Capitalism’s Attack on Mind; Meditation as Antidote to Social Media Addiction

Corporate social media aims to capture personal data by exploiting the frailties of human consciousness. Meditation aims to liberate human consciousness from the mental habits that constitute that frailty.

“How can we be assured that Facebook is really safeguarding democracy for us and that it’s not us who need to be safeguarding democracy against Facebook?” asked Max Read, writing in New York Magazine (1 October 2017: “Does Even Mark Zuckerberg Know What Facebook Is?”). Read’s question echoes growing concern that social media systems are in fact undermining democracy. As Sabrina Siddiqui put it in an article in The Guardian (26 September 2017: “‘From heroes to villains’: tech industry faces bipartisan backlash in Washington”): “As political polarization continues to plague Washington, a rare consensus is emerging between the left and the right that America’s largest technology companies must be subject to greater scrutiny.”

These questions are important, but they stay at the level of economics and politics—systems theory—and leave individuals with a sense that things are out of control unless we happen to be high-level corporate or political actors. In Read’s telling, even the latter may be unable to mount any effective response to the global situation:  Facebook’s role in the last U.S. election, though “presented as a democratic town hall was revealed to be a densely interwoven collection of parallel media ecosystems and political infrastructures outside the control of mainstream media outlets and major political parties and moving like a wrecking ball through both.” Read concludes, “Facebook is bigger, newer, and weirder than a mere company.”

The self-proclaimed Facebook “mission”—to “give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together”—wraps the platform in the rhetoric of “community values”; but as Read puts it, the guiding principles of the Facebook “community” are “whatever encourages people to post more. Facebook’s actual value system seems less positive than recursive. Facebook is good because it creates community; community is good because it enables Facebook. The values of Facebook are Facebook.” Read cites a recent essay for the London Review of Books, in which John Lanchester argues “that for all its rhetoric about connecting the world, the company is ultimately built to extract data from users to sell to advertisers.” Read says, “This may be true, but Facebook’s business model tells us only so much about how the network shapes the world.”

Read acknowledges the monetization of attention and human desires (and fears) inherent in social media—how could he not?! He quotes Tim Wu, the Columbia Law School professor and author of The Attention Merchants,  “Facebook has…attentional power, but …not a sense of responsibility. No constraints. No regulation. No oversight. Nothing. A bunch of algorithms, basically, designed to give people what they want to hear.” But Read frames that issue as “the government’s problem,” and segues into a confession: “From one angle, the Facebook hypercube terrifies me; from another, it’s a tool with which I have a tremendous and affectionate intimate bond. I have 13 years of memories stored on Facebook; the first photo ever taken of me and my partner together is there, somewhere deep in an album posted by someone I haven’t talked to in years. It gives me what I want, both in the ­hamster-wheel–food-pellet sense, and in a deeper and more meaningful one.”

A major impediment to critical thinking about social media arises from failure to investigate the human infrastructural elements of the “business model” underlying social media functions (and dysfunctions). The problem can be expressed in a single phrase—”monetization of attention”—how does social media capitalize (literally) on human consciousness? The answer, as Lanchester puts it, is that social media functions on the basis of “how people’s minds work and in particular of the social dynamics of popularity and status.” This functional basis rests on what Lanchester calls “a pretty dark view” of human nature—that we have no “values and beliefs of our own; what we have instead is an instinct to copy and compare”—a view propounded by Christian philosopher René Girard, whom Facebook investor Peter Thiel studied at Stanford. Lanchester quotes Thiel, who said. “Social media proved to be more important than it looked, because it’s about our natures.” Lanchester adds, “We are keen to be seen as we want to be seen, and Facebook is the most popular tool humanity has ever had with which to do that.”

 Paul Lewis, writing in The Guardian (6 October 2017: “‘Our minds can be hijacked’: the tech insiders who fear a smartphone dystopia”), interviewed a number of silicon valley “refuseniks:..  designers, engineers and product managers who created the building blocks of a digital world from which they are now trying to disentangle themselves.” Justin Rosenstein, for example, was the Facebook engineer who created the “like” button; he told Lewis that “Facebook ‘likes’ are ‘bright dings of pseudo-pleasure’ that can be as hollow as they are seductive.” The mechanisms by which Facebook and social media systems generally attract people’s attention not only “addict users” to the systems, but—in a seeming paradox—contribute to a phenomenon called  “continuous partial attention”, which limits people’s ability to focus. As Lewis notes, a recent study showed that “the mere presence of smartphones damages cognitive capacity – even when the device is turned off.” As Rosenstein put it, “Everyone is distracted. “All of the time.”

The silicon valley engineers are not limiting themselves to calling for government action. They are, as Paul Lewis put it, “weaning themselves off their own products” and preventing their children’s attentions from getting hooked. Nir Eyal, author of Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products—teaching techniques used in social media—writes, “The technologies we use have turned into compulsions, if not full-fledged addictions.” He explains the “subtle psychological tricks…to make people develop habits, …to create ‘a craving,’ … exploiting negative emotions that can act as ‘triggers’: “Feelings of boredom, loneliness, frustration, confusion and indecisiveness often instigate a slight pain or irritation and prompt an almost instantaneous and often mindless action to quell the negative sensation.”

My first response to reading Read’s confession was pity: How sad to find his mind and memories intimately captured by forces outside his control; to feel intimately bound to that which terrifies; to have his life story in a database for corporate advertising; to recognize without resisting hamster-like behavior. But then I realized this confession opens the way to getting out of the hamster wheel through an exercise of our own power as individuals, independent of whatever any government may do—our “attentional power.” The power we have to “wean ourselves” from social media addiction involves paying attention to our attention!  Advertisers and social media systems exploit the inverse of this phenomenon—namely, that our attention can be manipulated by others.

At this point, we can understand that social media exploits—takes advantage of, trades on—the human mind’s capacity for distraction; and, more importantly, we can focus on this capacity as a problem susceptible to our own power to pay attention to our attention, otherwise known as meditation, mindfulness. Much has been written about mindfulness meditation. Robert Wright’s new book, Why Buddhism is True, provides a useful introduction* combines a focus on core Buddhist teachings with information derived from research in neuroscience and psychology. As he explains, “Mindfulness meditation…is a good way to study the human mind. At least, it’s a good way to study one human’s mind: yours. You sit down, let the mental dust settle, and then watch your mind work.” Mindfulness  meditation practice aims at breaking the grip of the very same mental habits—the “mental dust”—that social media encourages and exploits for commercial purposes!  Corporate social media aims to capture personal data by exploiting the frailties of human consciousness. Meditation aims to liberate human consciousness from the mental habits that constitute that frailty.

  • * Note: Wright provides useful discussion of meditation practices, insights, and implications; but his digressions into “natural selection” (“Darwinism,” “evolution”) to present meditation as “undoing” evolution get in the way. First of all, the ground on which meditation happens—mind—does not require an explanation; a description suffices (e.g., “subject to illusion,” “agitated by desire and aversion,” etc.). Second, Wright grossly misconstrues “natural selection,” referring to it as “design” and “intention”; but as the Berkeley site, “Understanding Evolution” puts it in “Misconceptions about natural selection,”: “‘need,’ ‘try,’ and ‘want’ are not very accurate words when it comes to explaining evolution. The population or individual does not ‘want’ or ‘try’ to evolve, and natural selection cannot try to supply what an organism ‘needs.’ Natural selection just selects among whatever variations exist in the population. The result is evolution.” Third, if we want to hook up meditation and evolution, we would do better to follow the implications of the Berkeley discussion: “The genetic variation that occurs in a population because of mutation is random — but selection acts on that variation in a very non-random way: genetic variants that aid survival and reproduction are much more likely to become common than variants that don’t.” The question becomes: Are there genetic markers associated with ability or predisposition to mindfulness—human “attentional power”—that aid human survival? Only time and space will tell.