Social media and digital technology must have an impact on our emotional lives because our social lives—whether analog or digital—always do. In my recent article for Psychology Today, I write about why we must move beyond “Is there an impact?” to “How, Why, and under What conditions is there an impact?”. Read the full article here.
This talk by developer, entrepreneur, speaker, and social critic Maciej Ceglowski is a must-read primer for _everyone_ on the ethics of digital technology.
With the election less than two weeks away, we’re revisiting a previous post on “Politics and the Culture of Fear: Is There a Place for Digital Disruption?”:
It feels as if we can’t escape the culture of fear and extremism that is pervading politics. Political discourse is more vitriolic than ever after San Bernardino and Paris, and during the months of partisan name-calling and ugly mud-slinging among candidates for the U.S. Presidential Race. And clearly, there are no easy solutions to unraveling this vicious cycle.
During the Christmas holiday, I had an experience that perfectly illustrated this to me. My family and I were at a friend’s house for a holiday event, and I overheard her guests talking as I walked through the kitchen. I heard, “The more he says, the more I like him.” Then, “He says the things we all think but are afraid to say.” I started to get that sick feeling in the pit of my stomach, hoping they weren’t talking about Donald Trump. Then I heard, “The only problem with building a wall between Mexico and the U.S. is that it will have to be so big that it’s impractical and expensive.” I tried to talk myself off the ledge, saying to myself, “Don’t open your mouth, just keep walking, don’t say anything, it won’t help or change anyone’s mind…..” But then as I was about to turn the corner, safely avoiding a conversation that would surely have turned ugly, I heard, “Of course we should ban Muslims from entering the country. Look what they did in Paris.” So, I turned sharply on my heel and unwisely marched over to the little group sitting around the kitchen table.
“Excuse me,” I said, “but I couldn’t help but overhear your conversation, and I wish that you would consider the fact that excluding or persecuting people solely on the basis of their religion or ethnicity is how (voice rising) the Holocaust started.” And then, when the response to that grenade lob was dropped jaws and the explanation, “It would only be temporary,” I looked at them incredulously, probably with disgust on my face, and said, “That’s what Hitler said and” just in case they didn’t get it the first time, “that’s how the Holocaust started.” Then I abruptly left, muttering, “This was a mistake, I can’t talk about this…..”
I found this conversation terrifying – not only because the thought of Trump as President is terrifying, nor because I was disappointed in myself because I lost my cool, and created an extreme, unbridgeable divide between our viewpoints by invoking the Holocaust. No, this conversation was most terrifying because these people were not bad people. They were the type of people I appreciate: good, kind, hard-working people who love their kids and their family.
So where does that leave us?
I don’t have a solution, and indeed, my own extreme reaction during the kitchen table conversation shows that I lack objectivity and am certainly part of the problem. I do, however, as a scientist believe that we can harness what we know about our minds and brains to neutralize this vicious cycle of social and political extremism. Could digital disruption help move us along a path to such change? There might not be an app for that, but below I list three steps I believe could put us on the road towards digital disruption of the political culture of fear.
1. Frame political extremism as an emotion regulation problem. Before any digital disruption can happen, we have to make sense of the problem and have a concept of what’s going wrong. We have all had one of those kitchen table conversations I described above. In these conversations, our emotions get the better of us – fear, disgust, anger. This is a problem in how we control our emotions and how our emotions control our thoughts, decisions, and actions – something psychologists call emotion regulation. The problem is that our strong emotions rarely convince our debating partners. Instead, they solidify the views everyone already holds, causing us to cling to them even more strongly and rigidly. Common ground is lost, and the divide between perspectives seems increasingly unbridgeable.
Imagine how a version of that kitchen table conversation happens on the political world stage, sabotaging attempts at diplomacy and mutual understanding. The result is not just upset and angry people. Now the result is that our emotions directly shape political discourse, legal decisions, and policies that can affect generations to come.
Thus, a first crucial step towards disruption of the political culture of fear is to frame political discourse in terms of emotion regulation – applying what we know about what goes wrong and how to fix it on the individual and group level.
2. Use technology to promote empathy. Recent research in political psychology suggests that empathy can help heal rancorous political divides. A recently-published study showed that when political advocates fail to understand the values of those they wish to persuade, this “moral empathy gap” causes their arguments to fail. However, when political arguments are reframed in the moral terms of the other side, they are more effective. For example, when asked about their views on universal healthcare, conservatives who heard “purity arguments” (e.g., sick people are disgusting and therefore we need to reduce sickness) were friendlier towards universal healthcare, compared to when they heard “fairness arguments,” which are more consistent with liberal values.
If we can use technology to bridge the moral empathy gap, we might be able to reduce political polarization and promote better emotion regulation, more compromise, and deepened understanding. Virtual Reality (VR) might be one such technology. I previously wrote about Chris Milk’s thought-provoking TED talk on VR as the “ultimate empathy machine.” By creating a sense of presence and of real interactions with people and worlds, VR forges empathic bridges leading to greater understanding and compassion. In his work with the UN, Chris Milk uses VR to vividly portray the plight of refugees to politicians and policy makers. How does seeing and experiencing the suffering of 5-year-old children in the refugee camps influence policy making?: Almost certainly for the better.
3. Use technology to calm the fearful brain. As political ideologies become increasingly polarized, neuroscience research suggests that the differences between liberal and conservative viewpoints may extend beyond policy preferences to fundamental differences in the “fearful brain.”
In a paper I wrote in 2014 with Dave Amodio, a professor at NYU, we found that children of liberal compared to conservative parents showed a stronger “N2” brain response to mildly threatening and conflicting information. A greater N2, derived from EEG, suggests more openness to uncertainty, ambiguity, and threat. A culture of fear, in politics or otherwise, is marked by the opposite of this: inflexibility and discomfort in the face of uncertainty and ambiguity, along with resistance to change. These aspects of fear are part of the foundation upon which intolerance is built.
What if we could create computerized interventions that promote our ability to cope with uncertainty and change – perhaps by strengthening the N2 response? My research on the stress reduction app Personal Zen, as well as other research, shows that this may be possible. More research is needed, but if science-driven digital mental health continues to evolve, reducing the political culture of fear could soon be in the palm of our hand.
Last month, I saw Privacy, a play by James Graham about the consequences of living our lives mediated by the internet and mobile technology. Called a “magic show” by the New York Times review, it used Shakespeare’s The Tempest as a window into the pathos of this brave new digital world of ours.
At its core, the play is about how technology places us in exile, in which we struggle with feeling alone and cut off even though we are always connected with others, struggle with understanding our emotions even though we constantly express ourselves. One of the most interesting things to me about the play was that it included one of our era’s great exiles, Edward Snowden, who makes an appearance via a previously recorded Skype video. He and the protagonist of the play, The Writer (played wonderfully by Daniel Radcliffe) together recite a monologue from The Tempest:
Be not afeard. The isle is full of noises,
Sounds, and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears, and sometime voices
That, if I then had waked after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again. And then, in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open and show riches
Ready to drop upon me, that when I waked
I cried to dream again.
In The Tempest this monologue was spoken by Caliban, the drunken, semi-human, despised but magical offspring of a witch who is explaining the mysterious and enchanting music of the island upon which all the characters in the play are trapped. The main protagonists of The Tempest are the magician Prospero, rightful Duke of Milan, and his daughter, Miranda, who were sent into exile and stranded on an island by Prospero’s jealous brother Antonio. Prospero, being a magician, has conjured a storm (the tempest) and set in motion a shipwreck and a series of events designed to gain back the throne for his daughter, the rightful heir.
Is Mr. Snowden Caliban, both despised and magical? Edward Snowden is certainly vilified by some – in exile in Russia after leaking NSA documents revealing the scope of secret surveillance carried out by the US government on its own citizens and on other governments. Others, of course, consider him to be a martyr and a hero. Mr. Snowden has said, “People say I live in Russia, but that’s actually a little bit of a misunderstanding. I live on the Internet.” To hear him recite “The isle is full of noises, sounds, and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not. Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments will hum about mine ears ….“ made me think about what it must mean for him to “live” on the internet, never escaping its ceaseless music, the chatter and flood of words, images, facts, attacks, ideas, pings, clicks, alerts, notification, requests, and likes.
It also made me think about what Mr. Snowden gave up in order to shine a light on the underbelly of all this noise. “When I waked I cried to dream again.” This is the sting of being a citizen of the internet, unable to forfeit the joys and miracles of our shared, cyberspace dream, but knowing that we are being used by others for their own purposes, our privacy no longer sacred, but instead a pawn in the game, an asset to leverage and sell. Most of us accept this. Mr. Snowden does not.
Privacy leaves us with the feeling that our digital lives are a form of exile in an enchanted, cacophonous realm, a place where the technology we are dependent upon seems both magical and menacing.
Speaking at the Personal Democracy Forum (PDF) 2016 was one of those paradigm-shifting conference experiences for me. Before PDF, I tended to hear technophilic, almost Pollyannaish narratives about how technology can make our lives- and our civic lives – better. I was clearly behind the times because I now see the narrative shifting and morphing into a much more challenging, questioning viewpoint that might be best described by the saying “keep your friends close, but keep your enemies closer.”
In almost every talk I heard, technology and the digital economy was described as a double-edged sword, as a way to ignite change, but with high potential costs, and full of booby traps. Those who create technology? A mixed bag at best. Anil Dash didn’t mince words when he called the technocrats and Silicon Valley billionaires liars and the new robber barons. Kentaro Toyama compared the digital economy to The Matrix, in which our personal data is the lifeblood of same Silicon Valley billionaire evil robot overlords.
I have to admit that I take grim pleasure in the aptness of these metaphors, and have uttered identical words myself. However, it is also clear that these ideas are polarizing and, like extremism in politics, privilege emotions above logic to drive more fractious and divisive discourse. Luna Malbroux’s hilarious talk about “EquiTable,” a faux app she developed to create dialogue about social justice and equity, is a nice example of how to break away from bitter recriminations and instead to use humor as a powerful weapon for change.
But if technology is a very sharp double-edged sword, how do we wield it without cutting ourselves? How do we, as Yvette Alberdingk Thijm described in her talk about using technology as civic witnesses, harness technology for good without allowing others to use it against us.
Keep your friends close…
PDF yielded many ideas and solutions. I mention only a few below (including mine). I was particularly interested in those ideas and solutions demanding that technology serve humanistic goals and that the well-being of people be part and parcel of how we design and build technology. To do this, we have to open our eyes and take a cold, hard look at how our romance with technology has caused us to take our hands off the wheel (no pun with driverless cars intended).
My talk (text can be found here) centered on technology and mental health. I argued that the psychological and emotional nature of the tech we build is not peripheral or ancillary – it is fundamental to shaping how we use tech for healing. Right not, technology and digital culture is precisely and relentlessly designed to high jack our attention and our emotional brains for the economic benefit of its creators – this is the basis of the attention economy. To gather, mine, and sell our personal data, technology needs to be addictive, keeping us looking, clicking, buying, eyeballs on the screen, swiping, checking, clutching our devices, hoping to hear the next best thing, to feel connected, soothed, and understood. This is counter to health promotion, and creates imbalance instead of balance, weakness instead of strength. The notion that technology is designed to high jack our brains was beautifully and compelling described in a blog post just a few days after PDF by Tristan Harris.
I ended my talk with a call to action, that we must reclaim the technology culture to serve and amplify humanity and well-being, rather than serve the attention economy. We must further anchor this new culture in key values, including the value that our attention is sacred and valuable, not just the coin of the realm. We must own and be responsible for how we spend our precious attention.
Sherry Turkle observed how our excitement over the rapid pace of technological advances makes us forget some fundamental, common-sense things we know about life. For example, after research suggesting that self-reported declines in empathy among millennials could be caused by growing use of social media and digital communication, one researcher’s solution was to build an “empathy app.” Why would we ever think that technology could make us more empathic, that the thing that might have caused declines in empathy could also be the solution? Dr. Turkle described how many aspects of digital technology actually allow us to effectively hide from the challenges of feeling and expressing emotions in our relationships, to “sidestep physical presence” and seek “frictionless relationships.” Solution – we need to reclaim common sense and realize that we are the empathy app, as Dr. Turkle quipped.
danah boyd called our attention to the immense ethical disconnect in how the digital infrastructure of our civic lives – code – is constructed. This is an industry in “perpetual beta” and thus there are few if any standards, audits, or inspections of code. There also is little consideration of the resources taken up to maintain the immense glut of data generated every day, and little awareness of how bias and inaccuracy are built into data analytics. These questions are of the utmost importance because an increasing number of decisions in our personal and civic lives are being made based on algorithms and digital profiling. She exhorts us to be careful of how and what we code.
…but keep your enemies closer
As in everything, knowledge is power. I felt that we at PDF, speakers, participants, and audience alike, implicitly but universally agreed to keep our eyes open, to look our crush, technology, in the face and see that she may not be on our side anymore but to hope that it’s not too late. Technology is empowering, BUT…. We all agreed to spend more time on the “buts,” as well as on the when, how, and under what conditions we can reclaim technology for humanity. In his PDF talk, Kentaro Toyama evoked the great Isaac Asimov and the First Law of Robotics from Asimov’s “I, Robot” (A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm). In Asimov’s universe, the powers of technology are at their fundamental core designed and harnessed for the benefit of people. I believe that we must and can insist that our technology conform to this higher standard, and that with this as a guiding light, we can wield the double-edged sword of technology for more good than ill.
A fascinating thought piece on being blind in the digital age. Technology can be both beautiful and terrible.