An Inquiry Into How We Lose Ourselves through Social Media Algorithms.
By Cypress Chernik
The rise of various highly-competent artificial intelligence technologies over the recent period of development enables mankind to increasingly predict its impending doom at the hand of our cybernetic counterparts. It was foretold long ago by science fiction authors and filmmakers that if AI technology gets too far, the robots will inevitably take over and harvest our organs to create better and stronger versions of themselves—or whatever it is that happened in The Matrix.
I’m here to ease your mind. Don’t worry, there will be no organ-harvesting. No tyrannical robot government or half-cyber offspring. We are already enslaved to artificial intelligence!
I was asked: “Do people crave too much attention?” I found this to be a strange question with unclear parameters. What qualifies as too much? How much attention is being given? Is there a quantifiable amount of attention that is available to offer, and how much does each person possess? Do we give it to one another like trading cards, or do we simply crave it constantly, never getting it, always searching for approval?
The conversation on humans’ attention-seeking tendencies always leads my mind back to social media, or as I prefer to refer to it as, artificial intelligence. Because it is. Think about the harmful things that social media algorithms do to youth—indoctrination into harmful communities, radicalisation into extreme political ideology, screen addiction, and…middle-aged parents can keep this list going for days. Really though, what the algorithm addresses is the very intangible question that stumped me. How much attention do we crave, and how much do we have? I guarantee that your Instagram posts, TikTok feed, and Snapchat stories have the answer.
The algorithm isn’t malicious. It’s the algorithm’s artificial intelligence that is designed to make as much money as possible. The longer our eyes spend looking at content and advertisements, the more money the corporation makes; so making the content increasingly finely tuned to our slightest whims and potential interests means that our eyes look for longer and the money piles up. In 2022, Instagram had 1.28 billion users. In the same year, Instagram generated 51.4 billion dollars in revenue. That means that if we were to divide Instagram’s revenue by the number of users, each person would have made Instagram around $40 in 2022 just by staring at their screen. That’s not much, but this assumption doesn’t take into account the fact that there is a large quantity of inactive or low-interaction accounts on Instagram, and someone who spends three or more hours a day on Instagram can reasonably be assumed to be providing a lot more than $40 in profits, especially since the worldwide average for time spent on social media per month was only twelve hours, so a large fraction of Instagram’s revenue can be attributed to avid social media users in the West, who are often documented to spend over five or even over eight hours on social media per day.
I’m not here to point fingers. Social media addiction is a problem, but it’s not a problem because teenagers maliciously decided to get addicted to a force that monetizes their attention. The artificially intelligent algorithm is a problem, but not because it decided in its artificial brain to harvest the metaphysical organs of the younger generation with the intent to profit. Artificial intelligence does not understand gain or profit, rather only what is fed into it by its programmers and those who design the systematic distribution of content. What it does understand is attention.
Attention is limitless. We have so much of it to give, but until we are older we can’t stop it spilling out of us – we are ready to give it to what is in front of us, what is around us, that which is colourful, sparkly, moving rapidly, pretty, unrealistic, violent, validating, sexual, photoshopped… oh.
The algorithm’s artificial intelligence does harvest something. It quantifies and understands our tendencies and what our attention jumps to quickest. It psychoanalyses us as we scroll and like and scroll and stare and scroll and close the app. Its approach is almost Freudian: the idea that children as young as five can have sexual desires and experience libido isn’t at all new. The algorithm invites us to explore our urges, click on the violent scene, compare the beautiful model’s perfect body to our own unshaven legs and pudgy stomachs. It’s liberating. Succumb to the flow and ideas. You don’t need to think about them, you can just float through a landscape of desire.
The real thing is always just a tiny bit out of reach. Texting cannot truly be equivalent to a nighttime walk with a friend, photos and videos of magical places around the world aren’t really reminiscent of travel, and pornography doesn’t simulate intimacy. It’s all intangible, but that’s what we specialise in, isn’t it? The pursuits of the mind over the body. It’s the most human thing. Really, there is nothing more animalistic than looking at a picture of a reality that you want and clawing at it like a confused cat. The mouse is on the screen, but why can’t I catch it? We, like the cat, have inevitably come to the conclusion that we cannot reach the other side. The algorithm is a bottomless pit that we can sink deeper and deeper into, in the hopes of experiencing something real, in the hopes of stretching out a strained hand into the darkness and feeling God’s fingertips grazing our own.
All that we find is our own minds, mapped out inscrutably in front of us. The AI takes us gently by the hand and says: Don’t worry. I know you. You are your base desires—your impulses and your immediate cravings. I can give it to you. Then, it dissolves, and we are left with this explanation of ourselves.
Fellow humans, we’ve been calibrated.