Sunday, May 14, 2017

Could your mind be hacked like a computer?

Recently Martin LaBar (always a good read) mentions futuristic technology that might connect our minds to the internet. He raises the possibility: If that happened, could we be hacked?

Dear friends: Ads and propaganda both exist to hack the mind to a certain extent. If we're careless about ads and propaganda, we're already being hacked. Temptation is also a kind of hack, while we're on the subject. These things are less direct than a neural interface to the internet, and that protective layer is valuable. But please don't imagine that people aren't trying to hack us already. Please don't imagine that they aren't, to some extent, succeeding.

And please consider when I tell you that our minds are already connected to the internet: we have an interface where we still retain some control, and we become annoyed every time that control is violated. We have a (possibly unwarranted) trust that our use of the internet won't be exploited, that we will remain in control of our experience, that we use the sites on the internet (instead of the other way around, and they use us). Notice the things we become angry about during internet use: "I didn't click on that and still another window opened." "They tracked what I was looking for, and now ads are following me around." "They wouldn't let me play the game unless I shared information about my friends, or shared personal information about myself." "The content is free so they force me to watch an ad." "They search the content of my personal mailbox to determine what ads to show." We become angry when our trust is violated. But did anyone actually promise us they would never do those things? So we can be hacked, and currently we have a thin layer of virus protection in between us and the internet: the people who would control us still have to bypass our BS filters (pardon my language), and/or our moral compasses. Those are disturbingly easy to bypass with one-sided presentation or emotional dramatizations. I also believe that many people have already become addicted to the fear or rage that was introduced to bypass their filters; more on that shortly.

First a word on ads and propaganda: Not only is it possible to be hacked, but I don't think it's too unusual to be hacked. It's what propaganda exists for, and there's lots of it on the internet. Advertisements are explicitly designed to hack us. So are a disturbing number of news/opinion pieces, and more than a few "morality-play" themed dramas. "Important" drama with a "message" is a sympathetic way of talking about propaganda. And not all the messages are bad, but we may find ourselves being played emotionally, less able to judge whether there was bad mixed in with something good. If we walk away from a presentation with complete certainty that we should dislike the same people that the presenter dislikes, and with the belief that our new intensity of dislike is more than simply reasonable, in fact it's the only reasonable thing, because they just showed us why ... Er, we've been hacked. I can't remember the last time I saw a news show on either side of the political aisle that was something other than an infomercial for its producers' point-of-view, with its facts and presentation all pre-filtered to leave the consumer with only one rational choice based on that subset of reality. Shows of that nature generally try to plant distrust for information coming from the other side, as a safeguard ... which prevents their faithful viewers from getting a healthy perspective-check. A noticeable number of TV shows or movies are infomercials for or against certain viewpoints, a crafted blend of narrative and propaganda/advertising that is designed to manipulate the viewers into certain likes and dislikes, certain points of view. We're being sold a worldview.

Our filters are often bypassed by playing our sympathies, or by stirring up fear or anger. Unfortunately, we can become addicted to our emotions. I know that there is recognition in our culture that porn can be an unhealthy addiction; that addiction works by playing on lust. But lust is not the only addictive emotion. People might watch certain shows and notice that they tend to come away angry, or frightened for the future, or (less often) victoriously self-righteous. Those emotions can be as addictive as lust, which has long been exploited for its addictive properties and its ability to bypass our good judgment. And people come away with that anger or fear every time they watch a certain show. It's unhealthy. A news presenter might add the suggestion that following along every day is "being informed" or "being responsible" or "doing your part". A drama may urge the viewers not to miss out on the next installment, or the next threat to the hero. So many ways to keep people coming back.

In the end I'd agree with Mr LaBar's concern that unscrupulous people might try to take advantage of the next step in more direct connections between our minds and the internet. I'd offer as evidence: they already take advantage of people now, with the connections already in place. I'd encourage people to start protecting themselves already in our current environment. Grow in knowledge of how manipulation occurs, in awareness of the signs of being manipulated. Be grounded in knowledge of what we want and who we want to be. And develop outside sources for information or perspective, so that we do not become dependent on sources that we cannot reasonably trust.


Martin LaBar said...

Yes, you are right. We're already being hacked, but in a different, and (so far, anyway) more important way.

Weekend Fisher said...

Thanks for commenting. It's disturbing to me how thoroughly filtered various sources are, how insulated each information stream becomes from others. Even someone making an effort to stay "well-informed" is not necessarily going to get enough solid information for the basis of solid decisions. We live in interesting times.

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF

Martin LaBar said...

So true. Some people seem to be getting only pure anti-Trump, or only pure pro-Trump "news" these days, for example.