This is a major historical pivot. While in the past we’ve had to deal with mostly objective threats, now we must sort through a murky universe of subjective and false threats, without always having clear means of discerning truth from fiction. Moreover, through algorithms that analyze how people behave on the Internet and what stories they pay attention to, online marketers and media sources have grasped what cognitive psychologists discovered in the lab decades ago: Emotional content, including information that triggers our greatest fears—terrorism, disease, natural disaster—grabs our attention. Once captured with the help of complex algorithms, our attention translates into high click-through rates that may even be monetized as advertising and subscription revenues. For those seeking to profit from our fears, it’s a “race to the bottom of the brain stem,” according to technology ethicist Tristan Harris.
The Internet poses a dilemma: We need to have loose mind-sets to adapt to technology, yet we need tighter norms to regulate the destructive, normless, and fear-mongering behavior that it enables.
Just like in other areas of our lives, we need a tight-loose Goldilocks balance in these new spaces. The effort to tighten up our online spaces must balance users’ freedoms but still have adequate constraints.
Fortunately, tighter norms for appropriate behavior are starting to emerge in our new virtual worlds. Some of this is occurring informally. Hundreds of books, online manuals, and YouTube videos offer guidelines on how to act appropriately via email, tweet, text, Facebook, and more.
“Netiquette” guides stress the importance of remembering that there are actual people on the other side of our screens who deserve to be treated with the same respect we’d give them face-to-face.
Until the mid-nineteenth century, too, almost all economists assumed that in order to understand the prices of goods and services it was first necessary to have an objective theory of value, a theory tied to the conditions in which those goods and services were produced, including the time needed to produce them, the quality of the labour employed; and the determinants of ‘value’ actually shaped the price of goods and services. Then, this thinking began to go into reverse. Many economists came to believe that the value of things was determined by the price paid on the ‘market’–or, in other words, what the consumer was prepared to pay.
All of a sudden, value was in the eye of the beholder. Any goods or services being sold at an agreed market price were by definition value-creating.
John Brockman’s new book is wonderful, both for the world views it shares, and its historical narrative.
“Wiener’s applications of cybernetic concepts to the brain and to computerized perception are the direct precursors of today’s neural-network-based deep-learning circuits, and of artificial intelligence itself.”—Seth Lloyd, edited by John Brockman. “Possible Minds.”
“Even in the age of all things digital, this cannot be defined in any strictly logical sense, because meaning, among humans, isn’t fundamentally logical. The best you can do, once you have collected all possible answers, is to invite well-defined questions and compile a pulse-frequency weighted map of how everything connects.”—George Dyson, edited by John Brockman. “Possible Minds.”