• October 29, 2020 |

    accessing algorithms

    an attempt at being digitally mindful

    article by , illustrated by

    “You should write about algorithms!” my roommate and best friend Lauren exclaimed the other day. As a person who often realizes things about myself after other people do, I responded “Yeah, I should!”

    I should start at the beginning, when I was twelve. My mother first bought me a new iPhone 4, a gleaming white pearl of a cell phone, and I was immediately entranced. The smooth grey arrow slid satisfyingly across the screen each time I unlocked it, and the gloriously blue messages I sent rose from the bottom right corner with such fulfilling boldness. My Instagram audience consisted of a few dozen friends who saw the silly, filtered Instagram selfies that I didn’t think much of at the time. 

    But, in high school, as my awareness of my identity developed, so too did my relationship with social media. I increasingly relied on Instagram and Facebook for confidence and socialization. As a self-conscious, androgynous teenager in the throes of self-discovery, the digital social networks I became a part of were difficult to navigate and, at the same time, affirming. The “post-able” sides of life—my classmates’ parties and selfies—felt unrealistic and utopian. On the other hand, I was thrilled to find my niche (aesthetic fashion or sunset photos, pastel art pieces, queer memes, and dramatic Coelho quotes) and feel represented on Tumblr—where it was okay, normal even, to post Sappho excerpts or share queer movies, movements and history.

    During my junior year, feeling overwhelmed and self-conscious, I deleted my Instagram and Facebook profiles and chose to focus instead on the things near and dear to me: books, plants, family, and friends. Posting felt performative, even if I tried not to be. Trying to think of a funny caption or find a photo where I looked “good” threw off my ability to feel perceived in the truest sense of the word. 

    Yet without Facebook and Instagram there was a nagging feeling of being left out, as though a constant side conversation was happening without me. I redownloaded the apps to soothe that feeling and stay connected to my friends from different parts of the world, though I tried to be more conscious of my consumption and less invested in counting likes or comments. 

    Research is often inconclusive about the impacts of social media on mental health; some studies point to positive effects, while others suggest that effects are negative or negligible. Mesfin Awoke Bekalu, a researcher at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, found that regular social media use among adults could lead to improved social well-being (a measurement of social acceptance and inclusion) and mental health. Even so, a heightened emotional connection to social media (i.e. checking apps constantly for fear of missing out) was negatively associated with these outcomes. 

    “In more general terms, these findings suggest that as long as we are mindful users, routine use may not in itself be a problem. Indeed, it could be beneficial,” Bekalu said.

    At the same time, experience tells me these platforms are designed to make mindful use difficult. When I first scrolled through Instagram after I updated it a few years ago to find there was no longer an end to my feed, I felt the way I imagine Winston did in George Orwell’s 1984: shocked, a little duped, but perhaps not surprised.

    According to psychologist Dr. Jean Twenge, “several large studies show that use of digital media beyond two hours a day of free time, and especially beyond four hours a day, is correlated with more depression and unhappiness in teens.” 

    Currently, aforementioned roommate Lauren and I share similar qualms about social media—its increasing addictiveness and idolization of influencers, its negative impacts on self-confidence and the validation that it fosters nonetheless. We go through phases of alternately hyping up each other’s posts and trying to avoid social media platforms altogether.

    It’s ironic that Lauren and I actually met through Instagram. Last year, we ended up following each other despite never having met in person. Our first interaction took place when I nervously commented, “Awww this is so cute” on a funny series of photos she took in the library stacks. After I posted a photo of Providence on my Instagram story last summer, Lauren messaged me that she was also here, asking if I’d like to hang out. We got brunch, and the rest is history. 

    If you’ve ever taken an introductory economics course, you should be familiar with Milton Friedman’s famous saying, “There is no such thing as a free lunch.” The principle applies even when it comes to digital media. From search engines to social media, it’s no secret that we are the “products” these platforms use to profit from advertising revenue. Last year, Facebook generated 29.9 billion dollars in ad revenue alone. Instagram made nearly 10 billion dollars in the same year. 

    Shoshana Zuboff’s book The Age of Surveillance Capitalism explores the nascent idea of human behavior and attention as commodities to be analyzed and predicted for profit. She defines surveillance capitalism as “a new economic order that claims human experience as free raw material for hidden commercial practices of extraction, prediction, and sales.” 

    The manner of this extraction and prediction relies on massive amounts of data collected on a scale that is difficult to comprehend—and, of course, computer algorithms that can parse and use those datasets. 

    “Computer algorithms and network analyses can now infer, with a sufficiently high degree of accuracy, a wide range of things about you that you may have never disclosed, including your moods, your political beliefs, your sexual orientation and your health,” Dr. Zeynep Tufekci, a techno-sociologist, wrote in a New York Times op-ed. 

    Tufekci first appeared in my life when my high school Theory of Knowledge teacher screened her TED Talk, “We’re building a dystopia just to make people click on ads.” I showed Lauren the video one day in my dorm room last year, during one of many rants about technology: “They know, like, everything about us,” I said. “And they don’t even ask us for consent!” 

    Tufekci’s speech and article both discuss the advent of powerful artificial intelligence employed to gather and sort data about us, sometimes compromising personal privacy for the sake of targeted advertising. But it doesn’t end there. Both Tufekci and Zuboff add that these powerful algorithms have the potential to not only predict our behavior, but also the power to influence it.

    Tufekci explains social media algorithms can be used to “deploy persuasion architectures” that sway our behavior, from purchases to political leanings, based on the information about us gathered through our internet usage. She doesn’t ignore digital media’s advantages: circumventing censorship, empowering social movements and connecting people around the world. Yet, Tufekci concludes, “We have to mobilize our technology, our creativity, and, yes, our politics so that we can build artificial intelligence that supports us in our human goals but that is also constrained by our human values.”

    I’ve maintained a slight but constant discomfort with the L.L. Bean cable-knit sweater ads that routinely pop up on my Instagram feed in the fall, or the furniture ads that magically appeared when I began furnishing my apartment. As a person with a fondness for thick sweaters and men’s clothes in general, I know the algorithms and advertisers are targeting me—but I also know that there’s little I can do besides throwing my phone and computer in a lake to defend my digital privacy. 

    This semester, Lauren is taking an independent study in Engineering called Techno-futures while I’m taking an introductory computer science course. I think we’re both drawn to this digital universe that we know so little about but still access daily and mindlessly; these classes are our way of diving into the inner workings of tech and its algorithms to glimpse the other side of the interface. 

    A few weeks ago we watched The Social Dilemma, a documentary featuring tech innovators like Zuboff and Tristan Harris, co-founder and president of the Center for Humane Technology. The film explores social media’s scope, design, and impact through expert interviews cut with acted vignettes. In one, a teenage boy is puppeteered by AI as embodied by men tinkering in a control room, one asking the other, “Want me to nudge him?” In another, a girl looks away from her screen deflated after scrolling through a social networking app, animated reaction emojis bubbling up through the screen of her phone. Lauren and I decided it was simultaneously informative and a bit dramatic.  

    Knowing that unseen algorithms are constantly collecting and tracking data about me is a strange concept to grapple with, let alone avoid. This summer I downloaded Brave, a free browser advertised as more private than Chrome—only to find that Google remained the most all-encompassing search engine available. Frustrated that social media was the only way I could be perceived in quarantine, I had to take another break. 

    The pandemic has changed my relationship with technology—and people—in drastic ways. Connecting with others is theoretically easier than ever, but staring at a screen to do so can be difficult. Despite that, my screen time has skyrocketed recently, and between online coursework, virtual meetings and checking email, I find myself mechanically scrolling through Twitter, Instagram, or messaging platforms, assailed by advertisements along the way. Hours easily pass like this.

    Today, I access social media apps and electronic devices daily, even hourly, but I try to take as many breaks as I can. I recently finished Celeste Ng’s heart-wrenching book Everything I Never Told You. Last week, I began journaling for the first time in months. I bike to and from the COVID-19 testing centers and watch the leaves turn. Over the past few years, I’ve had the joy of watching the small queer online niche I found on Tumblr grow exponentially across the internet (yes, I am part of a Sapphic Asians Facebook Group). 

    Often, side by side on our matcha-green cushioned couch, Lauren and I will find ourselves arriving again at the same conclusion—that it’s impossible to determine whether technology and its social networks offer net positive or negative effects. That the most we can do is be conscious of the algorithmic structures around us, navigating them as we each see fit. Who knows, maybe you’ll meet a friend.