Skip navigation
All Places > The English Community > Bedford Bits > Blog > 2018 > December > 06

As I've noted before, I once participated in an online forum where the participants quarreled a lot. One of the things they griped about was the way that some members "padded" their post count with lots of very brief entries intended to run up their score. Their goal—due to the fact that every forum member was ranked individually against the entire membership—was to make it to the top of the heap.

 

I thought the whole thing was rather silly at the time, but I did find myself on occasion being dragged into the competition. I recognized that the larger motive behind the forum's incentives to "reward" quantity over quality was to encourage site activity, and that the forum owners themselves were engaged in a post-count competition with similarly themed forums. What I didn't know at the time was that there is a name for the way that the site was designed: it's called "gamification."

 

Gamification is the process by which an activity that is not, in itself, a game, is turned into one. "Players" are ranked according to their levels of participation. This website, for example, is gamified, with all of us ranked, badged, and labeled according to a rather bewildering number of criteria, some of which I still haven't wholly figured out. And, as Stephanie Miller's "The Power of Play: Gamification Can Change Marketing" reveals, a lot of marketing campaigns are being gamified as well, like Domino's Pizza Hero mobile app feature (you can find her article in the 9th edition of Signs of Life in the USA). Even educators are looking into gamification as a way of transforming American education.

 

"Well so what?" you may be thinking. "What's the harm in making things fun?" The problem (and there is a problem) only appears when rampant gamification is subjected to a semiotic analysis. For when it is considered in the context of the larger system of contemporary American culture, we can see how gamification is a reflection of an overall hypercapitalistic tendency to turn everything into a winner-takes-all competition, with all of the "losers" that that entails.

 

Gamification looks even more sinister in the light of Sarah Mason's exposé of the way that it is being employed to incentivize worker productivity without a corresponding increase in actual income, "High score, low pay: why the gig economy loves gamification." Going beyond her own personal experience as a Lyft driver subject to the sirens of the game, Mason reveals a form of worker exploitation that is intentionally grounded in the psychology of gambling addiction. Here's how she puts it:

 

In addition to offering meaningless badges and meagre savings at the pump, ride-hailing companies have also adopted some of the same design elements used by gambling firms to promote addictive behaviour among slot-machine users. One of things the anthropologist and NYU media studies professor Natasha Dow Schüll found during a decade-long study of machine gamblers in Las Vegas is that casinos use networked slot machines that allow them to surveil, track and analyse the behaviour of individual gamblers in real time – just as ride-hailing apps do. This means that casinos can “triangulate any given gambler’s player data with her demographic data, piecing together a profile that can be used to customise game offerings and marketing appeals specifically for her”. Like these customised game offerings, Lyft tells me that my weekly ride challenge has been “personalised just for you!”

 

Former Google “design ethicist” Tristan Harris has also described how the “pull-to-refresh” mechanism used in most social media feeds mimics the clever architecture of a slot machine: users never know when they are going to experience gratification – a dozen new likes or retweets – but they know that gratification will eventually come. This unpredictability is addictive: behavioural psychologists have long understood that gambling uses variable reinforcement schedules – unpredictable intervals of uncertainty, anticipation and feedback – to condition players into playing just one more round.

 

In short, what is happening here goes well beyond mere fun. Gamification is at once a form of behavior modification and an extension of the surveillance society in which we live, where everything we do is tracked and data mined on behalf of corporate profits that are not shared with the vast majority of the population. With artificial intelligence—which is grounded in mass data collection and algorithmic analysis—emerging as the newest breathlessly hyped game on the block, we can see that this hypercapitalistic cultural tendency is only going to continue its expansive intrusions into our lives. And that's not just fun and games.

 

 

Image Credit: Pixabay Image 1293132 by OpenClipart-Vectors, used under a CC0 Creative Commons License

 

On November 24, S. Matthew Liao wrote an op-ed piece for The New York Times titled “Do You Have a Moral Duty to Leave Facebook?” Liao, who teaches philosophy and bioethics at NYU, examines a number of reasons for deleting Facebook—for your own good as well as for the good of others. He points out the most obvious reasons: Facebook can be addictive and all-consuming and is linked to depression; it has played a major role in spreading misinformation, hate speech, and lies; and it has allowed others to harvest personal information for millions of people without their permission or knowledge.

 

Despite these problems, Liao ends his editorial saying he will stay on Facebook until it “crosses a moral red line.” In his opinion, Facebook has not yet crossed that line because it did not “intentionally” sell the data of its users nor did it assist “intentionally in the dissemination of hate speech.” Should Facebook cross that red line of intentionality, however, Liao says we must “opt out.”

 

Jaron Lanier, well known for his work on artificial intelligence and virtual reality, has come to the opposite conclusion. In his latest book, Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now, Lanier argues that social media have programmed us, like Pavlovian dogs, to behave in certain ways and to be mesmerized and dehumanized in the process. Whatever benefits social media may have are outweighed, in Lanier’s considered opinion, by “catastrophic losses to our personal dignity, happiness, and freedom.”

 

Lanier opens his book by wondering why cats are everywhere online and that dogs are NOT. Lanier wants us to be more like cats:

Cats have done the seemingly impossible. They’ve integrated themselves into the modern high-tech world without giving themselves up. They are still in charge. There is no worry that some stealthy meme crafted by algorithms and paid for by a creepy, hidden oligarch has taken over your cat. No one has taken over your cat; not you, not anyone. (p 2)

Alas, Lanier argues, we are not like cats in our online lives but much more like dogs: domesticated, obedient, loyal, dependable, and susceptible to training. In a long discussion of behaviorism and its ill effects, Lanier argues that social media has strong behavioristic tendencies and that it is training us to lose our free will—and to like doing so!

 

The complex problem Lanier describes with the acronym BUMMER, which stands for “Behaviors of Users Modified, and Made into an Empire for Rent,” has six moving parts:

B is for Butting into everyone’s lives

C is for Cramming content down people’s throats

D is for Directing people’s behaviors in the sneakiest way possible

E is for Earning money from letting the worst assholes secretly screw with everybody else

F is for Fake mobs and Faker society

Lanier takes up each one of these “moving parts” as he details his fifteen arguments for quitting social media, and he makes a very strong case. Indeed, it is bracing to see how social media, once hyped as the way to bring people together and give everyone a voice, is now out of favor with so many people, even those like Lanier who are Silicon Valley natives. Lanier is no dictator, though, and he ends the book with a softer tone, saying he knows he’s not the one to make decisions for everyone else and that “not everyone has the same options.” So he doesn’t demand that users abandon social media today but rather that they—and especially young people—explore what life might be like without the radical influence of social media. Such self-exploration could take many forms: “explore wilderness or learn a new skill,” he suggests.

 

But whatever form your self-exploration takes, do at least one thing:

            detach from the behavior-modification empires for a while—six months, say?. . . After your experiment, you’ll know yourself better. Then decide.

Writing about Lanier’s arguments offers an opportunity for students to begin the kind of exploration Lanier calls for, beginning perhaps with a whimsical account of how much they are like cats rather than dogs—or vice versa. And because the chapters are brief and very straightforward, each one makes a good text for a rhetorical analysis. No matter what they decide about his overall call to delete social media, Lanier raises questions that every student should think about as they come to deeper understandings of how their values and beliefs are shaped by social media.


Image Credit: Pixabay Image 998990 by Pixelkult, used under a CC0 Creative Commons License