The case for cognitive autonomy and to move from attempting "social media regulations" to "online social reform".
Welcome to Nitin Pai’s cyberspace. You are in the structured section of my domain where I have my blog posts, newspaper columns, updates on my teaching and research, and other things you had always been warned about.
Global public debate is increasingly focusing on the actions and consequences of social media. This is just as well because social media, in its current form, is an existential threat to civilisation.
On a related note, the demand for content oversight personnel will rise over the next few years.
Even before Frances Haugen blew the whistle on Facebook, policymakers in many countries were framing the issue as one of “social media regulation.” In other words, how do governments regulate transnational technology companies that have a major influence on politics, economics, culture and just about every other aspect of human life.
There is a case to limit any single platform’s overall mind share.
Since the only previous mental model governments had was that of competition regulation, anti-trust was the first policy lens used to scrutinise social media. As I have argued, this is not quite appropriate, because tools used to address excessive market shares might not work to address excessive mind shares.
In an essay in The Atlantic this month, Ian Bogost argues that more than using anti-trust laws to break up social media companies, “shutting their users up is a better one.” He makes the case for limiting the quantity of content that anyone can put online.
Bogost identifies the problem accurately.
As people shift their attention from strong to weak ties, the resulting connections become more dangerous. Strong ties are strong because their reliability has been affirmed over time. The input or information one might receive from a family member or co-worker is both more trusted and more contextualized. By contrast, the things you hear a random person say at the store (or on the internet) are—or should be—less intrinsically trustworthy…. But online, we encounter a lot more weak ties than ever before, and those untrusted individuals tend to seem similar to reliable ones—every post on Facebook or Twitter looks the same, more or less. Trusting weak ties becomes easier, which allows influences that were previously fringe to become central, or influences that are central to reinforce themselves. - The Atlantic
However, we cannot solve this by limiting how much users post online.
First, restricting free speech is a cure worse than the disease.
Second, it is unlikely to work. Bogost cites YouTube’s 15 minute length limits for videos and Twitter’s 280 character tweets as examples of how it can be done. Yet these limitations are one of the primary reasons why they cause harm. Messages are short, so they have to be punchy. They cannot include background, context and caveats. There is no room for nuance. This feeds the fast brain which reacts with a brief response, also lacking context or nuance. And so on. In the end, people who can’t string together a proper sentence in any language can easily instigate riots.
I’m putting up thoughts-in-progress on cognitive autonomy in the rough notes section.
Instead of trying to limit how much people can speak, it is better to protect listeners and strengthen their ability to choose what and when to listen. I call this the right to cognitive autonomy and propose that it is a fundamental human right in the information age. It is the right not to be influenced without consent.
We need to develop this concept further — both in theory and in practice — but I think it offers liberal democracies a promising approach to address the challenges posed by the information age.
On that point, we might do better to frame the challenge as one of “online social reform”, not “social media regulation”. This is because we are quite likely committing the Oldest Mistake in Public Policy (OMIPP) by assuming correlation is causation. If the human mind works as it does, with the fast brain leading the slow brain, then social media companies are enablers and accomplices, not the main culprit. If we lock up the accomplices, the culprit will find new ones. So the real question is: how do we ensure that our minds have the ability to use reason? How do reform online society to protect our cognitive autonomy?
PS. #Protip. To protect your cognitive autonomy get off Facebook, WhatsApp and Twitter. If you can’t completely quit, limit your exposure. I have personally benefited from this approach.
© Copyright 2003-2021. Nitin Pai. All Rights Reserved.