We Should Have Known that Silicon Valley Was Just Another Bad Boyfriend

big tech red flag
Illustration: Rebecca Zisser / Axios

We should have known that Silicon Valley’s creepy, peeping-tom, data-stealing incursion into our lives was going to end badly. There were red flags from the very beginning. How did we miss them? Why did we ever think that “disruption” was a good word? Doesn’t the acronym, FAANG, for these dominating, digital behemoths give us a clue?

I think an apt metaphor here for understanding how and why we all, systematically, ignored these red flags is the bad boyfriend/girlfriend phenomenon. Since I have had experiences with bad boyfriends (BBs), I will write from this perspective. But of course it applies equally to any romantic partner.

Most BB experiences follow three stages:

  1. Although the BB was charming at first, red flags are there from the beginning. He soon starts letting you down and making you unhappy.
  2. He takes advantage of your love for him to keep behaving badly.
  3. It takes a long time for you to realize that BBs never really change.

Here is how this maps on to the big Silicon Valley companies:

1. The red flags are there from the beginning. Let’s start with Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook, arguably among the worst of the worst BBs. As recently described by Julia Carrie Wong, who was one of earliest users of the proto-Facebook site thefacebook.com, she recalls a leaked IM exchange between Mark Zuckerberg and his friend. It’s worth reading the article in full, but here is the IM exchange, originally published in Silicon Valley Insider:

ZUCK: yea so if you ever need info about anyone at harvard

ZUCK: just ask

ZUCK: i have over 4000 emails, pictures, addresses, sns

FRIEND: what!? how’d you manage that one?

ZUCK: people just submitted it

ZUCK: i don’t know why

ZUCK: they “trust me”

ZUCK: dumb fucks

This BB is just the worst. Trustworthy and innocent in front of you, backstabbing and demeaning behind your back. When you catch him, he acts innocent, surprised – just like Mark Zuckerberg acted when he testified in front of Congress last month. But this was his plan from the very beginning. You need to start paying attention now! It would be best if you broke up with him sooner rather than later.

2. He takes advantage of your love for him to keep behaving badly. But you don’t pay careful attention and you don’t break up with him. Instead, you keep rationalizing his bad behavior away, so he knows he can keep getting away with murder. Your relationship with Facebook is again a perfect example again. Take the Cambridge Analytica scandal – it’s old news! That story already broke back in 2015 in a Guardian report about Sen. Ted Cruz’s presidential campaign wrongfully obtaining data from tens of millions of users. You complained a bit, but forgot about it after a few weeks.

 But let’s not forget, you have other BBs in your life. What about Google’s active hostility towards privacy? Whether it’s the creepy Street View violations when Google Maps first launched or, way back in 2012, when Google was fined a measly $22.5 million (less than .1% of Google CEO Larry Page’s net worth at the time) for overriding privacy settings in Apple’s Safari browser? Your response?: Privacy, schmivacy. Google’s old “don’t be evil” motto just means that anything less than evil is ok, right? Makes sense!

I may have deleted my Facebook account years ago, and use DuckDuckGo instead of Google to protect my privacy and personal data, but I should come clean and talk about my own darling, Amazon. Amazon, which doesn’t allow ample time for its employees to have bathroom breaks; which is running every mom-and-pop store on the planet out of business; which seems to value growth and efficiency above all, no matter what the consequences for individuals or society.  I still love you Amazon because you make my life easier. I’m finding it very hard to leave you, even as you become like an evil robot overlord more and more every day, and my life becomes drearier and more draining after all the looking at clicking and swiping and buying on that no-longer-charming glowing screen?

3. BBs never really change. The current litany of Silicon Valley mea culpas are drowning us. It’s hard to hear anything over all that gnashing of teeth. But once that dies down, you know that your BB will try to go back to doing what he does best – whatever he wants without concern about the cost to you or anyone else. Don’t fool yourself. It’s way past time to wake up.

Techlash is now, and many of us, perhaps for the first time, perhaps in a more powerful way than ever before, are realizing that the digital ecosystem might have made our lives more efficient, but has also increased cruelty, indecency, ugliness, and inhumanity around us. In this ecosystem, negative information is amplified at the expense of positive information. The “connected” world isn’t happy. We feel free when we put those smartphones down. Scared, but free. Much like leaving a bad relationship. We have to double down on being human again.

We should have all paid attention. Don’t expect BBs to ever really change. If you’re stuck with one, like we probably are with our Silicon Valley BBs, just remember, it’s up to us to call the shots and make things better.

Blog Post for Psychology Today – Can’t Fight This Feeling: Technology and Teen Anxiety

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.

Blast from The Past – Politics and the Culture of Fear: Is There a Place for Digital Disruption?

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 Presidentimages 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.

Laying down a social marker

Another thought-provoking piece by Gareth Price about how the pressure to share via social media may be influencing the quality and quantity of our ideas.

DisCoverage

frustrated_writer_by_photonerd88-d3gobx6BrainJuicer’s Tom Ewing wrote a blog post today about how the way we listen to music could change.

He envisioned people will soon have “attention regimes, in the way they follow dietary regimes and exercise regimes, and will have them in public: a proclamation of one’s listening regime will become a kind of social marker”; adding:

Demonstrating you can pay attention in a world of instant clicks will be a mark of presumed character (and bragging rights) in the same way demonstrating you keep fit in a world of chairs and screens is among white-collar workers now.”

Ephemerality is built into the internet.

If you don’t update your website Google will punish you by pushing you down its search rankings.

Fail to tweet for any extended period and people will unfollow you.

Don’t update your status and friends will accuse you of being a ‘Facebook…

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The Happiest iPhone on the Block: Why Managing Your Digital Life is Like Good Parenting

When I started blogging a little over a year ago, I was a true social media skeptic. I drew more inspiration from thinkers like Sherry Turkle than Anil Dash. But my experiences with social media have turned this on its head. I’m still a skeptic in the sense that, as a scientist, I believe we need to know a lot more about how social media affect our lives for better and for worse. But I don’t feel the kind of concern I used to feel. Perhaps I’ve been tempted by the siren song of technology, lulled by a false sense of security engendered by the all-consuming digital embrace… but I don’t think so. I actually feel more in control and less overwhelmed by social media and other digital forms of communication than ever before. I feel they are tools, which I can selectively choose among and harness. I believe that a sense of well-being and balance in social media use is possible if we use some simple practices. The best metaphor I can think of for these practices is that they are the types of things that an effective and sensitive parent does. Here are the top five “parenting strategies” I’ve used to manage my social media burden:

naughty child

  1. Establish rules and set limits. Children thrive when there are consistent limits and structure. In the same way, our technology use needs rules and limits. If I don’t set limits on when and how I use social media, I’m more likely to get sucked into the black hole of keeping up with every tweet/text/email/post/newsfeed. I’m more easily distracted by social media, less present with others, and more likely to waste time and be less efficient because of it. Like all good parents, I try to create structure that is firm but fair. Harsh discipline might work in the short term, but the child usually rebels. So, I try not to be unreasonable or unrealistic about the rules (e.g., “I can only check email once a day, and for no more than 10 minutes” doesn’t work). I’ve tried to find a set of guidelines that work with my life and make me happy.
  2. Monitor communication technology use. It’s 10 o’clock. Do you know how much social media you’ve used today? This is really about being mindful about how we’re using our technology. I prioritize my time – I only have so much time and attention in a day, and so I try to spend my mental and social capital wisely. I keep track and schedule times that I will use these tools, and know the times that they need to be put to bed.
  3. Reinforce good behavior. It’s not only the amount of time we use social media or communication technology. It’s about how we use it and what it brings to our lives. I try to select digital communities that brings something positive to my life and that cultivates a positive peer network.
  4. Selectively ignore. In parenting, the idea here is that if a child is showing a troublesome behavior, as long as it’s not destructive, it can be “extinguished” by just ignoring it. If there is no reaction, and no reward, there ceases to be a reason for the child to act that way. And then the child stops being a nuisance. In the similar vein, when I start to feel that my communication technology use is becoming burdensome and bossy, when I feel the pressure to respond to every message or push notification is too much, I start ignoring it. Most of us like the feeling of being connected, and hope that the dings and rings on our devices will bring something good into our lives or that stressful things can be averted and dealt with quickly. So, we start to check obsessively and end up spending dinner time with our family on a device, or walking into traffic with our eyes glued to our iPhone. When I begin to move in this direction, I reverse course and start to consciously and selectively ignore my devices in order to break the cycle.
  5. Adapt technology use to fit my life. One key to being a good parent, I believe, is structuring your life so that it can accommodate children in support of their well-being and happiness. Some (in my opinion) not-so-great parents do the opposite, they expect not to change their lives at all and that children should just fit in. In contrast to my list of strategies thus far, when it comes to mobile technology and social media I try to follow the inspiration of the questionable parent: I fit technology into my life so that I remain able to do what I want and need to do without being sidetracked. If my life is becoming  more stressful and less organized because of social media burden, then I’m probably doing the opposite.

So remember, when that naughty stream of Facebook status updates are just too much to handle, you’re a week behind on your twitter feed, the pesky email inbox just won’t empty out, and those 10 texts – that are going to go unanswered for another few days – won’t stop bugging you, ask yourself: what would mom do?

Rebel Without a Status Update

I am fascinated by the psychology of Facebook status updates. There are many reasons to make a status update. One reason, of course, is obvious – let others know what you’re up to or share something that’s cool. For example, if I did frequent status updates, I might decide to post “Buying a fantastic ½ pound of Australian feta at Bedford Cheese Shop on Irving Place – should I up it to a pound?!” (and seriously, it is incredible). This may be an interesting snapshot of a day in my life, but these types of status updates are exactly the ones that tend to annoy me for some reason. Even the most benign version of this feels like TMI.

Why? Status updates are for many an instinctive way to reach out.  A recent study even showed that increasing the number of status updates you do every week makes you feel more connected to others and less lonely. Seems like a good thing! Moreover, it’s consistent with what seems to be our new cultural comfort zone – being virtually seen and heard by a loosely connected group of people we know (or sort of know) as our “social network.” This virtual network is the social status quo for many of us, and certainly for many children growing up today.

I believe one consequence of this is that no one wants to be James Dean anymore. Putting it another way, maintaining privacy and being a strong silent type, like Dean, are no longer alluring ideas to us.  And when I thought of this, I realized why I don’t feel fully comfortable with the status update culture – I am a proponent of the James Dean School of Sharing Personal Information in Public: motto, the less the better. I like understatement, privacy, the choice to share with a few and retain privacy with most.

 Image

It’s no coincidence that as a culture, we don’t fetishize James Dean any more. Many of today’s icons (some of them “anti-icons” because we love to feel superior) are people who humiliate themselves, who will tweet that they’re on the toilet and what they’re doing there, who end up in compromised positions, and happen to have pictures and videos of those positions, which then promptly go viral (funny how that happens). James Dean would have disapproved.

James Dean himself would have been very bad at social media…..or perhaps very, very good. Very bad, because he would have had little to say, and would have hated the constant spotlight and social media culture of ubiquitous commentary and chit chat. On the other hand, he might have been very good at it because he would have been the Zen master of the status update, expounding with haiku-like pithiness. An imaginary James Dean status update:

James Dean…….

Old factory town

Full moon, snow shines on asphalt

#Porsche alive with speed

But seriously, while he probably wouldn’t have written haiku, perhaps he somehow would have figured out how to use sharing to create a sense of privacy, because a sense of mystery would have remained intact.

Yes, the status update is a beautiful thing. We have an efficient and fun tool which allows us to reach out to others, curate our self-image, and think out loud to a community. But I wonder if we’re starting to lose the simple pleasures of privacy, of knowing less and wondering more.

Islands in the Stream: A Meditation on How Time Passes on Facebook

Shortly after the terrible tragedy in Newtown, I received email notifications that my (designated) close friends on Facebook had made status updates. Scrolling through my news feed, my friends expressed the range of emotions that we all felt – horror, sadness, distress, anger, and confusion. Later that day, I popped onto Facebook again and was jarred and a little upset to read that friends who seemed to have just expressed horror and heartbreak were now posting about every day, silly, and flippant things.

Now, why should I be jarred or upset? Hours had gone by. After three, or six, or ten hours, why wouldn’t we be in a different emotional state, and why wouldn’t it be ok to post about it? I started to think that it was not my friends’ posts that were at issue here. Rather, it was the nature of how I perceive the passage of time and sequence of events on Facebook. A couple aspects of this came to mind:

Facebook time is asynchronous with real time. Time is easily condensed on Facebook. Events and updates that might be spread out over the course of a day or several days can be read at a glance, and therefore seem to be happening almost simultaneously. So, our perception of time on Facebook is a combination of how frequently our friends post and how frequently we check in. For example, say I check in twice in two days – at 9am on day 1 and at 9pm on day 2. I know a good bit of time has passed (and the amount of time that has passed is clearly indicated next to friends’ updates), but I still read each status update in the context of the previous ones – especially if I pop onto a friend’s Timeline instead of my news feed.

With this type of infrequent checking, friends’ updates about their varying and changing emotions (which might be reasonably spread out over the course of a day or multiple days) appear to be an emotional roller coaster. If someone has several posts in a row about the same thing, even if they are spaced days apart, the person comes across as preoccupied with the topic. Somehow, I form a view of this individual that brings these little snippets together into one big amorphous NOW. If I were checking more frequently, however, perhaps I wouldn’t lump updates together in this way. I’d “feel” the passage of time and – more accurately – see that the ebb and flow of status updates are like islands in the stream of our lives rather than a direct sequence of events.

RiverIslands_2

Related to this first point, it occurred to me that status updates are not meant to be interpreted in the context of preceding status updates. Our brains are pattern recognition machines. So, if Facebook status updates follow one after the other, our brains may perceive a direct sequence of events. But, each status update is a snapshot of a moment, a thought, or a feeling. Intuitively, they are supposed to be stand-alone, not readily interpreted in the context of a previous update, even if they occur close together in actual time. Think how different this is from our face-to-face interactions, in which sequence of events matter. For example, imagine that you’re at work, and your co-worker tells you she is on pins and needles waiting to hear back about a medical test. When you see her a few hours later, she is joking and laughing. You assume she either (a) got some good news from the doctor, or (b) is trying to distract herself from the worry. You don’t think she’s just having a good time, out of context of what you learned about her earlier in the day. But this contextualization is not the way it works on Facebook. Linkages between updates are tenuous, connections malleable. We can lay out our stream of consciousness in a way that requires no consistency among updates. Maybe the temporal and logical requirements of the off-line world are suspended on social networking sites like Facebook. Maybe our brains need to catch up.

In the Eye of the Storm: What Hurricane Sandy Taught Me about Social Media and Technology

As a resident of downtown Manhattan, my family and I were affected by Hurricane Sandy. But the worst that happened to us was losing power and water, and having to walk up and down 28 flights of stairs to get ourselves and our stuff out of our apartment so we could move to our dear friend’s apartment on the Upper East Side (where we are now totally safe and comfortable). Our kids feel displaced and are missing their routines and friends, and my husband and I are inconvenienced and feel, strangely, like tourists in our own city. But that’s the worst of it. This is obviously NOT a poor me story.

But this experience has opened my eyes to a few things. In addition to teaching me about the enduring kindness of strangers in this supposedly rude and impersonal digital age, this experience has taught me a few new things about the role of technology and social media in my life and in the life of my family. Here are two that have been on my mind:

The Importance of Physical versus Digital Neighbors. After the power went out, the kids on our floor were pretty much technology-free. What did they do? We opened the doors of our apartments, and the kids (including our one-year-old) ran out into the hallway like it was a backyard. Our neighbor Patricia said we should put down grass. The kids brought out toys and started playing store, house, battles, throw and catch, gymnastics. They found a collapsed cardboard box, and like all children, found that to be the best toy of all. My one-year-old got rides on the box from her brother, who would pull her around the hallway. Kids went freely from apartment to apartment. They played with each other like never before. I felt like I was living in an idealized American neighborhood (think Leave it to Beaver, I guess, which makes me June Cleaver? Jeez, you can’t control what leaps to mind can you?). Our doors were open and we fed each other’s kids lunch.   Essentially, we dealt with the loss of power by reaching out to our immediate social network in concrete ways. This simple neighborliness was immensely helpful and satisfying. All it took was walking across the hall. In my mind, no digital social network could be as satisfying in the circumstances we were facing. Of course, digital social media and mobile technologies are incredible tools for getting things done – communicating, getting information, keeping up-to-date, seeking and offering support. But, Sandy reminded me of how isolated, on a visceral level, we may start to feel when we forget to just be with the people around us.

Embodied Technology and Phantom Limbs. My iPhone went kaput (got water in it somehow) on Tuesday. This was horrible timing of course because I couldn’t update anyone about our status. But, as many have observed (e.g.,   JOMO) we often experience great relief and happiness when we can disconnect. However, I wasn’t just feeling happy about shedding the burden of being constantly connected.  I was worried and exhausted about my present moment and didn’t have the energy to look outside my current circumstances to communicate with others. I was fairly overwhelmed with getting the kids to safety. Communicating with our digital social network wasn’t going to help at that moment.

At the same time, I observed that this relief was mixed with some panic. How do I get what I need if I don’t have a phone? Luckily, my husband’s phone was working so we definitely had communication, but I, MYSELF, didn’t have a phone, and that was unnerving. Why would that be? I wasn’t disconnected, because I was with my husband and he was connected. Why did I feel disconnected?

To me, this speaks of the psychological aspect of having mobile devices that keep us constantly connected. It’s an embodied experience, having a device in your hand. And you feel it when it’s gone. Like a phantom limb: once you’ve lost the limb, you can still feel it itching. As humans, we’ve evolved to attach to other beings and to things. We anthropomorphize objects and devices so that we can feel a connection to them. Mobile technologies, because they are so deeply about social access and connection, may be high jacking this fundamental aspect of being human. All I know is that once I got uptown, I ran to the Apple store on 5th Avenue (thank you helpful Apple Genius) and got a new phone.

My family and I came out of the storm in great shape and we feel immensely lucky. For me, the biggest take-home message was that when technology is gone, or compromised, my appreciation for the people around me is that much sweeter.