The annual gathering of the elite of the elite is now underway at Davos. Well, George Soros is a billionaire. He can throw dinners if he wants. And get up in front of the assembled and speak. But what he said is hardly an example of the self-congratulatory pablum that one assumes is normally heard in this venue. To my mind, this way of thinking Soros is now articulating only gained a significant degree of traction last October–one might refer in this instance to the articles appearing in the New York Times, “Silicon Valley Is Not Your Friend”, by Noam Cohen, Oct 15, 2017; Paul Lewis,“Our Minds Can Be Hijacked; The Tech Insiders Who Fear a Smartphone Dystopia”, Oct 13, 2017; and “Democracy Can Plant the Seeds of Its Own Destruction”, by Thomas B. Edsall, Oct 19, 2017. It would seem that Soros is on this new bandwagon foursquare. This could be an important development, if such a prominent figure as George Soros is speaking out so forcefully.
The tech giants’ size and behavior are “a menace to society”, according to Soros. They have damaged democracy and encouraged addiction, not unlike the gambling companies have done. “Social media companies influence how people think and behave without them even being aware of it, and that they have “far-reaching adverse consequences on the functioning of democracy, particularly on the integrity of elections.”
He went further. He maintained that these companies deceive users by “manipulating their attention and directing it towards their own commercial purposes. They deliberately engineer addiction to the services they provide. This can be very harmful, particularly for adolescents. There is a similarity between internet companies and gambling companies. Casinos have developed techniques to hook gamblers to the point where they gamble away all of their money, even money they don’t have. Social media companies are inducing people to give up their autonomy. The power to shape people’s attention is increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few companies”, with the result that freedom of the mind is jeopardized.
How far this ereosion of personal autonomy and descent into powerless addiction can go is chillingly documented by Natasha Dow Schüll in her book Addiction by Design, published in 2012. This book examines addiction from a deeper psychological perspective than has been articulated in the press recently, taking into account the general critique of technology so disturbingly articulated by Jacques Ellul and others. Schüll’s book is truly frightening. Her focus is nominally on Las Vegas gambling machines, but it will become obvious as one considers her general argument that the principles that apply in that sphere also apply to the computer-user interface in general, as Soros has recognized. In this book, Schüll makes the case that the true motivation of the gambler is not to win money, but to get in “the zone”, a state of mind one might call “absorbed automaticity” wherein the user attempts to become one with the machine–in the case of most gamblers in Las Vegas, the electronic version of the “one-armed bandit”. According to this argument, the desire for becoming one with the machine is fueled by what Schüll and her companion-in-arms Matthew Crawford have identified as incipient autism. (Crawford, in his book The World Beyond Your Head of 2015, titles his chapter primarily devoted to Schüll’s book as “Autism as Design Principle: Gambling”). Schüll in turn relates autism in action to the notion of “perfect contingency”. The early days of existence are, from the point of view of the infant, characterized by a functionally seamless union between its needs and the mother’s responses, perfect contingency, but this perfect contingency begins to become imperfect as the mother gradually refrains from such immediate response to the baby’s attempts at gratification, leading the infant to accept the new state of affairs as it reaches the necessary stage of maturation. If development proceeds along lines that professionals in the field characterize as “mature” responses, the child actually begins to prefer this imperfect contingency, in which the mother’s responses are closely, yet not so perfectly as before, aligned with the needs of the infant. Children that are understood to be autistic are less successful at making this transition. At times of insecurity, they retreat into self-generated “perfect contingencies” such as rocking or swinging or object-based interactions such as bouncing a ball or pressing a button. The parallels between such retreat into perfect contingency and the absorption found in various forms of human/computer interaction are clear. Schull maintains that the operational logic and interactive rhythms of the modern gambling machine function as a vehicle for retreat into the “functional autism” in which perfect contingency is approximated.
Schüll moves from here into a detailed examination of autoplay, again as it manifests in the gambling machines of Las Vegas. The autoplay feature instantiates in the player a heightened level of disengagement, allowing players to insert funds and then press a button or touch the screen to trigger the game to play itself. Schüll explains: “Autoplay, which entails a forfeiture of individual agency nearly from the get-go, provides an object lesson on how machine gambling can continue to compel players even as the degree of participation shrinks to almost nil.”
But I think Soros is too narrow in his conception of the scope of the problem. It’s not just Facebook and Google. It is the internet as a whole that is implicated. To cite the example referred to above, autoplay is growing ever more inescapable all over the internet. This protocol that discourages user control and to cede it to the apparatus is no incidental feature of the online world; it is integral to its overall operation. Ultimately, it must be recognized that the internet is characterized by an endless sequence of permissions. One must have authorization at every stage, happening every few seconds, to access the next one. One must submit to the role of supplicant, of gaining permission to do the simplest tasks hundreds, thousands of times a day. Over time, how can this create anything but a general disposition to acquiescence on the part of the user? Naturally, our libertarian heritage is a drag on this tendency, and at this stage there are still many, although I would say it is already a minority, who balk at this erosion of self. One must keep in mind at this juncture that this is a project which arguably has at least a century-long trajectory. After 100 years of such “training” in the general internet permissions protocol, and all its attendant erosion resulting from whatever protocols can be put into place, what will be the dispositional characterstics of the vast majority of those who use it? And what of human autonomy, even in ten, or five years, considering what vast changes in society can arguably be attributed to this effect already?
The picture of our immediate future is coalescing now, and our political and social system is, far from checking such a tendency, aiding and abetting it. All this, the mechanization of the soul, is not some aberrant fluke. Technology grows up in the shadow of an ideology. Political liberalism itself is implicated in this withering of the mind we are witnessing today. Defending such an inflammatory thesis will be the subject of another essay. By way of introduction to this difficult subject I will leave you now with a quote from Matthew Crawford’s The World Beyond Your Head. This quote occurs within the discussion of Schüll’s Addiction by Design, on the state of soul of the serious gambling addict: “We abstain on principle from condemning activities that leave one compromised and degraded, because we fear that disapproval of the activity would be paternalistic toward those who engage in it. We also abstain from affirming some substantive picture of human flourishing, for fear of imposing our values on others. This gives us a pleasant feeling; we have succeeded in not being paternalistic or presumptuous. The priority we give to avoiding these vices in particular is rooted in our respect for persons, understood as autonomous. ‘People should be allowed to make their own decisions.'” Tolerance as insult.