I must be! — even though that person probably clicked unthinkingly on a menu of suggested contacts. Unconscious impulses are transformed into social obligations, which compel attention, which is sold for cash.
The same month as the article above came out, Briana Bosker wrote in The Atlantic:
Sites foster a sort of distracted lingering partly by lumping multiple services together. To answer the friend request, we’ll pass by the News Feed, where pictures and auto-play videos seduce us into scrolling through an infinite stream of posts — what Harris calls a “bottomless bowl,” referring to a study that found people eat 73 percent more soup out of self-refilling bowls than out of regular ones, without realizing they’ve consumed extra. Checking that Facebook friend request will take only a few seconds, we reason, though research shows that when interrupted, people take an average of 25 minutes to return to their original task. The “friend request” tab will nudge us to add even more contacts by suggesting “people you may know,” and in a split second, our unconscious impulses cause the cycle to continue on the recipient’s phone.
Food companies engineer flavors to exploit our biological desire for sugary, salty, and fatty foods. Social technology taps into our psychological cravings. We are social creatures, after all.
The trend is toward deeper manipulation in ever more sophisticated forms. Harris fears that Snapchat’s tactics for hooking users make Facebook’s look quaint. Facebook automatically tells a message’s sender when the recipient reads the note — a design choice that activates our hardwired sense of social reciprocity and encourages the recipient to respond. Snapchat ups the ante: Unless the default settings are changed, users are informed the instant a friend begins typing a message to them — which effectively makes it a faux pas not to finish a message you start. Harris worries that the app’s Snapstreak feature, which displays how many days in a row two friends have snapped each other and rewards their loyalty with an emoji, seems to have been pulled straight from [Stanford experimental psychologist B.J.] Fogg’s inventory of persuasive tactics. Research shared with Harris by Emily Weinstein, a Harvard doctoral candidate, shows that Snapstreak is driving some teenagers nuts — to the point that before going on vacation, they give friends their log-in information and beg them to snap in their stead. “To be honest, it made me sick to my stomach to hear these anecdotes,” Harris told me.
For a decade and a half, I’d been a web obsessive, publishing blog posts multiple times a day, seven days a week, and ultimately corralling a team that curated the web every 20 minutes during peak hours. Each morning began with a full immersion in the stream of internet consciousness and news, jumping from site to site, tweet to tweet, breaking news story to hottest take, scanning countless images and videos, catching up with multiple memes. Throughout the day, I’d cough up an insight or an argument or a joke about what had just occurred or what was happening right now. And at times, as events took over, I’d spend weeks manically grabbing every tiny scrap of a developing story in order to fuse them into a narrative in real time.
I was, in other words, a very early adopter of what we might now call living-in-the-web. And as the years went by, I realized I was no longer alone. Facebook soon gave everyone the equivalent of their own blog and their own audience. More and more people got a smartphone — connecting them instantly to a deluge of febrile content, forcing them to cull and absorb and assimilate the online torrent as relentlessly as I had once. It was ubiquitous now, this virtual living, this never-stopping, this always-updating. I remember when I decided to raise the ante on my blog in 2007 and update every half-hour or so, and my editor looked at me as if I were insane. But the insanity was now banality; the once-unimaginable pace of the professional blogger was now the default for everyone.
If the internet killed you, I used to joke, then I would be the first to find out. Years later, the joke was running thin. In the last year of my blogging life, my health began to give out. Four bronchial infections in 12 months had become progressively harder to kick. Vacations, such as they were, had become mere opportunities for sleep. My dreams were filled with the snippets of code I used each day to update the site. My friendships had atrophied as my time away from the web dwindled. My doctor, dispensing one more course of antibiotics, finally laid it on the line: “Did you really survive HIV to die of the web?”
In an essay on contemplation, the Christian writer Alan Jacobs recently commended the comedian Louis C.K. for withholding smartphones from his children. On the Conan O’Brien show, C.K. explained why: “You need to build an ability to just be yourself and not be doing something. That’s what the phones are taking away,” he said. “Underneath in your life there’s that thing … that forever empty … that knowledge that it’s all for nothing and you’re alone … That’s why we text and drive … because we don’t want to be alone for a second.”
He recalled a moment driving his car when a Bruce Springsteen song came on the radio. It triggered a sudden, unexpected surge of sadness. He instinctively went to pick up his phone and text as many friends as possible. Then he changed his mind, left his phone where it was, and pulled over to the side of the road to weep. He allowed himself for once to be alone with his feelings, to be overwhelmed by them, to experience them with no instant distraction, no digital assist. And then he was able to discover, in a manner now remote from most of us, the relief of crawling out of the hole of misery by himself. As he said of the distracted modern world we now live in: “You never feel completely sad or completely happy, you just feel … kinda satisfied with your products. And then you die. So that’s why I don’t want to get a phone for my kids.”
“When you’re feeling uncertain,” says Nir Eyal, author of Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products, “Before you ask why you’re uncertain, you Google. When you’re lonely, before you’re even conscious of feeling it, you go to Facebook. Before you know you’re bored, you’re on YouTube. Nothing tells you to do these things. The users trigger themselves.”
Technology’s relentless intrusion isn’t just hijacking our attention, it’s being deliberately designed to disrupt another kind of human experience:
Endless distraction is being engineered to prevent us from experiencing emotion. A form of, literally, psychological abuse.
What is this doing to our mental health?
The American College Health Association’s Spring 2016 survey of 95,761 students found that 17% of the nation’s college population has been diagnosed with or treated for anxiety problems during the past year. 13.9% were diagnosed with or treated for depression. Up from 11.6% and 10.7% respectively just five years ago.
Ohio State has seen a 43% jump in the past five years in the number of students being treated at the university’s counseling center. At the University of Central Florida in Orlando, the increase has been about 12% each year over the past decade. At the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, demand for counseling-center services has increased by 36% in the last seven years.
There is a mental health crisis of, literally, epidemic proportion going on.
The Wall Street Journal suggests it is “unclear why the rates of mental-health problems seem to be increasing.” Anxiety and depression rising in tandem with cohorts of young people who have spent more and more of their lives enmeshed in addictive technology with each successive year may simply be a coincidence.
Last year, Sales’s Vanity Fair article, Tinder and the Dawn of the ‘Dating Apocalypse,’ provided an ethnography of the dystopian dating app culture, but unlike her other subjects, McLeod wasn’t just another helpless user at the mercy of dating app technology. He is the founder of the dating app Hinge.
“It was crazy,” McLeod said. “I had $10 million in the bank. I had resources. I had a team. But as a C.E.O. I felt more powerless than I did when I had, like, no money in the bank and this thing was just getting started.”
“When your article came out,” McLeod had written to Sales back in August, “it was the first among many realizations that Hinge had morphed into something other than what I originally set out to build. Your honest depiction of the dating app landscape has contributed to a massive change we’re making at Hinge later this fall. I wanted to thank you for helping us realize that we needed to make a change.”
McLeod, 32, had launched Hinge in early 2013, fresh out of Harvard Business School, with the hope of becoming the “Match for my generation” — in other words a dating site that would facilitate committed relationships for younger people who were less inclined to use the leading and yet now antiquated (in Internet years) service. He was a bit of a romantic; last November a “Modern Love” column in the New York Times told the story of how he made a mad rush to Zurich to convince his college sweetheart not to marry the man she was engaged to (she and McLeod plan to marry this coming February). So nothing in his makeup nor his original plans for his company fit in with it becoming a way for Wall Street fuckboys to get laid. (“Hinge is my thing,” said a finance bro in my piece, a line McLeod says made him blanch.)
Sales’s article was a reckoning. Within a few months of its publication the Hinge team began conducting user research that, as McLeod writes, “would reveal how alarmingly accurate its indictment of swiping apps was.”
7 in 10 surveyed women on the leading swiping app have received sexually explicit messages or images.
6 in 10 men on the leading swiping app are looking primarily for flings or entertainment.
30% of surveyed women on swiping apps have been lied to about a match’s relationship status.
22% of men on Hinge have used a swiping app while on a date.
54% of singles on Hinge report feeling lonely after swiping on swiping apps.
21% of surveyed users on the leading swiping app have been ghosted after sleeping with a match.
81% of Hinge users have never found a long-term relationship on any swiping app.
Unsurprisingly, among the main design conventions McLeod and his team identified that have become standard in swipe apps are: a “slot-machine interface” that encourages people to keep swiping, and the dehumanizing representation of “people as playing cards.” These design choices not only “lead to the pathologically objectifying way many choose to engage with the real humans on the other side of the app” but also serve the business purpose of orienting users “towards engagement, not finding relationships.”
On the eve of Hinge’s relaunch as a completely overhauled product, (sans “swiping, matching, timers and games”), McLeod wrote:
The most popular swiping app boasts that users login on average 11 times per day spending up to 90 minutes per day swiping, and have accumulated on average over 200 matches. However, for the vast majority of users this has led to exactly zero relationships.
Like a casino, a swiping app isn’t designed to help you win; it’s designed to keep you playing so the house wins. Swiping is an addictive game designed to keep you single.
Given the current state of our culture, it’s now more critical than ever that there exist a service that helps those bold enough to seek real relationships find meaningful connections. With it, we hope we can pave the way for a new normal in dating culture that treats people with dignity and helps those seeking relationships find what they’re really looking for.
On October 11 the new Hinge launched on iOS in the US, UK, Canada, Australia, and India.
“What responsibility comes with the ability to influence the psychology of a billion people,” asks Tristan Harris. “Behavior design can seem lightweight because it’s mostly just clicking on screens. But what happens when you magnify that into an entire global economy? Then it becomes about power.”
Prior to his appointment as Google’s Design Ethicist, Harris worked on the Gmail Inbox app, which is where he began to think about the ways experience design choices can have ramifications on society at a mass scale. In 2016 Harris left Google to found Time Well Spent, a consultancy that works with tech startups proactively seeking to create more conscious user experiences, and to raise awareness for how digital technology is exploiting our psychology in ways we’ve come to take for granted.
As Bosker writes, Harris’s team at Google “dedicated months to fine-tuning the aesthetics of the Gmail app with the aim of building a more ‘delightful’ email experience. But to him that missed the bigger picture: Instead of trying to improve email, why not ask how email could improve our lives — or, for that matter, whether each design decision was making our lives worse?”
Like McLeod and Harris these are questions technology creators seem to be starting to ask themselves.
“We suck at dealing with abuse and trolls on the platform,” Dick Costolo, Twitter’s former CEO, wrote in a leaked memo in 2015. “We’ve sucked at it for years. It’s no secret. We lose core user after core user by not addressing simple trolling issues that they face every day. I’m frankly ashamed of how poorly we’ve dealt with this issue during my tenure as CEO…. I take PERSONAL responsibility for our failure to deal with this as a company.”
In February of 2015 Costolo was confident the platform would “start kicking these people off right and left,” but the problem might have proven too big for Costolo to solve. Before the end of year, he was out. Now, Costolo’s newly-announced post-Twitter venture, Chorus, is a fitness product aiming, unambiguously, to make people’s lives better.
Gabe Zichermann literally wrote the book on Gamification By Design. Now he focuses his energy on a new startup called Onward, which aims to “transform how people relate to addictive and compulsive behaviors in their lives, giving them more control and overall satisfaction.” The company is working with UCLA-based clinical advisors to design a software product to help people “achieve tech-life balance by reducing the pull from social media, porn, sex, gambling, games or shopping.” Not surprisingly, “Onward is designed and built by a team of expert technologists whose lives have been personally affected by addiction.”
“A new class of tech elites [is] ‘waking up’ to their industry’s unwelcome side effects,” Bosker writes. “For many entrepreneurs, this epiphany has come with age, children, and the peace of mind of having several million in the bank.” Bosker quotes Soren Gordhamer, the creator of Wisdom 2.0, a conference series about maintaining “presence and purpose” in the digital age: “They feel guilty,” Gordhamer says.
Perhaps. Or perhaps the realization of how much power they wield may, for some, eventually broaden their scope of what it is they can do with it. It is worth noting that this nascent trend has arrived as many of the technologists and entrepreneurs responsible for shaping the digital experiences of our lives have matured from scrappy upstarts with something to prove into established industry players. Has success felt as meaningful as they’d imagined it would? Did all their hard work and late nights actually create something of value? Has their impact on the world turned out to be what they’d hoped?
Confronted by this self-reflection some are discovering they have the power, and time yet, to make a change.
FLESH AND BONE BY THE TELEPHONE
Y-Combinator, the famous startup incubator that has helped create successes like AirBnB, DropBox, Instacart, Reddit, and more, has a motto —
This is an awesome mantra for founders of a commercial enterprise (and for VCs hoping to get a big return on their investment to preach to startups), but the trouble is, just because people want a thing doesn’t always mean that it’s all that awesome. People, for example, want heroin. That doesn’t necessarily mean that your company ought to make it.
What people want can be hacked. Addiction, in fact, changes the structure of the brain. There is a very fine line between making a thing people want and coercing our desires in the first place. By exploiting our psychological susceptibilities, as Harris says, technology companies “are getting better at getting people to make the choices they want them to make.”
Through Time Well Spent Harris is championing the adoption of design standards that treat users’ psychology with respect rather than as an exploitable resource, a concept he refers to as a “Hippocratic oath” for software creators.
Dating back to the physicians of Ancient Greece, the Hippocratic oath states the obligations and proper conduct of doctors. The pledge is taken upon graduation from medical school, oftentimes depicted in the shorthand: “first do no harm.”
But industrialists are not doctors — the psychological motivations that compel someone to go through years and years of grueling, expensive training in order to help heal people are often not the same as those of someone who self-selects to drop out of college to start a company that gives people what they want even if it’s kinda pretty bad for them — it turns out.
The biggest obstacle to incorporating ethical design and “agency” is not technical complexity. According to Harris, it’s a “will thing.” And on that front, even his supporters worry that the culture of Silicon Valley may be inherently at odds with anything that undermines engagement or growth. “This is not the place where people tend to want to slow down and be deliberate about their actions and how their actions impact others,” says Jason Fried, who has spent the past 12 years running Basecamp, a project-management tool. “They want to make things more sugary and more tasty, and pull you in, and justify billions of dollars of valuation and hundreds of millions of dollars [in] VC funds.”
In the Atlantic, Josh Elman, “a Silicon Valley veteran with the venture-capital firm Greylock Partners,” offers another analogous example. “Elman compares the tech industry to Big Tobacco.”
But the question is — who’s going to hold them accountable when, inevitably, they don’t? Big Tobacco did not decide to stop advertising to children, and fast food chains didn’t decide to start disclosing the caloric content of their products out of the goodness of their black lungs and arterially-sclerosed hearts. It seems unlikely that relying on the personal conscience of each individual app developer to guide them towards moral integrity is really going to be a scalable solution.
We take it for granted now, that cars have seat-belts to keep the squishy humans inside from flying through a meat-grinder of glass and metal during a collision. But they didn’t always.
How did we ever get so clever?
Regulation. It took legislation to make seat belts standard in cars. And more legislation to require their use. And it has saved lives. Regulation changes not only what’s legal, but what’s normal. Car manufacturers didn’t used to talk about seat belts because it made people think of the reality of car crashes, and cars were sold on the “fantasy” of driving. Now cars are sold on safety.
In the wake of a national mental health crisis and corporations setting out to explicitly exploit our psychology, it’s worth considering the options we have as citizens, not just consumers.
SOME COURTESY, SOME SYMPATHY, AND SOME TASTE
In the early 2010’s, Wired founder Kevin Kelly’s book, What Technology Wants, became quite fashionable with a certain type of tech person for absolving himself of any moral or ethical responsibility in his creations. According to this mechanistic faith, technology just wants to, like, live its true self; who are its creators to have any say in the inevitable?
In this vision we are all trapped in a mobius loop of technological determinism. Product creators are powerless to do anything but give people what they want and users are helpless to resist coercion into what they’re given and all of us are slaves to whatever technology wants. No one is accountable while everyone loses dignity.
Yet it is the very power to create products used by millions, or billions of people that is the power to shape — or misshape—the world. Technology wants to irradiate us as much as it wants to cure us. Technology wants to bomb our cities as much as it wants to power them. Technology wants to destroy us as much as it wants to save us. Which is to say, technology wants NOTHING. Technology has no innately arising desires of its own independent of the desires of the people who create it.
At some point in the past 70 years we seem to have forgotten what we knew in the aftermath of WW2, which is that what technology wants is in the eyes of its creators. And engineering technology for objectification, addiction, psychological exploitation, mental abuse….is degrading. It’s degrading to the people who use it, and it’s degrading to the people who make it — it takes a certain kind of personality to feel good depriving people of their humanity, and not everyone has it. You might be one of those with a resistance.
From Andrew Carnegie to Bill Gates some of the most successful technology entrepreneurs, and humans, in history have ended up pursuing ways to contribute to the world after they retired from their commercial endeavors. Perhaps for some in the new generation the prospect of segregating the two is no longer quite as appealing.
In the end, after every single tech CEO alive today is dead, their company, should it outlive them, will make the product they never wanted to see in the world. Some, it seems, are starting to ask themselves whether it’s what they want to be doing while they’re still living.
By maximizing efficiency, technology has transformed dating into a routine for the acquisition of sex. Love has been, literally, written out of the code for a generation afraid to catch feelings.
The future, as per usual, arrived first in Japan.
Last year fewer babies were born in Japan than any year on record. Roughly 1.001 million babies were born, and 1.269 million people died, leaving the country with 268,000 fewer people. In U.S. terms, that’s like if everyone in Newark up and disappeared last year. 2014 was just the latest record-breaking drop in a sharp, downward trajectory that began pretty much exactly 40 years ago.
For decades, the Japanese Government kept misinterpreting this negative population growth as a temporary dip rather than an sustained trend. The Washington Post created a graph based on the data from a 2014 working paper from Tokyo’s Waseda University, showing the government projections compared against reality —
— an eerie EKG of a dying body being repeatedly defibrillated with mounting futility and desperation.
Birth rates are declining across the developed world, but exactly what kind of Children of Men style apocalypse is going on in Japan?
“Japan’s under-40s appear to be losing interest in conventional relationships,” Abigail Haworth wrote in The Guardian. “Millions aren’t even dating, and increasing numbers can’t be bothered with sex. For their government, “celibacy syndrome” [sekkusu shinai shokogun] is part of a looming national catastrophe:
“Both men and women say to me they don’t see the point of love,” says Ai Aoyama [a sex and relationship counsellor, and former professional dominatrix]. “They don’t believe it can lead anywhere.”
Mendokusai translates loosely as “Too troublesome” or “I can’t be bothered.” It’s the word I hear both sexes use most often when they talk about their relationship phobia. Romantic commitment seems to represent burden and drudgery. “I find some of my female friends attractive,” says Satoru Kishino, 31 “But I’ve learned to live without sex. Emotional entanglements are too complicated. I can’t be bothered.”
Eri Asada, 22, who studied economics, has no interest in love. “I gave up dating three years ago. I don’t miss boyfriends or sex. I don’t even like holding hands.”
“Gradually but relentlessly, Japan is evolving into a type of society whose contours and workings have only been contemplated in science fiction,” Demographer Nicholas Eberstadt wrote last year.
[But] aversion to marriage and intimacy in modern life is not unique to Japan. Many of the shifts there are occurring in other advanced nations, too. Is Japan providing a glimpse of all our futures?
“It’s a balmy night in Manhattan’s financial district,” writes Nancy Jo Sales in Vanity Fair, “And at a sports bar called Stout, everyone is Tindering. The tables are filled with young women and men who’ve been chasing money and deals on Wall Street all day, and now they’re out looking for hookups. Everyone is drinking, peering into their screens and swiping on the faces of strangers they may have sex with later that evening.”
Sales captures an essential ethnography of a world — told mostly through the words of its inhabitants themselves — where “an unprecedented phenomenon is taking place, in the realm of sex” as hookup culture collides with dating apps:
At a booth in the back, three handsome twentysomething guys in button-downs are having beers. They are Dan, Alex, and Marty, budding investment bankers at the same financial firm, which recruited Alex and Marty straight from an Ivy League campus. When asked if they’ve been arranging dates on the apps they’ve been swiping at, all say not one date, but two or three: “You can’t be stuck in one lane … There’s always something better.” “If you had a reservation somewhere and then a table at Per Se opened up, you’d want to go there,” Alex offers.
“Guys view everything as a competition. Who’s slept with the best, hottest girls?” With these dating apps, he says, “you’re always sort of prowling. You could talk to two or three girls at a bar and pick the best one, or you can swipe a couple hundred people a day — the sample size is so much larger. It’s setting up two or three Tinder dates a week and, chances are, sleeping with all of them, so you could rack up 100 girls you’ve slept with in a year.”
He says that he himself has slept with five different women he met on Tinder in the last eight days. Dan and Marty, also Alex’s roommates, can vouch for that. In fact, they can remember whom Alex has slept with in the past week more readily than he can.“Brittany, Morgan, Amber,” Marty says, counting on his fingers. “Oh, and the Russian — Ukrainian?”
“Ukrainian,” Alex confirms.
“I hooked up with three girls, thanks to the Internet, off of Tinder, in the course of four nights, and I spent a total of $80 on all three girls,” Nick relays proudly. He goes on to describe each date, one of which he says began with the young woman asking him on Tinder to “‘come over and smoke [weed] and watch a movie.’ I know what that means,” he says, grinning.
In his iPhone, has a list of more than 40 girls he has “had relations with, rated by [one to five] stars…. It empowers them,” he jokes. “It’s a mix of how good they are in bed and how attractive they are.”
Of the themes that emerge from Sales’ piece, one is efficiency:
At a table in the front, six young women have met up for an after-work drink. They’re seniors from Boston College, all in New York for summer internships. None of them are in relationships, they say.
“New York guys, from our experience, they’re not really looking for girlfriends,” says the blonde named Reese. “They’re just looking for hit-it-and-quit-it on Tinder. They start out with ‘Send me nudes.’ Or they say something like ‘I’m looking for something quick within the next 10 or 20 minutes — are you available?’ ‘O.K., you’re a mile away, tell me your location.’ It’s straight efficiency.”
“I’m on Tinder, Happn, Hinge, OkCupid,” Nick says. “It’s just a numbers game. Before, I could go out to a bar and talk to one girl, but now I can sit home on Tinder and talk to 15 girls — ”
“Without spending any money,” John chimes in.
“I’ve gotten numbers on Tinder just by sending emojis,” says John. “Without actually having a conversation — having a conversation via emojis.”
He holds up his phone, with its cracked screen, to show a Tinder conversation between him and a young woman who provided her number after he offered a series of emojis, including the ones for pizza and beer.“
“Now is that the kind of woman I potentially want to marry?” he asks, smiling. “Probably not.”
Neither Nick nor John has had a girlfriend in the last few years; Brian had one until recently but confesses, “I cheated…. She found out by looking at my phone — rookie mistake, not deleting everything.”
They all say they don’t want to be in relationships. “I don’t want one,” says Nick. “I don’t want to have to deal with all that — stuff.”
“You can’t be selfish in a relationship,” Brian says. “It feels good just to do what I want.”
I ask them if it ever feels like they lack a deeper connection with someone.
There’s a small silence. After a moment, John says, “I think at some points it does.”
“But that’s assuming that that’s something that I want, which I don’t,” Nick says, a trifle annoyed. “Does that mean that my life is lacking something? I’m perfectly happy. I have a good time. I go to work — I’m busy. And when I’m not, I go out with my friends.”
“Or you meet someone on Tinder,” offers John.
“Exactly,” Nick says. “Tinder is fast and easy, boom-boom-boom, swipe.”
Another theme is intimacy:
Asked what these women are like, he shrugs. “I could offer a résumé, but that’s about it … Works at J. Crew; senior at Parsons; junior at Pace; works in finance …”
“We don’t know what the girls are like,” Marty says.
“And they don’t know us,” says Alex.
Marty, who prefers Hinge to Tinder (“Hinge is my thing”), says he’s slept with 30 to 40 women in the last year: “I sort of play that I could be a boyfriend kind of guy,” in order to win them over, “but then they start wanting me to care more … and I just don’t.”
“Dude, that’s not cool,” Alex chides. “I always make a point of disclosing I’m not looking for anything serious. I just wanna hang out, be friends, see what happens … If I were ever in a court of law I could point to the transcript.” But something about the whole scenario seems to bother him. “I think to an extent it is, like, sinister,” he says.
“When it’s so easy, when it’s so available to you,” Brian says intensely, “and you can meet somebody and fuck them in 20 minutes, it’s very hard to contain yourself.”
“It’s rare for a woman of our generation to meet a man who treats her like a priority instead of an option,” wrote Erica Gordon on the Gen Y Web site Elite Daily, in 2014.
“I had sex with a guy and he ignored me as I got dressed and I saw he was back on Tinder.”
It is the very abundance of options provided by online dating which may be making men less inclined to treat any particular woman as a “priority,” according to David Buss, a professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin who specializes in the evolution of human sexuality. “Apps like Tinder and OkCupid give people the impression that there are thousands or millions of potential mates out there,” Buss says. “One dimension of this is the impact it has on men’s psychology. When there is a surplus of women, or a perceived surplus of women, the whole mating system tends to shift. Men don’t have to commit, so they pursue a short-term mating strategy. Men are making that shift, and women are forced to go along with it in order to mate at all.”
Bring all of this up to young men, however, and they scoff. Women are just as responsible for “the shit show that dating has become,” according to one. “Romance is completely dead, and it’s the girls’ fault,” says Alex, 25, a New Yorker who works in the film industry.
“They act like all they want is to have sex with you and then they yell at you for not wanting to have a relationship. How are you gonna feel romantic about a girl like that? Oh, and by the way? I met you on Tinder.”
“Women do exactly the same things guys do,” said Matt, 26, who works in a New York art gallery. “I’ve had girls sleep with me off OkCupid and then just ghost me” — that is, disappear, in a digital sense, not returning texts. “They play the game the exact same way. They have a bunch of people going at the same time — they’re fielding their options. They’re always looking for somebody better, who has a better job or more money.” A few young women admitted to me that they use dating apps as a way to get free meals. “I call it Tinder food stamps,” one said.
“What’s a real orgasm like,” says Courtney with a sigh. “I wouldn’t know. A lot of guys are lacking in that department.”
They all laugh knowingly.
“I know how to give one to myself,” says Courtney.
“Yeah, but men don’t know what to do,” says Jessica, texting.
“Without [a vibrator] I can’t have one,” Courtney says. “It’s never happened” with a guy. “It’s a huge problem.”
“It is a problem,” Jessica concurs.
According to multiple studies, women are more likely to have orgasms in the context of relationships than in uncommitted encounters. More than twice as likely, according to a study done by researchers at the Kinsey Institute and Binghamton University.
They talk about how it’s not uncommon for their hookups to lose their erections. It’s a curious medical phenomenon, the increased erectile dysfunction in young males, which has been attributed to everything from chemicals in processed foods to the lack of intimacy in hookup sex.
“I think men have a skewed view of the reality of sex through porn,” Jessica says, looking up from her phone. “Because sometimes I think porn sex is not always great — like pounding someone.” She makes a pounding motion with her hand, looking indignant.
“Yeah, it looks like it hurts,” Danielle says.
“Like porn sex,” says Jessica, “those women — that’s not, like, enjoyable, like having their hair pulled or being choked or slammed. I mean, whatever you’re into, but men just think” — bro voice — “ ‘I’m gonna fuck her,’ and sometimes that’s not great.”
“Yeah,” Danielle agrees. “Like last night I was having sex with this guy, and I’m a very submissive person — like, not aggressive at all — and this boy that came over last night, he was hurting me.”
They were quiet a moment.
“There have been two major transitions” in heterosexual mating “in the last four million years,” says Justin Garcia, a research scientist at Indiana University’s Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction, quoted in Sales’ article. “The first was around 10,000 to 15,000 years ago, in the agricultural revolution, when we became less migratory and more settled,” leading to the establishment of marriage as a cultural contract. “And the second major transition is with the rise of the Internet. It’s changing so much about the way we act both romantically and sexually.”
In February, 2015, Sales writes, “one study reported there were nearly 100 million people — perhaps 50 million on Tinder alone — using their phones as a sort of all-day, every-day, handheld singles club, where they might find a sex partner as easily as they’d find a cheap flight to Florida.”
“It is unprecedented from an evolutionary standpoint,” Garcia says. We are in “uncharted territory.”
But out here on the drought-ravaged, California desert frontier that’s spawned the iPhone and Tinder (not to mention Snapchat, Twitter, Instagram, Google, Facebook, etc., etc.), the humans creating the technology are drawing the maps.
In the Berkeley Journal of Sociology article, Morality and the Idea of Progress in Silicon Valley, Eric Gianella writes, “We’d like to be able to claim that making things more [efficient] is good. This justifies the countless products and services whose origins can be traced to someone noticing an opportunity for optimization. But there are many cases in which we need to question whether making activities more [efficient] is moral.”
And when it comes to romance, is efficiency even what we want?
I mean, if we do, we’re in luck. The Japanese have already figured out how to take that impulse to its ultimate conclusion. (Of course).
“In Japan today there’s a whole industry of relationship replacement services,” Ryan Duffy explained, in Vice’s 2013 travelogue through Japan’s Love Industry, “You can essentially replicate anything you’d get from a relationship, be it sexual, emotional, or otherwise, without actually having to have a boyfriend or girlfriend.” From the now globally famous Japanese host bars, where professionals simulate the companionship experience of a date (strictly conversation, not copulation) as-a-service — “Women are willing to affix a price for the experience,” a host who makes $800,000 a year casually explains, “It’s totally normal,” — to platonic “cuddle cafes,” where customers can order off a menu of services that includes getting to pet the cuddle hostess’s head, and gazing deeply into each others’ eyes for $80.
“Do you have a boyfriend?” Duffy asks Sakura Serizawa, his cuddle hostess, as he lies next to her, resting his head on her arm.
“Of course not,” she says, “Mendokusai. When I see happy couples during Christmas, I wish they would die. I don’t like seeing people being affectionate in public.”
“That’s interesting,” Duffy says, quietly horrified, “For someone who is affectionate with strangers for a living.”
“I have no emotional attachment to my customers,” Serizawa explains tonelessly, her artificially enlarged, anime-lensed eyes far away and hollow — like guacamole at Chipotle, eye contact with a human being in the land of efficiency costs extra.
“Nothing is weirder than this,” Duffy murmurs. “Profoundly, profoundly disturbing. We should stop this because it’s freaking me out.”
In voice-over Duffy later added, “I’ve seen a lot of perverse things in my life, but this pseudo-romance actually really got to me,” before culminating the Vice travel guide to Japan’s Love Industry at a Tokyo Hilton where a prostitute defecates in a bathtub and eats her own shit as a sexual service.
What the Japanese have realized is that why stop at sex? Every aspect of human contact can be commodified. Interaction without connection. What could be more efficient?
For Americans, that kind of streamlined optimization looks like this:
“Sex has become so easy,” says John, 26, a marketing executive quoted in Sales’ article. “I can go on my phone right now and no doubt I can find someone I can have sex with this evening, probably before midnight.”
“It’s like ordering Seamless,” says Dan, the investment banker, referring to the online food-delivery service. “But you’re ordering a person.”
But there’s a sense of absence in this paradise of frictionless efficiency. Some essential element’s gone missing in an invisible drought.
“When asked if there was anything about dating apps the young men I talked to didn’t like,” Sales writes, “’Too easy,’ ‘Too easy,’ ‘Too easy,’ I heard again and again.”
By reducing people to one-time-use bodies and sex to an on-demand exchange, dating apps have made what they yield us disposable and cheap. (Even Tinder is uneasy about its role in society being an orifice delivery service, disavowing it contributes to the very hookup culture its technology has not only branded but mainstreamed.)
“I call it the Dating Apocalypse,” a 29 year old New York woman tells Sales.
Or, in the vernacular of Silicon Valley: We have succeeded in disrupting love.
Enterprise Bridge, Lake Oroville, California
If there’s one place where love is not dead, it’s the lab.
[In] our study we found activity in a tiny, little factory near the base of the brain called the ventral tegmental area. We found activity in some cells called the A10 cells, cells that actually make dopamine, a natural stimulant, and spray it to many brain regions. Indeed, this part, the VTA, is part of the brain’s reward system. It’s way below your cognitive thinking process. It’s part of what we call the reptilian core of the brain, associated with wanting, with motivation, with focus and with craving. In fact, the same brain region where we found activity becomes active also when you feel the rush of cocaine.
There’s a very specific group of things that happen when you fall in love, and indeed, it has all of the characteristics of addiction. The first thing that happens is a person begins to take on what I call, “special meaning.” You focus on the person, you obsessively think about them, you crave them, you distort reality, your willingness to take enormous risks to win this person. It’s an obsession. As a truck driver once said to me, “The world had a new center, and that center was Mary Anne.”
In another lab, at Stony Brook University, the psychologist Arthur Aron and his colleagues succeeded in making two strangers fall in love as part of an experiment. The researchers wanted to know if they could create conditions that would make strangers quickly bond and form close friendships, even romantic relationships. They paired up random participants, seated them face to face, and gave them a sequence of 36 increasingly personal questions to ask one another and answer openly over an hour, including:
Given the choice of anyone in the world, whom would you want as a dinner guest?
What is the greatest accomplishment of your life?
What do you value most in a friendship?
Would you be willing to have horrible nightmares for a year if you would be rewarded with extraordinary wealth?
While on a trip to another city, your spouse (or lover) meets and spends a night w/ an exciting stranger. Given they will never meet again, and you will not otherwise learn of the incident, would you want your partner to tell you about it?
What foreign country would you most like to visit? What attracts you to this place?
Even before the hour was up, participants typically identified strong feelings of closeness with their partner, often exchanging contact information and indicating a wish to meet up again. “In the original  experiment we also tested an intense version of this with cross-sex couples,” Aron said in Wired in 2011. “And the first ones we tested fell in love and got married. And as of last year, when I last had contact with them, they were still together.”
The control group participants were paired up to engage in small-talk, never, obviously, to be heard from again.
“The effect is based on gradually escalating reciprocal self-disclosure,” Aron and his colleagues explained in their paper, The Experimental Generation of Interpersonal Closeness: A Procedure and Some Preliminary Findings. “So are we producing real closeness? Yes and no. We think that the closeness produced in these studies is experienced as similar in many important ways to felt closeness in naturally occurring relationships that develop over time. On the other hand, it seems unlikely that the procedure produces loyalty, dependence, commitment, or other relationship aspects that might take longer to develop.”
The sex drive, which, as Fisher says, “evolved to get us out there looking for a whole range of partners. You can feel it when you’re just driving along in your car. It can be focused on nobody.”
Romantic love, “that elation and obsession which evolved to enable us to focus our mating energy on just one individual at a time, thereby conserving mating time and energy.”
Attachment, “that sense of calm and security you can feel for a long-term partner, evolved to enable you to tolerate this human being at least long enough to raise a child together as a team.”
Right now our “dating” technology is built for the very particular, accumulative drive of #1. Not surprising, perhaps, considering who is (stereo)typically doing the building, but this experience design choice has created a template for imitation.
Co-founder, Whitney Wolfe, left Tinder (under circumstances, outlined in a sexual harassment lawsuit, that read, in excruciating screencaps of text exchanges, like a self-fulfilling indictment of the kind of pathological culture the product encourages) and created…. Tinder. Actually, it’s called Bumble. The Sadie Hawkins of dating apps, on Bumble it’s only women who are able to initiate a conversation once both parties have opted in to a match. Which is pretty much a branding gimmick turned into a product feature. The main differentiator becomes the type of person who would self select to use an app brand that flaunts female agency. But beneath that surface distinction the basic product experience isn’t really a departure from the app its founder left.
“[We know] from our work that if you go and do something very novel with somebody,” Fisher says, “You can drive up the dopamine in the brain, and perhaps trigger this brain system for romantic love. Mystery is [also] important. You fall in love with somebody who’s somewhat mysterious, in part because mystery elevates dopamine in the brain, [which] probably pushes you over that threshold to fall in love.”
Love, as it turns out, can’t be automated. (Who knew?) It doesn’t result from meeting or sleeping with more people. In fact, just the opposite. Love is triggered in a moment when we are able to experience something special in one individual, as everyone else fades away. As Proust said, “It is our imagination that is responsible for love, not the other person.”
Love loves rarity, not surplus, and it might actually hate efficiency, hearting, as it does, the out of the ordinary and unexpected and novel and non-routine. But from swipe to sex, the relentless, grinding repetitiveness inherent in every aspect of the “swipe app” experience, sabotages the very mechanics that trigger the brain system for romantic love.
The ubiquitousness of cameras and social platforms on which to share their output has made us all re-conceive ourselves and one another as media products. We are all selfies. We are all profiles. We are all hashtags. And we can’t stop. Now we swipe through thousands of instant people. We learn nothing of them and share nothing of ourselves to be known. We strip ourselves down to anatomy and stare at each other with hollow, cuddle-host eyes, and we become invisible. Independent contractors in the sharing economy of sex.
There’s obviously all kinds of reasons for why we fall in love with one person rather than another, but if the conditions for generating interpersonal closeness can be recreated in, of all places, a lab experiment, and if the neural mechanisms for how romantic love works can be understood, then perhaps the technological desert we currently find ourselves on is not only, as Sales says a “cultural problem,” it’s an innovation problem.
Love knows what it likes, and we could be building tech engineered for it — creating a match between the research and the product experience, as it were. But we aren’t.
In a time when it’s legal to marry whomever you love, love itself has become an alternative lifestyle.
“Anxiety is love’s greatest killer,” said Anaïs Nin.
In a 2014 survey by the American College Health Association, 54% of college students surveyed said that they had “felt overwhelming anxiety” in the past 12 months. An increase of 5% from the same survey five years earlier. Nearly all of the campus mental-health directors surveyed in 2013 by the American College Counseling Association reported that the number of students with severe psychological problems had escalated at their schools.
In tandem, as Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt write in The Atlantic, “A movement has been arising at America’s colleges and universities, driven largely by students, to scrub campuses clean of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense,” (emphasis added).
Unlike the political correctness movement of the 80’s and 90’s, which sought to restrict hate speech aimed at marginalized groups, “the current movement is largely about emotional well-being; turning campuses into ‘safe spaces’ where young adults are shielded from words and ideas that make some uncomfortable.”
“Trigger warnings” — signaling that something potentially uncomfortable lies ahead — are now being “demanded for a long list of ideas and attitudes that some students find offensive. Books for which students have called publicly for trigger warnings within the past couple of years include Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart [for describing] racial violence, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby [for portraying] misogyny and physical abuse, Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway (at Rutgers, for ‘suicidal inclinations’), and Ovid’s Metamorphoses (at Columbia, for sexual assault). In an article published last year by Inside Higher Ed, seven humanities professors wrote that the trigger-warning movement was ‘already having a chilling effect on [their] teaching.’ They reported their colleagues’ receiving ‘phone calls from deans and other administrators investigating student complaints that they have included ‘triggering’ material in their courses, with or without warnings.’ A trigger warning, they wrote, ‘serves as a guarantee that students will not experience unexpected discomfort.’”
Shielding people from experiences that might cause them emotional discomfort, however, doesn’t help them actually overcome their anxiety. “According to the most-basic tenets of psychology,” Lukianoff and Haidt write, “The very idea of helping people with anxiety avoid the things they fear is misguided. A person who is trapped in an elevator during a power outage may panic and think she is going to die. That frightening experience can change neural connections in her amygdala, leading to an elevator phobia. If you want this woman to retain her fear for life, you should help her avoid elevators.”
And if you want a generation to fear of intimacy, then help them avoid feeling anything uncomfortable. For what could be more fundamentally discomforting than love?
“You know, if you ask somebody to go to bed with you, and they say, ‘No, thank you,’ you certainly don’t kill yourself or slip into a clinical depression,” Fisher says. But people who are rejected in love do. “We live for love. We kill for love. We die for love. It is one of the most powerful brain systems on Earth for both great joy and great sorrow.”
Trigger warning: Love will make you feel.
It’s telling that amidst the 6,000+ words about the sex lives of 21st century 20-somethings in Sales’ article, “love” makes an appearance just once: “What about the still-flickering chance that somebody might fall in love?” she asks.
“Some people still catch feelings in hookup culture,” Sales quotes Meredith, a Bellarmine sophomore. “It’s not like just blind fucking for pleasure and it’s done; some people actually like the other person. Sometimes you actually catch feelings and that’s what sucks, because it’s one person thinking one thing and the other person thinking something completely different and someone gets their feelings hurt. It could be the boy or the girl.”
It’s an interesting turn of phrase, “catch feelings,” that has pervaded our contemporary conception of ourselves. It connotes that feelings are a contamination, a sickness you contract, a disease of some kind. An STD.
“People acquire their fears not just from their own past experiences,” Lukianoff and Haidt write, “But from social learning as well. If everyone around you acts as though something is dangerous — elevators, certain neighborhoods, novels depicting racism — “ feelings “ — then you are at risk of acquiring that fear too. “
In a sense, both the Japanese celibacy syndrome, and the west’s “psychosexual obesity” can be seen symptoms the same viral fear of our feeling selves. After all, if it makes you feel nothing either way, does it really matter how much sex you’re having, or any at all? You could practically hear the Americans in Sales’ article straining for the word mendokusai. Both cultures have convinced themselves that emotional necrosis is the cure; it’s too much trouble to feel.
“Love possesses you,” as Fisher says, “you lose your sense of self. You can’t stop thinking about another human being. Somebody is camping in your head.” That kind of insurgent invasion on our prized individualism has come to seem beyond trouble: it’s terror.
Ironically, it is through exposure and acclimation to that which we fear that we reduce anxiety. By confronting the things we’re scared of and realizing we can handle them, we rewire the brain to associate previously feared situations with normalcy. Anxiety is literally the inability to cope with what we feel. If all we’re trying to do is avoid catching feelings, never learning how to live with them, it’s no surprise anxiety would be on the rise.
What happens when a generation so terrified of even just reading something that might make them feel uncomfortable they’ll voluntarily censor classic literature rather than cope with the emotions art stirs up collides with technology that reduces us all to objects? And what happens when the people creating our technology have grown up in that same environment, mirroring its emotional bankruptcy back to us via the products they create?
“Keep playing,” Tinder encourages whenever a user gets a match. On this platform for finally, truly “gamifying” sex, there’s no room for feeling. People are prizes and bodies are points and feelings don’t accrue you anything, so what’s the point of having them? They are inefficient and invisible. (You can’t even post a photo; did they happen at all?)
Maybe one day in the future we’ll invent technology for that too. Botox the bugs in the brain that feel grief or sorrow or loss or love. Lobotomize ourselves into an Eternal Sunshine state of mind. But in the meantime, we are still human, feeling beings, who increasingly view their own feeling nature as a contamination.
Imagine a 13 year old today. Too young to have ever known how it’s like to to fall in love or go on a date or be in a relationship — but old enough to be on Tinder. What will coming of age in this environment be like for them? Porn is already how an entire generation learns how to have sex. What will being swallowed up into a ceaseless stream of swipe-able sex objects teach them about how to love?
“Who knows how to make love stay?” Tom Robbins asked in Still Life with Woodpecker:
1. Tell love you are going to Junior’s Deli on Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn to pick up a cheesecake, and if loves stays, it can have half. It will stay.
2. Tell love you want a momento of it and obtain a lock of its hair. Burn the hair in a dime-store incense burner with yin/yang symbols on three sides. Face southwest. Talk fast over the burning hair in a convincingly exotic language. Remove the ashes of the burnt hair and use them to paint a moustache on your face. Find love. Tell it you are someone new. It will stay.
3. Wake love up in the middle of the night. Tell it the world is on fire. Dash to the bedroom window and pee out of it. Casually return to bed and assure love that everything is going to be all right. Fall asleep. Love will be there in the morning.
When this UX intrusion happened to her, it reminded me of a similar, psychological violation I’d read about four months earlier. That post, by Eric Meyer, had begun:
I didn’t go looking for grief this afternoon, but it found me anyway, and I have designers and programmers to thank for it. In this case, the designers and programmers are somewhere at Facebook.
I know they’re probably pretty proud of the work that went into the “Year in Review” app they designed and developed, and deservedly so—a lot of people have used it to share the highlights of their years. Knowing what kind of year I’d had, though, I avoided making one of my own. I kept seeing them pop up in my feed, created by others, almost all of them with the default caption, “It’s been a great year! Thanks for being a part of it.” Which was, by itself, jarring enough, the idea that any year I was part of could be described as great.
Still, they were easy enough to pass over, and I did. Until today, when I got this in my feed, exhorting me to create one of my own. “Eric, here’s what your year looked like!”
Yes, my year looked like that. True enough. My year looked like the now-absent face of my little girl. It was still unkind to remind me so forcefully.
I remember first reading this post the day it was published, Christmas eve 2014. When I went to look it up after my friend’s own violation by a Facebook app module I was surprised to (re)discover that it had been titled, generously, “Inadvertent algorithmic cruelty:”
And I know, of course, that this is not a deliberate assault. This inadvertent algorithmic cruelty is the result of code that works in the overwhelming majority of cases, reminding people of the awesomeness of their years, showing them selfies at a party or whale spouts from sailing boats or the marina outside their vacation house.
But for those of us who lived through the death of loved ones, or spent extended time in the hospital, or were hit by divorce or losing a job or any one of a hundred crises, we might not want another look at this past year.
To show me Rebecca’s face and say “Here’s what your year looked like!” is jarring. It feels wrong, and coming from an actual person, it would be wrong. Coming from code, it’s just unfortunate.
But of course, it did come from an actual person. “[The app] was awesome for a lot of people,” the product manager for Facebook’s Year in Review app, Jonathan Gheller, later told The Washington Post. Like all the digital experiences with, and within, which we all increasingly live our lives, an actual person — in fact a whole team of people — was responsible for concepting, designing, building, testing, and iterating this experience. No doubt, the responsibility for the rollout of this particular app featured prominently in a number of Facebook employees’ job performance reviews. From start to finish, this experience was crafted by people (not code). Calling its end result “inadvertent algorithmic cruelty” is like describing a drunk driving accident as “inadvertent gasoline cruelty.” For sure, it could have been avoided with an empty gas tank, but is that really the most accurate way to ascribe accountability in this situation? (Don’t blame it on the algohol).
“In creating this Year in Review app, there wasn’t enough thought given to cases like mine, or anyone who had a bad year,” Meyer wrote. “If I could fix one thing about our industry, just one thing, it would be that: to increase awareness of and consideration for the failure modes, the edge cases, the worst-case scenarios.”
If I could fix one thing about ourindustry, it would be to destroy the idea that these scenarios are edge cases.
Last year in the US, 2.6 million people died, leaving behind untold numbers of Facebook users who mourn the absence of their loved ones.
These are not “edge cases.” These are not “worst case scenarios.” These are all peoplewho use Facebook. And that’s not even counting your run of the mill disappointments, broken hearts, and inevitable wrongs and slights and meannesses that are, basically, life.
“The design [of the Year in Review app] is for the ideal user, the happy, upbeat, good-life user,” Meyer wrote. But if you are a product manager or UX designer creating experiences that will afflict affect hundreds of millions of people and you are only designing for an “ideal user”… at best that’s just lazy, and at worst — it’s creating LITERAL suffering.
The world, obviously, is a manifestly unjust place: people are always meeting fates they didn’t deserve, or not receiving rewards they did deserve for hard work or virtuous behaviour. Yet several decades of research have established that our need to believe otherwise runs deep.
If we didn’t all believe that [things happen for a reason] to some degree, life would be an intolerably chaotic and terrifying nightmare in which effort and payback were utterly unrelated, and there was no point planning for the future, saving money for retirement or doing anything else in hope of eventual reward. We’d go mad.
Yet, ironically, this desire to believe that things happen for a reason leads to the kinds of positions that help entrench injustice instead of reducing it.
Much in the same way that the “just world” cognitive bias can actually lead us to make crueler decisions, designing product features with the “happy, upbeat, good-life” ideal user bias can lead us to create crueler user experiences.
“To shield ourselves psychologically from the terrifying thought that the world is full of innocent people suffering,” Burkeman writes, we, as humans, “endorse policies more likely to make that suffering worse.” And by denying the full spectrum of the realities of people’s lives, awesome and tragic, we, as experience designers, do the same. Except we’re the ones with the power to actually do something about it.
“Just to pick two obvious fixes,” Meyer wrote at the end of his post, “First, don’t pre-fill a picture until you’re sure the user actually wants to see pictures from their year. And second, instead of pushing the app at people, maybe ask them if they’d like to try a preview—just a simple yes or no. If they say no, ask if they want to be asked again later, or never again. And then, of course, honor their choices. This is… designing for crisis, or maybe a better term is empathetic design.”
Or how about just, you know, design.
In the wake of Meyer’s post, the product manager for Facebook’s Year in Review app told The Washington Post. “We can do better.”
But four months later, Facebook’s photo collage assault on my friend suggests perhaps they don’t really think they can.
“Faced with evidence of injustice, we’ll certainly try to alleviate it if we can,” Burkeman wrote, “But, if we feel powerless to make things right, we’ll do the next best thing, psychologically speaking: we’ll convince ourselves that the world isn’t so unjust after all.”
The first time I went to SXSW was 8 years ago. The social web was a wild west where new and interesting things were emerging, and, unless you worked in music at the time, you probably didn’t give a shit. (Myspace was still the social network running everything, so don’t even). Twitter didn’t take off until, in fact, SXSW that year, and Facebook wouldn’t do anything at all even remotely relevant to brands until a few months later. At the time this was all a ghetto called “new media;” I had a title with the words “electronic marketing.” Since then, the tech startup industry has become a major, entrenched, cultural establishment, disrupting and colonizing other culture industries like entertainment and music. The SXSW festival, because it spans Music, Film, and Interactive technology, has come to occupy a unique position on the venn diagram of these 3 main influences of contemporary culture. So here’s a few snapshots from where we are in 2015.
Pretty much all the highlights of my third SXSW trip that are fit to print, involve music, so we might as well just get the fun out of the way first.
Before I even got to Austin, the coolest flight I’ve ever had happened to me. I was seated next to an awesome, come up rapper from Miami, called Enoch da Prophet, whom you should listen to immediately:
We talked for a bit about how the new generation of hiphop (J Cole, Kendrick, etc.), is rebelling against the violence, materialism, and other stereotypical “bullshit” of what’s become the established hiphop mainstream in order to define themselves and their own, new sound and vibe. If this is what the future of hiphop sounds like, I am soooo into it.
The moment I landed in Austin, my major evaluative criteria for which otherwise indistinguishable tech-sponsored parties to attend quickly turned out to be based entirely on music. There were parties with performances and / or DJ sets by Sir Mix-a-Lot, Busta Rhymes, Nas, The Flaming Lips, and more — all as part of Interactive. You could tell the difference between Interactive parties and Music parties because the former all had nostalgia-wave acts with name recognition among middle-aged marketing executives. By contrast, if the people on-stage and mostly everyone else are in their 20s and more interested in dancing than networking and the majority of the visible badges people are wearing around their necks have the word “STAFF” on them and the air smells like Swisher Sweets and hash, you can easily tell you’re at Music.
Mostly, the event that lived up to and exceeded the anticipation I had for it was Odesza at the Spotify House. It was their first time playing SXSW, and they were super adorable and excited and totally rocked the shit out of everything and got everyone goin’ up at 5 pm on a Tuesday.
Also fun was the party at the W with The Jane Doze, where my best friend, Jason, was managing a bunch of mermaids. Jason lives in Austin and co-runs Sirenalia, which creates custom, high-end silicone mermaid tails. The startup-sponsored party had hired a few of the mermaid performers to hang out in the pool and be generally Instagrammable.
Jason and I spent a lot of time talking about parenting in the age of social media, since Jason had just become a father 8 days prior. There’s a lot to consider now, like what your general philosophy is going to be about how you treat technology and content sharing, when the subject of said content is your progeny. Kids don’t get to “choose to be online now,” Jason says, “any more than they got to choose to have a mailing address.”
In retrospect, Music (and also music) turned out to be a welcome, transportive reprieve from the relentless grind of Interactive.
“One death,” Harrison quoted Stalin, “is a tragedy; one million is just statistics.” Basically, at a certain point the scope of violation becomes so massive that our minds kind of break at trying to comprehend it or calculate a just recourse. We literally can’t even. For example, in an experiment, people gave shorter jail sentences to food company executives who knowingly poisoned 20 people (4.2 years), than 2 people (5.8 years):
One of the most notable things about this talk was that it was so good even the questions asked by the audience at the end were legitimately interesting and extended the conversation (a phenomenon as unheard of as sitting next to someone relevant on an airplane). One of the questions was how can we institutionalize empathy within risk-averse organizations reliant on the dehumanizing safety-blanket of data? Harrison had some interesting thoughts about this, namely to do with having diversity among the decision-makers.
Spoiler alert, the above paragraph is not what the panel was about at all. At least not the first 20 minutes of it, after which my friend, Rachel Rutherford, the Co-CEO of fashion startup, Pose, said we had to go. It was hard, she said, to listen to what marketing considered to be product successes.
“Welcome to how the other half lives,” I told her.
But that’s kind of how the whole premise of SXSW is flawed, though, isn’t it? Because so few things really are the kind of marketing or product successes we’re all claiming they are — in one day I managed to attend two different presentations that both referenced the now half a decade old, Old Spice Guy campaign. But you can’t sell a $1200 festival pass on the reality that most of what attendees are going to hear is aggrandized to sound amazing, to look epic, to seem important, to be Instagram-worthy. SXSW Interactive has a mass hallucination to uphold. And you’ve got an expense report to justify. One talk for real included a slide titled, “So what do I need to tell my boss I learned from your presentation so my expense report gets approved?” —
Ppl photo’d the shit out of that.
One of the most jarring things that happened at SXSW was at the start of the Flaming Lips show sponsored by Spreadfast, which was super cool-looking and also had the feel of being deliberately reverse-engineered for Instagram. At one point, Wayne Coyne literally stopped a song and restarted it because the audience participation on the lyrics call-and-response wasn’t up to par for the optics “for YouTube.” Later, when I relayed this story to my friends they insisted that Coyne’s way too punk rock for the whole thing not to have been a joke, and maybe they’re right, but here’s the thing…. no one in the audience got it. This is 2015. We do as many takes as it takes to get something share-worthy. It’s not a joke; it’s where we are now as a culture.
Everything feels inescapably more cynical now. One night at a party at the Handlebar, I was talking to a couple of guys from San Francisco. I mentioned that I’d used to live there, and they asked me the standard followup, “Where?” But I shook my head and said, “The question isn’t ‘where,’ it’s ‘when?'”
I lived in San Francisco in 2000. It was a totally different city then than it is now, 15 years later. One of the guys from San Francisco was working at a new mobile search app, or whatever. (The goal being to take away even just .5% of Google’s market share. #Innovation!) He was describing the environment in San Francisco now. “You go out to cafes or anywhere, and it’s just” — he hunched over, smushing his arms against his chest like a Tyrannosaurus, fingers manically typing from flaccid wrists. “Meep, meep, meep,” he said in a robotic voice, completing the pantomime. Then he lowered his hands and confessed, “I’m shitting on the situation, but at the same time, I work in this industry.” He shook his head, sighed into his drink, “I’m part of the problem.”
Earlier, at the W party with the mermaids, Jason was wearing a sailor hat to complement the aquatic motif. A guy walked up to him, his eyes darting back and forth shiftily, his voice so conspiratorially low I could barely make out what he was saying; a question that seemed too absurd and sketchy to be real. Jason smiled carefully, and shook his head.
“Did he just ask to buy your hat off of you,” I said as we walked away.
“Jesus. I thought he was looking for drugs.”
There was a relentless, transactional quality to SXSW Interactive interactions. You could imagine people picturing price tags floating above everyone’s heads like Sims character diamonds. Is that for sale? Is he for sale? Are they for sale?
I remembered an article I’d read a few months ago in Fortune, The Age of Unicorns, that began, “Stewart Butterfield had one objective when he set out to raise money for his startup last fall: a billion dollars or nothing. If he couldn’t reach a $1 billion valuation for Slack, his San Francisco business software company, he wouldn’t bother. It wasn’t long ago that the idea of a pre-IPO tech startup with a $1 billion market value was a fantasy. Google was never worth $1 billion as a private company. Neither was Amazon nor any other alumnus of the original dotcom class. Today the technology industry is crowded with billion-dollar startups. When Cowboy Ventures founder Aileen Lee coined the term unicorn as a label for such corporate creatures in a November 2013 TechCrunch blog post, just 39 of the past decade’s VC-backed U.S. software startups had topped the $1 billion valuation mark. Now, casting a wider net, Fortune counts more than 80 startups that have been valued at $1 billion or more by venture capitalists. And given that these companies are privately held, a few are sure to have escaped our detection. The rise of the unicorn has occurred rapidly and without much warning, and it’s starting to freak some people out.”
The morning of February 12, 2015, Austinite Sergio Lejarazu was driving past his small business, Jumpolin at 1401 E. Cesar Chavez Street, on his way to drop his daughter off at school. That’s when he noticed something strange. Jumpolin wasn’t there anymore. He pulled over and quickly learned that his new landlords, Jordan French and Darius Fisher, operating as F&F Real Estate Ventures, had demolished the building that Jumpolin occupied for eight years. The building still had all the inventory, cash registers and some personal property inside. Sergio and his wife Monica say they were given no prior warning and were up-to-date on their rent with a lease good until 2017.
Reading about this happening — for a festival, for a party for all of the entitled, out-of-towner assholes like me and you and everyone we know in our badge-holder echo chamber — I felt gross. We are all sighing into our free drinks now; we’re all part of the problem.
Beyond the impact of its output, undoubtedly the most pathological impact technology has already had on our culture is economic. The increasingly stratified division between the people who make a living in some technology-adjacent field, and everyone else. And worse — the way people in technology treat “everyone else.”
When you ask people if they’re from Austin, the real locals consistently add the phrase “born ‘n raised.” My best friend is one of these people. He moved back to Austin after a stint in San Francisco came to an end when he was no longer able to afford to live there. Now he sees “the Google glass people” moving to his hometown, “and they have nothing to contribute to the culture except money.”
It’s beyond a cliche now to talk about how San Francisco has changed. Living in LA (where we don’t have a non-exploitable culture anyway, ha ha ha), I’ve heard the conversation about San Francisco turning into Monaco humming away up north in the distance. But in Austin, it felt very real and present and metastatic — it felt like everywhere else would be next.
If he couldn’t reach a $1 billion valuation, he wouldn’t bother… How much for your hat?… Is he for sale?… 20 people… 4.2 years….
One city gone is a tragedy. The rest is just statistics.