My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I’ve not yet read any other books by the author, but the titles and descriptions tell me that they appear to be consistent with this book. In one of his bios, he says
I am a human who warns humans about being human. I use my imperfect brain to talk and write about the human brain’s imperfections. I try to overcome my irrational beliefs and subconscious miscues so that I may better teach others about the problems of irrational belief and subconscious miscues.
I think he does that with this book. I requested it based on the title and the brief description, hoping to add another to the critical thinking toolbox I loan out every now and then. Mr. Harrison says in his Introduction
This is not a book aimed at dumb or gullible people. This book is for smart, reasonable people, just like you. [Keep going…the flattery is fleeting…] The social media arena is a place where human minds are manipulated and steered for someone else’s gain with stunning success. […] Those who believe they would never fall for a silly belief already have. Anyone who thinks she can’t be outwitted by thousands of engineers working to hook users, is asking for trouble.
And that is a good start.
Statistics don’t win arguments, and the first chapter “Wild and Wired: Navigating new cultures of connectivity” is full of them, but Harrison is trying to establish the breadth and depth of social media’s tendrils, and he recovers in the chapters that follow.
In chapter 2, with the cumbersome but accurate title of “Welcome to Your Very Own Customized, Biased Bubble of Psychological Reinforcement, Manipulation and Lies”, Harrison rips off the blinders with personal revelations of him creating his own bubble, avoiding riding the Holier-than-thou horse. Harrison examines the “fake news” (the real fake news…not one person in particular’s assessment) ubiquity and who is buying into it, observing correctly – after sharing on studies that have shown that both left- and right-wing highly partisan sources are guilty, the preponderance of fake tends to the right-wing – that “…it would be a mistake to view this as a conservative or right-wing problem. Fake news is a human problem.” He does give some good advice on how to be skeptical of fake news in particular, but I marked for general use, in a subsection “How to keep fake news out of your head”. And more than just listing strategies, Harrison elaborates and illustrates each…and that has value for the toolbox. One point near the end of the chapter resonated with an experience of mine: on fighting back against the fake news, Harrison cites John Pavley (of Viacom) who thinks that Facebook can do a better job when it comes to the fake news by inserting human editors into the algorithmic loop because “[a]lgorithms don’t exist yet that can consistently and accurately identify harmless satire, real news, and well-designed fake news – not yet.” In the US Navy nuclear power world, ADM Hyman Rickover knew early on that computers could eventually run the Navy’s ship-board nuclear reactors but he insisted on human operators – to be able to react to situations the programming (algorithms) couldn’t recognize. That hasn’t changed in 60 years and is a major reason why there has never been a nuclear accident involving Navy reactors.
On “Social Media Addiction: Harm or Hype?”, in one part, Harrison quotes Lawrie McFarlane: “Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and so forth revolve around built-in metrics of attention – Likes, Retweets, Followers and so on – so when we use these apps, we are playing a very addictive game of vying for attention points. […] When we value another person’s opinion, or want to express that we care about them, we pay them in attention points.” Solid stuff, but I think Harrison missed an opportunity to also dig into another aspect of the news tickers, or friend-feeds…in addition to the individual attention, the social media afford a voyeuristic lurking ability… Harrison never mentions voyeurism in his book, keying on the attention craving fulfilment of social media, but there are many who live vicariously through others. Of course, there are those who do live for the Likes and will jump in uninvited to threads in order to satisfy that element.
Opening chapter 4, “What Your Other Mind Does on Social Media” – the most important chapter IMO, as he addresses cognitive biases, logical fallacies, and the traps particularly enhanced and exploited by social media, he says
The human brain is an organ out of time. It stands as evolved and best suited for daily life in the Pleistocene yet here it is, having to make do in a modern, high-tech, wired, and fast-changing world.
I know I’ve echoed somethings similar many times in discussions. A little later, Harrison shares a personal observation about people knowing more about astrology than astronomy, unproven “supernatural” (his word, not mine) forces running lives instead of natural forces that run the universe:
This has less to do with wealth, oppression, or access to education and more about people simply failing to think before they believe.
That’s a perfect summary but he spends a good bit of page space examining those biases and traps. I like that he talks about the imposed stigma and perceived offense on the part of too many people of “critical thinking”. When thinking is eschewed and compliance/conformity is encouraged, we all suffer. Harrison said, “Toward making critical thinking more palatable to the masses I have taken to referring to it as good thinking.” I might just borrow that. As I said, this chapter conveys his most important message, even if he might not think so.
The recommendation to avoid or minimize an online presence will likely be met with opposition from those smart people he said he was targeting in his Introduction. But there are elements of reasonability in some of his recommended strategies. Still, a little light reading on Big Data and the data gathering of the Big platforms (social media, for sure, but online shopping and searching gather as much profiling information as, if not more than the socmeds do) will tell you it’s pretty much too late. I though one recommendation – “Pressure politicians to enact regulations that protect you online. Don’t vote for candidates of any party who are not serious about protecting your current rights and working to get you rights you should have.” – a wee naive. Especially given the trends of 2016-17 so far.
I particularly liked a couple of lines
“But Mozart’s music and smartphones that put the World Wide Web into the palm of your hand can’t redeem or even hide our lust for the ludicrous.”
“I knew that millions of people had no idea that their online activities had left them intellectually compromised, far more biased and myopic, than they otherwise would have been.” *Intellectually compromised* – yep.
I like Harrison’s writing, and, fitting with my confirmation bias, his message. I could have done with fewer unnecessary (to me) anecdotes inserted to…lengthen? But I would recommend this book to others and I intend to seek out some of his other books.
Is this the answer? No, but it has some answers.