A few weeks ago one man, named @jack, decided that millions of people will be allowed to use up to 280 characters when expressing themselves on Jack’s public square platform. One man decides how many letters each and every one of us, including the “leader of the free world”, can use when we talk to each other. Just like that. Nobody seemed the least bit perturbed by this notion. Another dude, named Mark, decided to ask people for nude pictures of themselves, so he can better protect them from the bad guys. We shrugged that off too. Then, in a most embarrassing exercise in public humiliation, our democratically elected representatives begged three slick lawyers representing these platforms to effectively regulate what people can say or see on “their” platforms.
So here we are, in the land of the free and the home of the brave, where Jack and Mark decide what you can or cannot say, and what you can or cannot hear or see. This, my friend, is the power of “platforms”. In the old days, it used to be that he who pays the piper calls the tune. In the artificially intelligent technology age there are no pipers. He who owns the pipe makes it play whatever the hell he wants it to play. And as Sean Parker, a Facebook founder, elegantly put it, “God only knows what it’s doing to our children’s brains”. Perhaps God knows, but he is certainly not the only one who knows, because these platforms are built with the explicit intent to get people addicted to and dependent on the platform.
Funded with cash from sexist pigs and harassers, a startup, whose business model is to help other startups “hook” people on trashy little apps, is calling itself Dopamine Labs. “Dopamine makes your app addictive” is their promise. According to the website, they use AI and neuroscience to deliver jolts of dopamine that “don’t just feel good: they rewire the brain’s habit centers” of users to “boost usage, loyalty, and revenue”. “Your users will crave it. And they’ll crave you”.
At its rotten core, Silicon Valley is a drug cartel, a very clever and savvy cartel who managed to convince the world that its brand of drug addiction is actually good for you and either way, it’s inevitable.
But just getting billions of people on techno-drugs is obviously not the end game here. After extracting trillions of dollars from addicts who would rather go without food and medicine, than go without an iPhone X that costs more than a full blown top of the line computer, the Capos of Silicon Valley Inc. are now realizing that there is plenty more left to extract from the armies of zombies they are creating. “Because I’m a billionaire, I’m going to have access to better health care so … I’m going to be like 160 and I’m going to be part of this, like, class of immortal overlords. [Laughter] Because, you know the [Warren Buffett] expression about compound interest. … [G]ive us billionaires an extra hundred years and you’ll know what … wealth disparity looks like.”
Ah, yes, health care, the final frontier. When Keytruda (the Jimmy Carter drug) became available, it was considered too expensive at around $150,000, but times are changing. The FDA recently approved the immunotherapy drug Kymriah from Novartis with a price tag of $475,000, although Novartis says it could have charged more, presumably because this drug is a life saver of last resort for small children with cancer. Next, another CAR-T cell therapy cancer drug, Yescarta was approved by the FDA for adult cancer and Gilead Sciences priced it at only $373,000 a pop (that’s how value-based health care works). At this rate of innovation, it should not be too difficult to project a precise date for the emergence of that immortal class of overlords.
Developing personalized drugs, like immunotherapy, requires mountains of data from millions of people, and this is where the app-addicted public has a crucial role to play. Before the overlords can become immortal, we all need to “donate” our medical data, submit to experimentation, get sick and die, and yes, here and there a few lucky bastards will benefit from therapies their children will never be able to afford. Not surprisingly, Mr. Parker, the aspiring overlord, is now invested in an immunotherapy platform to coordinate research, or something like that. But Mr. Parker is a diversified investor. He has a couple more platforms. One is there to save the world from the AIDS epidemic by providing support to the Clinton Foundation.
The other platform is designed to help us vote. Yes, vote. The guy who promises to show us what wealth disparity really looks like is building platforms, complete with little dopamine jolts and colored pictures of bananas, to teach us all about “civic engagement”, because according to Mr. Parker’s venture buddy “the tools we build in Silicon Valley represent the best hope for fixing our democracy”. Everything was just fine with “our democracy” until all investments in the Clinton Foundation came crashing down like a house of cards in one fateful night in November 2016, when the overlords were positively robbed by a dopamine-deficient populist mob. In a wholesome democracy, when you pay for a President, you’re supposed to get a President.
Of course “our democracy” has been “broken” in one way or another for upwards of two hundred and forty years, but I think we can all agree that “our democracy” today is less broken than “our democracy” in 1789. There is great utility though, in declaring something to be broken, especially something big and nebulous like “our democracy”, because such declarations are almost always followed by assertions that the diagnosticians of brokenness are uniquely positioned to become the fixers of all broken things. Our health care is broken. Our education is broken. Our justice system is broken. Our economy is broken. Our tax system is broken. Our infrastructure is broken. Our entire goddamn country is broken. Oh, what the hell, the entire freaking world is broken. And Silicon Valley is our only hope.
Silicon Valley has essentially only one product, a very versatile product indeed, but a single product nevertheless. Silicon Valley doesn’t actually make this product. They harvest it by casting gigantic computerized platforms and collecting everything caught in their digital nets, very much like Bubba’s shrimp: “… shrimp is the fruit of the sea. You can barbecue it, boil it, broil it, bake it, sauté it. Dey’s uh, shrimp-kabobs, shrimp creole, shrimp gumbo. Pan fried, deep fried, stir-fried. There’s pineapple shrimp, lemon shrimp, coconut shrimp, pepper shrimp, shrimp soup, shrimp stew, shrimp salad, shrimp and potatoes, shrimp burger, shrimp sandwich. That- that’s about it.”
Information is the fruit of humanity. You can boil it and broil it to intimidate doctors and manipulate people, to extract immortality (and cash) for you and yours, thus fixing health care. You can sauté it and puree it to terrorize teachers and crush the minds of small children, to generate armies of drones (and cash), thus fixing education. You can sift it, scramble it, steam it, and serve it to nullify judges and juries, to protect property rights (and cash), thus fixing justice for all. You can slice it, dice it, can it and ban it as needed to keep all that cash flowing, thus fixing “our democracy”.
Remember Jack and Mark? Unlike Mark, Jack is allowing users to remain anonymous on his platform. On Jack’s platform, if you see a blue checkmark next to the name of someone, you can reasonably conclude that you are talking, or rather listening, to a “real” person, instead of, say, a Russian bot. Over time, it became clear that according to Jack, real people are those who are rich, powerful, or have enough “followers” to influence public opinion. Everybody else on Jack’s platform is shrimp. But Jack is an honorable man.
Jack is fixing “our democracy” by revoking the coveted blue checkmarks from some white supremacists. Presumably Messrs. Spencer and Kessler are no longer real. On the other hand, the multitude of rich and powerful rapists, pedophiles and garden variety perverts, are still very real according to Jack’s superior morality framework. Mark is fighting the good fight on behalf of “our democracy” in a different way. His platform is pursuing the enemy from without, by tracking enemy advertising paid for with rubbles, not yuans or ryials or euros or dinars or wons or yens, only rubbles, because the legendary KGB masterminds always pay in rubbles (with a return address of Моско́вский Кремль 103073) for all their international spying needs.
Now that “our democracy” is all nice and fixed, the Cartel can apply lessons learned to “democratize” medicine and fix “our health care” too. Health care is rife with old people, old fashioned ideas, and it is scattered all over the place. Nothing a big platform, dripping with dopamine jolts, can’t fix though. Uber for health care. Facebook for health care. Health care is like the iPhone. Information “blockers” will be prosecuted (this one is for real). Structured data. Metadata. e-Visits. Remote monitoring. Predictive analytics. Population management. This stuff is just begging for a medical platform with hundreds of millions of patients “sharing” their health, their illness and their medical experience with each other, with doctors, researchers and of course the platform overlord and his customers.
You will share your symptoms, your concerns, your treatments, your outcomes. You will “like” CT scans, “star” lab results, and rate doctors, heath insurers, drugs or devices. Perhaps they’ll have a “dislike” button too. You will post videos of your colonoscopy and maybe live stream your telehealth session. You will ask for advice from patients like you and “clap” for the ones you like best. Your cancer remission could go viral. The platform will ensure you see things you care about and shield you from unsettling content. Before you know it, you will feel compelled to check your “health” every 5 minutes, and certainly when your iPhone vibrates with new images from Bertha’s mammogram, or when your Apple “watch” beeps with updates from your fantasy clinical trials league or with an urgent reminder to record your pre-hypertension medication intake so you can receive the coveted 20% discount on Christmas fruit cakes at CVS just in time.
Platformized health care will be cheap, convenient and readily available. And just like communications, shopping, porn, and news, it will be fake, manipulative, addictive and designed to “protect consumers” instead of benefitting citizens, or patients in this case. Jack doesn’t converse with his buddies on Twitter. Mark doesn’t get his news from Facebook. Jeff doesn’t shop for deals on Amazon. And none of them will be getting medical care from a phone or a watch. You will. Your children will too.
Facebook just introduced a “safe” messenger for children under 13. Parents are supposed to set this up for their babies. Many will do just that. And experts will be exalting the thoughtfulness of the Cartel for creating a less toxic version, suitable for hooking children on the product. Why would a six year old need to message his “friends” online, instead of chasing them in the backyard? Why would a three year old need to watch sickly YouTube videos prepared exclusively for toddlers, instead of playing with alphabet blocks on the carpet? Why would the most powerful 71 year old man in the world self-destruct on Twitter instead of running said world? Why can’t you read an entire book anymore? Such is the power of the Silicon Valley Cartel.
You may also like:
Like almost every new technology in the history of mankind, they’ll be pros and cons. Good affects and negative ones. We are already seeing that with digital and its multiplicity of tools, apps, products etc. I’m not sure what your overall point is, Margalit – although it”s a fun piece. Is it that from your libertarian POV, all this will eventually compromise our privacy in horrendous ways as big brother gathers ALL the “shrimp” on all of us. To my mind there’s only one entity that can regulate that — the federal government. But Congress has kicked the can down the road for years…and I don’t see overarching protections coming. Is your solution: drop out? Nix your digital life…which is probably super shallow anyway…? Not for some people. For many it’s a huge pathway to knowledge and experience and communion.
I’m not concerned with the government’s collection of information (in this piece), and I am no libertarian either. The point is that a handful of people are running the world, our world, and we are so drugged up on the garbage they feed us that we hardly seem to take notice. Nobody should have the power of a Google, Apple, Amazon or Facebook. Nobody.
My solution…? Break them up….. and the ones that are not easily divisible like Facebook and Twitter should be regulated by the FCC, because that’s what they are – interstate and international communications carriers.
Margalit, what dopamine jolt caused you to vote for a billionaire moron in hopes that he would fix health care, or anything else? But I guess the temporary high from opioid tax cuts will allow the 1% time to give us the next fix for this broken democracy.
I’m sorry, I’m not sure I follow the argument….. ?
Here’s one of the guys from that universe who tossed it all and went elsewhere.
This snip is from an engaging hour-long interview.
The ethics of the dopamine thing are super interesting …
I just don’t know that it’s clear cut
What if by making your trashy little app addictive you help people conquer destructive addictive behaviors that are killing them?
What if Oxycontin helps relieve that horrible back pain that’s killing me doc? 🙂
Replacing one hell with another that is less lethal and less expensive in the short run, for an individual, may carry a huge price tag in the long run for society (and there is no indication that these things work).
I agree that it’s not clear cut, but are we making an informed decision to gamble here? Or are we being drugged into submission? Can a 6 year old make an informed decision? The sugar industry says they can…. who knows, maybe they can…..
Maybe having everyone communicating with each other 100x more than we used to is GOOD.
What if it facilitates an efficient hive-mind and this mind, through emergence, amplifies mans’ goodness?
How can we measure what the social media are actually doing to us? Fewer suicides? More small business formation? Less world dictatorship, slavery? Longevity increases? Educational attainment?
…or the reverses?
The Borg…. 🙂
Seriously though, efficiency scares me….. also man’s goodness is a questionable notion, I think…
I can see how all of us coming together to do good is a wonderful idea (that’s what government was supposed to be). The concern is that this is not a spontaneous random process. Somebody is managing and guiding it for profit. So far the profit is magnificent, while the good is in negative territory…. I don’t know what comes next.
Suppose Trump ran for President in 1954, before our digital age? Would we understand him as well? Would he be more or less dangerous? Do we understand the world better with the social media feeding us input?
I don’t think we know enough about all this computer input to our brains to know what is going to happen to us. It could be lethal but it could be beneficent too.
Well, computers and wide availability of information are excellent things. Social media could probably also be an excellent thing if it wasn’t manipulated and perverted in sinister ways. But there are also inherent problems with a fire hose approach to communications, the analog version of which is having the entire town standing in the square yelling and screaming at the same time. You can’t ever step away. You can’t possibly hear everybody. You can’t possibly process all the voices in real time and there is no pause…. ever….. so people stop thinking.
Cyber-mobs are no better or wiser than physical mobs, and that’s all we have left now. Computers can operate this way, can “analyze” information this way. People cannot. I am having a hard time believing that this is a bug and not a feature.
As to Mr. Trump, I think we had plenty of Presidents just like him over time (i.e. narcissistic, self-aggrandizing, very wealthy individuals appealing to the “working man”, rough around the edges…..etc.). We just didn’t have a camera and a microphone trained on the warts 24/7. Is this helpful? I have no idea, but it does keep that cyber-mob thing going pretty well….
As to the world, I don’t think we (who’s we?) understand it any better today than we did decades or even centuries ago…
I wish we had some metric that could tell us what is happening to our collective brain. We really are, as you say, addicted to this tool….and, to be dependent on it has totally changed health care.
Kudos on this fine writing. Fun reading.