/ Cory Doctorow / 7 am Mon, Nov 20 2017
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  • How technology's built in "engagement maximization" destroys mental health in the Trump age, and what to do about it

    How technology's built in "engagement maximization" destroys mental health in the Trump age, and what to do about it

    We live in a weaponized news-cycle, a political moment in which a cadre of ruthless looters are destroying the world, magnified by technology's design ethic that uses experimental methodologies to maximize "engagement" (that is, how much attention you give to a tool or application), without any regard to whether your "engagement" is driven by pleasure or anxiety.

    My Trumpism survival strategy is to only engage with the news and politics when I can be reflective -- when I can look up the backstory, connect it with other ideas, and write things on Boing Boing or make notes to myself, putting myself in charge of the news-cycle -- and to never engage with media when I'm reactionary, that is, when I can't stop, research and consider the nature of the news.

    But the technology defaults of "engagement maximization" run directly contrary to this tactic, by jamming reaction-inducing headlines in your eyeballs at every conceivable moment, for the express purpose of diverting you from the task you're completing and hooking you into an anxious set of taps, clicks, likes and arguments.

    For example: the Android home screen search bar. By default, tapping in this bar drops down a list of top searches from this moment. Inevitably, these are searches that portend catastrophe, e.g., "trump nuclear war threat." That's because Android's algorithm for choosing top searches has maximized engagement, and these are the kinds of searches that drive further searching.

    But you don't go to a searchbar on your pocket-computer to find out about current affairs. The very nature of search is task-oriented. This top searches "feature" exists solely to derail you from your search, because search is not an "engagement" activity: by its nature, it is a closed-loop activity. You want to know a fact. You look up the fact. You leave the search box. The only way to "improve search engagement" is to hijack the user's attention.

    Here's the straw that broke the camel's back: I was out for dinner with a friend. We were looking at the menu and spotted an unfamiliar sauce. The server was busy, so I took out my phone and tapped the search-box to look up the sauce's ingredients. Tap: trump nuclear war threat. Zomgwereallgonnadierunhide. I looked up the sauce, put my phone back in my pocket and tried to resume my conversation. The whole dinner, though, was derailed by my thoughts returning, over and over again, to the deliberate anxiety provocation Android had punched me in the face with. Will we be dead before dinner is done?

    Once you recognize this pattern, you'll see it everywhere. The Android weather app does it, because it is "weather and news" and tapping the weather icon in the morning to find out if I needed to remind my kid to bring a jacket to school meant being punched in the face with at least five variations on trump nuclear war threat. Our morning school walks went from being a sweet 15 minutes of daddy-daughter time when we told stories or talked about homework or upcoming family activities to a sweaty race to drop the kid off to find out if we'd all be dead by lunchtime.

    It turns out that there's a deeply buried preference to turn off suggesting "top searches" in Android, but there's no way to get the weather app to stop punching you in the face. You can turn off all the headline categories in "News & Weather" except "Top headlines," which is a euphemism for trump nuclear war threat.

    I've reclaimed my search bar and replaced the weather app. We can't afford to disengage from the news in the Trump era, because we need to seize this moment of dislocation to smash Trumpism and begin the urgent work of saving our planet, species and society. But there's a difference between reflection and reaction, between engaging on your terms and being repeatedly punched in the face by an algorithm.

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