Resistance Watch

Charlie Stross writes,

However, Facebook is trying to get eyeballs on ads, as is Twitter, as is Google. To do this, they fine-tune the content they show you to make it more attractive to your eyes—and by ‘attractive’ I do not mean pleasant. We humans have an evolved automatic reflex to pay attention to threats and horrors as well as pleasurable stimuli: consider the way highway traffic always slows to a crawl as it is funnelled past an accident site. The algorithms that determine what to show us when we look at Facebook or Twitter take this bias into account. You might react more strongly to a public hanging in Iran than to a couple kissing: the algorithm knows, and will show you whatever makes you pay attention.

Pointer from Tyler Cowen.

Trigger warning: lots of smug rhetoric presuming that the left is correct on climate change, net neutrality, financial regulation, etc.

Looking ahead, Stross writes,

Your phone will be aware of precisely what you like to look at on its screen. With addiction-seeking deep learning and neural-network generated images, it is in principle possible to feed you an endlessly escallating [sic] payload of arousal-maximizing inputs. It might be Facebook or Twitter messages optimized to produce outrage, or it could be porn generated by AI to appeal to kinks you aren’t even consciously aware of. But either way, the app now owns your central nervous system—and you will be monetized.

One key point on which I agree with Stross is that I am surprised and disappointed that of all of the possible ways to pay for content on the Internet, the advertising model dominates. I understand why micropayments did not take off–Clay Shirky diagnosed the “mental transactions costs” involved. But if the subscription model (what I called “clubs” in my essays from twenty years ago) were dominant, then the interests of consumers and content providers would be better aligned. With the advertising model, the relationship is necessarily adversarial. The content provider needs to grab and hold your attention, whether that works to your benefit or not. Bad consequences follow.

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15 Responses to Resistance Watch

  1. asdf says:


    What do you think will come of this “resistance”?

    I can see a few high IQ conscientious people maybe taking phones away from their kids, but that seems like a niche solution.

    I have a feeling the only lasting impact will be leftist trying to purge alternative opinions from the internet under the guise of resistance.

    • Daisy Alexandrovna says:

      The equilibrium will likely be that smart people figure out that this stuff is terrible and will avoid it while dumb people will continue using FB, not installing ad blockers and giving their kids tablets for 8 hours per day. In other words, exposure to platforms engaged in mass behavioral modification will become like smoking, soft drinks and slot machines.

    • Handle says:

      If tech-abstinence makes a difference, there will be a success differential between tech-abstainers and techno-addicts, which enables one to use the logic of selection. In short order, that will lead to a natural status hierarchy which will reinforce the confidence of the rule-followers and encourage automatic and spontaneous social mimicry, at least for the class of people aspiring to the elite tiers.

  2. Adam says:

    “Content” is a nice general category for very broad analysis, but in these discussions it becomes something of a euphemism. For in fact, the subscription model _has_ become dominant for content: if we’re talking about video and music. I would say you’re talking about writing, but of course the book market is quite robust, and while the subscription model isn’t _dominant_ there, it exists in the form of Kindle Unlimited and similar services. Comic books, too, have been lurching towards a subscription model.

    You seem to be talking primarily about the spectrum that runs from essays to news, down to short posts and social media updates. I think it’s useful to analyze this as a distinct category rather than speaking of “content”.

  3. collin says:

    One key point on which I agree with Stross is that I am surprised and disappointed that of all of the possible ways to pay for content on the Internet, the advertising model dominates.

    Why? That dominated TV and radio so why is the internet any different?

    In terms of the internet early days, It was the closest 20th Century to the great Oklahoma land rush of the late 19th century. Just watch the first ~20 minutes of Cimarron (1960) where everybody is storming the free Oklahoma land in the oddest wagons ever made. It is scene of thrill of libertarian economy of incredible quick creative destruction. (Otherwise, the movie after the land rush scene is complete bore.)

    But all this early creative destruction of the early internet led to the ‘free’ model because it was the cheapest for consumers. And by the time established organizations started against the free model, the horse was out of the barn. And a few have succeed modestly on this front (WaPo and NYT subscriptions are rising) but still the main model is advertising.

    TBH, I suspect if the internet was in the a few private hands in the 1990s, our society would be different although I am not sure better as the late tech boom would have been slower.

    • collin says:

      I say the main reason why liberals like Net Neutrality is the fear that the Internet providers (Comcast, AT&T) want to turn the internet closer to the cable TV model. My guess they won’t succeed too much here but the internet was really defined by Gore’s legislation in the early 1990s.

    • collin says:

      and you will be monetized.

      If you are a libertarian economist, why is this a problem? My guess the conservatives are bothered that these Organizations are more ‘liberal’ (Google, Amazon) versus conservative like the Koch Brothers or Exxon. Otherwise, why is this a problem?

  4. roystgnr says:

    That’s yesterday’s news.

    No, literally, from yesterday’s news:

    “For more than 70 percent of the time you spend watching on Google’s massive video site, you’re
    lured in by one of the service’s AI-driven recommendations, YouTube Chief Product Officer Neal Mohan said Wednesday, speaking at a panel discussion at CES.”

  5. John says:

    The crunch will surely come when advertising no longer pays. It must be very difficult to tell how much business a particular advertising campaign actually draws. If it is ever discovered that advertising it not really cost effective, then the dollars that pile into Facebook and others will stop flowing.

    I suspect that the microcurrency method of funding Internet content failed because there were micro fees involved. Who would run it for micro fees?

    The subscription model fails because a subscription locks the reader into particular content providers or he wastes his subscription.

  6. Tom G says:

    Those willing to tax pollution, and other socially negative costs like “sin taxes” have a quick solution — increase taxes on advertising.

    As the first step, reduce the pre-tax deductibility of “business advertising cost” from 100% to some lower number, like 50%, and possibly even lower for those firms which are not increasing employment.

    I’d rather the gov’t collect more money from companies who advertise, rather than thru income or payroll taxes.

    And most of the advertising, as advertising, is socially negative, altho there is some consumer surplus in the “free” content people pay with their eyeballs.

    Attention in time is the key non-renewable resource, and I’ll never get back the 10 min I spent here, altho I think it time well spent.

  7. konshtok says:

    so an advanced combination of digital personal assistant and a spam filter that show you only content (especially ads) that you’ll find interesting is bad because …?

    this seems like yet another version of that old chestnut “False Consciousness” combined with “for profit organisations are icky”

  8. Matthew Young says:

    We can’t do micro pricing because we don’t have micro pricing technology, we don’t have digital bearer coins, each payment requires a call to mommy somewhere. If I had digital bearers coins my surfing bot could just buy off the ads as they come.

  9. Matt says:

    “To do this, they fine-tune the content they show you to make it more attractive to your eyes—and by ‘attractive’ I do not mean pleasant. ”

    Didn’t we learn this with newspapers and the evening news? News media runs on ads and extreme content draws eyes to ads. Did we really expect the internet to change this?

    • asdf says:

      In general libertarians are very attracted to “technology will solve it” arguments related to problems. In the end though new technology conforms to the same pressures that brought up the old problems, and libertarians tend to be disappointed.

      I think the yearning for technological solutions is in large part a hope to dodge the hard work of social or political change (I don’t need to do what it takes to pass libertarian legislation, Bitcoin will take it all down anyway).

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