Sunday, August 27, 2023

Books: "Outrage Machine" By Tobias Rose-Stockwell

Outrage Machine: How Tech Amplifies Discontent, Disrupts Democracy - And What We Can Do About It

By Tobias Rose-Stockwell; introduction by Jonathan Haidt

Legacy Lit; hardcover, 416 pages; $29.00

Tobias Rose-Stockwell is a writer, designer, and media researcher who has written for The Atlantic, Wired, NPR, the BCC, and CNN. The research he has performed has been cited in adopting key interventions to reduce toxicity and polarization within leading tech platforms. Prior to that, he led humanitarian projects in Southeast Asia focused on civil war reconstruction efforts, and he was honored with an award from the 14th Dalai Lama.

Outrage Machine, which was honored as Amazon's Best History Book of the Month for July 2023, is Rose-Stockwell's new book, and it is an incisive guide to understanding what the internet has done to our brains, and how it can be fixed.

When the internet was conceived, it was not designed to make us upset, distracted, confused, and outraged all the time. This distortion was put into motion at the start of the last decade when a handful of small features were quietly launched at social media companies with little fanfare.

When put together, those triggered a cascading set of dramatic changes to how media, politics, and society itself operate. The defining shifts caused by these technologies ignited a crisis of trust that permeated all of society.  It fed on people's basic desire for news.

The major components of the modern viral internet are smartphones, social media, and news. They work in concert to command our attention, mainly against our own interests. The elements that keep it in motion are algorithms, metrics, and moral emotions and they have fomented the outrage and cancellation that define today's culture. The system is currently dominated by groups who look to advance agendas, from activists to politicians. 

Rose-Stockwell uses cutting-edge research and vividly-described personal anecdotes to illustrate how social media has bound us to an unprecedented system of public performance that trained people to react rather than reflect, and attack each other rather than engage in debate. 

Social media is situated within a historical context of confusion, violence, and emerging tolerance. The story told in this book spans continents and generations, with an exploration of how every new media technology disrupts our ability to make sense of the world, from the printing press to the telegraph, from radio to television. He reveals the magnitude of the challenges we face, while offering realistic solutions and a pathway out. 

In this excerpt, Rose-Stockwell lays out what social media has devolved into: "The machine has a purpose: to inform you of what is happening in the world. Its job is to get you to pay attention, and it has become exceptionally good at this task. So good, in fact, that it has found out what makes you - specifically you - very mad.

In the process, it has divided you. It has fractured you into opinions. It has asked you to be for or against each new issue it has served.

This machine is our modern media system. It includes print media and digital media working in concert. It includes the device in your pocket. It includes newspapers and news feeds, algorithms and activists, politicians and pundits.

But the machine is not just made up of professionals. It also includes your neighbors, friends, and family members too. Without their knowledge, they have become participants in a continuous spectacle of news production and consumption. Many of them are so enmeshed in its gears that they cannot see it for what it is. Instead, they see outrages that must be shared, and threats that must be addressed.

When our minds fill up with threats, something strange happens. Instead of perspective, we see plots against us. Instead of people, we see enemies. We draw lines around our communities to defend the values we hold dear.

The new technology hardwiring us to this machine is social media. It has distilled, streamlined, and accelerated our participation in this spectacle of news better than anything that came before it.

This machine is a hard problem, because it also provides real value to us and society. It offers meaningful gifts of connection, ideas, and insight. But to use it, we must play by its rules. The rules are currently rigged against us.

This book is about how this machine came to be, and what we must do to adapt to its new intrusion into our lives. I know about this machine because I was there when it was modified. I know some of the people who helped change it. I know it was an accident - they didn't mean for it to turn out this way.

It doesn't need to be like this. We have a choice. Because we have been here before...

Tracing the origin of our crisis of attention, I looked to the past for answers. I dug deep into the history and sociology of news, trying to understand the preceding eras of disruption brought about by new media technologies. I moved backward in time from the present day, to the beginning of the internet, to television, to radio, to the telegraph, to the postal service, to the printing press, and before.

On this journey I found something very surprising: Despite how fractured and dystopian this moment feels, it isn't fundamentally new. It is instead the most recent phase in a lengthy cycle of disruption and renegotiation spanning centuries. Yes, the technologies built to capture human attention at scale are more powerful today than they have ever been. Yes, their influence feels more threatening than ever. But their invention follows a historical path that has been well traveled by our species. This path follows a process of increased amplification of viral ideas and speech, accompanied by an explosion of unintended consequences, then followed by controls and guidelines placed to try to maintain a kind of epistemic balance - a balance of good information over bad. As groups of people begin observing the harms of these new tools, they push to renegotiate their implicit contract with them. They learn to demand more from their media. We are in the midst of one of those cycles now, a period that feels like we are trapped in a deep valley."

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