For my latest podcast, I read my January 2018 Locus column, Persuasion, Adaptation, and the Arms Race for Your Attention.
The essay proposes that we are be too worried about the seemingly unstoppable power of opinion-manipulators and their new social media superweapons.
Not because these techniques don’t work (though when someone who wants to sell you persuasion tools tells you that they’re amazing and unstoppable, some skepticism is warranted), but because a large slice of any population will eventually adapt to any stimulus, which is why most of us aren’t addicted to slot machines, Farmville and Pokemon Go.
When a new attentional soft spot is discovered, the world can change overnight. One day, everyone you know is signal boosting, retweeting, and posting Upworthy headlines like “This video might hurt to watch. Luckily, it might also explain why,” or “Most Of These People Do The Right Thing, But The Guys At The End? I Wish I Could Yell At Them.” The style was compelling at first, then reductive and simplistic, then annoying. Now it’s ironic (at best). Some people are definitely still susceptible to “This Is The Most Inspiring Yet Depressing Yet Hilarious Yet Horrifying Yet Heartwarming Grad Speech,” but the rest of us have adapted, and these headlines bounce off of our attention like pre-penicillin bacteria being batted aside by our 21st century immune systems.
There is a war for your attention, and like all adversarial scenarios, the sides develop new countermeasures and then new tactics to overcome those countermeasures. The predator carves the prey, the prey carves the predator. To get a sense of just how far the state of the art has advanced since Farmville, fire up Universal Paperclips, the free browser game from game designer Frank Lantz, which challenges you to balance resource acquisition, timing, and resource allocation to create paperclips, progressing by purchasing upgraded paperclip-production and paperclip-marketing tools, until, eventually, you produce a sentient AI that turns the entire universe into paperclips, exterminating all life.
Universal Paperclips makes Farmville seem about as addictive as Candyland. Literally from the first click, it is weaving an attentional net around your limbic system, carefully reeling in and releasing your dopamine with the skill of a master fisherman. Universal Paperclips doesn’t just suck you in, it harpoons you.