Welcome to the Machine

Welcome to the Machine

Google "social media is ..." Depending on where you live, your search might return vastly different auto-completed results. Fun. Cool.  A way to connect. A waste of time. Bad for you. A bogeyman. Addictive. Dangerous. Destroying democracy. A cancer.

Social media is ubiquitous. And it is facing mounting scrutiny due to the societal harms — disinformation, electoral manipulation, radicalization — which it not only allows but, by design, encourages. Even Netflix is (perhaps not disinterestedly) sounding the alarm on its big-tech peers with its new documentary, "The Social Dilemma."

In the film, tech-industry insiders and outside observers explain social media's greatest inherent evil — its unparalleled capacity to make people depressed, angry, ignorant, and divided — by manipulating real-world behavior in accordance with profit-driven algorithms.

But more than anything, the film argues, social media is addictive. Prof. Edward Tufte: "There are only two industries that call their customers 'users': illegal drugs and software." And that's not by accident. The more you use, the more money social-media companies make.

But how exactly does something free make money? In the end, something must be sold. And that thing is — you. Your attention, tracked and manipulated by countless engineers and sophisticated A.I., is sold to advertisers to the tune of billions. Today's tech companies are among the biggest, richest, most powerful in history. And yet they are almost entirely unregulated.

Social media companies know how to exploit your weaknesses. And they do it without oversight every day, every hour, every minute, every second. It's not a matter of what's good for you — it's a matter of what's good for stockholders' wallets. And as minds are narrowed to pinpoints, conspiracy theories go mainstream, and vitriol is stirred up online, they are only getting fatter. Welcome, citizens of Dystopia, to the machine.

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