RatS 27: Taibbi – Maintain Your Brain

We haven’t had a RatS for a long time. I think they were and are worthwhile, but there’s just been too much work with the day job of educational crusading to post much about the more general cultural decline. This one, however, by Matt Taibbi, struck a very strong chord. Taibbi is one of the very few consistently sane journalists on politics and the media. He is getting busier and angrier, and better, visibly exasperated at the increasing government and corporate control over social media and free speech. Taibbi has a particular loathing for censorious assholes in the legacy media, particularly in particular for the sanctimonious “misinformation” “experts”: see here and here for two recent examples. The following is a public post by Taibbi, with no particular target, simply a Mad As Hell scream.

Racket readers may have noticed a frantic edge to the site’s strategy in the last year. After a self-inflicted wound led to Twitter/X stepping on my personal account, I started to worry over what looked like the removal of multiple lanes from the Information Superhighway. Wikipedia rules tightened. Google search results seemed like the digital equivalent of a magician forcing cards on consumers. In my case, content would often not even reach people who’d registered as social media followers just to receive those alerts.

I was convinced the issue was political. There was clear evidence of damage to the left and right independents from companies like NewsGuard, or the ideologically-driven algorithms behind Google or Amazon ad programs, to deduce the game was rigged to give unearned market advantages to corporate players. The story I couldn’t shake involved video shooter Jon Farina, whose footage was on seemingly every cable channel after J6, but which he himself was barred from monetizing.

Now I think differently. After spending months talking to people in tech, I realize the problem is broader and more unnerving. On top of the political chicanery, sites like Twitter and TikTok don’t want you leaving. They want you scrolling endlessly, so you’ll see ads, ads, and more ads. The scariest speech I heard came from a tech developer describing how TikTok reduced the online experience to a binary mental state: you’re either watching or deciding, Next. That’s it: your brain is just a switch. Forget following links or connecting with other users. Four seconds of cat attacking vet, next, five ticks on Taylor Ferber’s boobs, next, fifteen on the guy who called two Chinese restaurants at once and held the phones up to each other, next, etc.

Generations ago it wasn’t uncommon for educated people to memorize chunks of The Iliad, building up their minds by forcing them to do all the rewarding work associated with real reading: assembling images, keeping track of plot and character structure, juggling themes and challenging ideas even as you carried the story along. Then came mass media. Newspapers shortened attention span, movies arrived and did visual assembly for you, TV mastered mental junk food, MTV replaced story with montages of interesting nonsensical images, then finally the Internet came and made it possible to endlessly follow your own random impulses instead of anyone else’s schedule or plot.

I’m not a believer in “eat your vegetables” media. People who want to reform the press often feel the solution involves convincing people that just shouldread 6,000-word ProPublica investigations about farm prices instead of visiting porn sites or watching awesome YouTube compilations of crane crashes. It can’t work. The only way is to compete with spirit: make articles interesting or funny enough that audiences will swallow the “important” parts, although even that’s the wrong motive. Rolling Stone taught me that the lad-mag geniuses that company brought in in the nineties, who were convinced Americans wouldn’t read anything longer than 400 words in big type, were wrong. In fact, if you treat people like grownups, they tend to like a challenge, especially if the writer conveys his or her own excitement at discovery. The world is a great and hilarious mystery and if you don’t have confidence you can make the story of it fun, you shouldn’t be in media. But there is one problem.

Inventions like TikTok, which I’m on record saying shouldn’t be banned, are designed to create mentally helpless users, like H addicts. If you stand there scrolling and thinking Next! enough, your head will sooner or later be fully hollowed out. You’ll lose the ability to remember, focus, and decide for yourself. There’s a political benefit in this for leaders, but more importantly there’s a huge commercial boon. The mental jellyfish is more susceptible to advertising (which of course allows firms to charge more) and wll show less and less will over time to walk out of the Internet’s various brain-eating chambers.

A cross of Jimmy Page and Akira Kurosawa probably couldn’t invent long-form content to lure away the boobs-and-cat-video addicts these sites are making. The loss of capacity for memory or real experience is what makes people susceptible to the work of cartoon pseudo-intellectuals like Yuval Noah Harari, who seem really to think nothing good or interesting happened until last week. The profound negativity of these WEF-style technocrats about all human experience until now reminds me of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, whose dystopian characters feared books because “They show the pores of the face of life.”

We’re entering a stage of history where, like the underground resistance in Bradbury’s book, we’ll have to build some consciousness as a movement to save the human mind. Because thinking for oneself has already been denounced as a forbidden or transgressive activity in so many different places (from campuses to newsrooms and beyond), it’s probably already true that membership in certain heterodox online communities is enough to put a person on lists of undesirables. And look, I’m not going to lie, Substack is probably one of those places. But whether it’s here or in some more extreme retreat in the future (I keep thinking of Russian WWII movies in which partisans were forced to live in forest hideouts in Belarus), we’ll eventually want to get to know each other a little more, be a little more interactive. I’ve noticed this site is building readerships for fiction and other complex media products, so hopefully this is more of a haven from the brain-eating virus than its opposite. Who knows, but I hope.

32 Replies to “RatS 27: Taibbi – Maintain Your Brain”

          1. Perhaps there is no source of information that is 100% reliable. However, some sources are more reliable than others.

  1. “You’ll lose the ability to remember”.
    The big mistake in here, based on my teaching experience in the last four years, is the future tense.

    My favourite part of the Babylonian deluge story is that, before they put two animals of each species on the ark, they buried the beginning and the end of their stories written on clay tablets so they would survive the flood. I wish I had this much optimism now.

  2. Jonathan Haidt, in his recently published “The Anxious Generation: How the Great Rewiring of Childhood Is Causing an Epidemic of Mental Illness”, speaks about similar things.
    However, as someone who has worked in digital marketing and data analysis for more than 30 years, I have an opportunity to observe the problem, to some extent, from the other side of the tranchees.
    There is a ‘one million’ dollar question of selection bias and causality. Who is influencing who? That is a question.
    The one thing I would reaffirm is that our children grow up in a very toxic social media environment, and keeping them out of it is becoming increasingly difficult. It is possible, but challenging.

          1. I am working with data, Marty; it is not about my beliefs. Most of those people ‘self-select’ to engage in dumb activities, be it social media or anything else. People with half-working brains know how to regulate, or at least try to regulate. I agree that regulation is becoming increasingly difficult in the age of the Internet, but even 40 years ago, when cable TV was dominating, the danger was already there.
            I do recognise the danger children are in. Social Media is a pure and present danger!

              1. I have data and 30 years of experience in the area; you have an article from Taibi. I am saying this, so you can understand the weight of the word ‘nonsense’.

                  1. One more time on data and double-blind testing in the age of e-commerce.
                    Social networks exist for only one purpose: to acquire free content and sell you something while you are watching it. If your content attracts viewers, they are happy to share a fraction of the profits with you. Is this a new concept? Just to some extent.
                    Cable TV operated (still does if possible) under the same pretext: We have content, and while you watch it, we show you commercials.
                    Why did the Internet kill cable TV or almost any other form of marketing? The Internet is highly efficient in generating data—every transaction can be tracked. The well-known adage ‘I can manage it only if I can measure it’ works perfectly on the Internet. Brand marketing is still alive on TV, but probably not for long.
                    Now, let’s go back to social networks. Yes, people abuse them by scrolling from one video to another, but is it something new? Hardly. Don’t you know people who have TV switched on nonstop? We all know such people. These days, they moved to social networks and have nonstop Instagram, TikTok, and YouTube, probably on top of TV. This is what I call self-selection. TV that works from morning till evening.
                    E-commerce companies spend millions of dollars in double-blind testing to distinguish between self-selecting people (those with TV/TikTok/Instagram/YouTube on any time) and those who genuinely responded to this or the other content. Why do companies want to distinguish between self-selection and genuine response? The former is a waste of effort, and the latter is incremental value.
                    A considerable percentage is self-selection. These people will consume whatever they are given.
                    The ‘fault’ of the Internet is that it allows corporations to be efficient and improve their reach. Otherwise, it is all the same.

    1. So, if I understand correctly the crux of your point, you believe it is better to keep students out of this (whatever “this” may be) rather than equip them to navigate it for themselves, much as we try to do?

      I don’t really have an opinion either way on this (for a change!) so I’m doubly interested in the very different opinions of others here.

      1. *Red Five: I am against making things illegal unless there is proven malicious intent or laws are broken. The point is that any parent would regulate, to some extent, the activities and environment their child is active in. Regulating the social media environment, even within your child’s mobile device, is becoming challenging.

        1. Yeah… I get that… what I don’t get is why (not a criticism, but a genuine question) so many people in positions of authority (parents, teachers, government) think it is a better solution to regulate than to educate.

          Yes, I get they are both difficult and some will argue that regulation works better because education takes a long time but what puzzles me is the rather one-sidedness of the argument. As an observer with no strong opinions either way I am intrigued.

          1. The more extreme someone believes in an ideology, the more convinced they are that everyone who doesn’t believe their ideology is either evil or too dumb to understand what they think as just being obvious.

            And then there’s the bureaucrats who just want more power.

          2. When I talk about regulation, I mostly speak about self-regulation. I am against government-induced regulation, but alas, it is inevitable in many cases. I fear it might take my whole typing what I think about it and then participate in debate 🙂
            By the way, if you want to see what the world with minimal regulations looks like, install TikTok.
            But yet again, it is not the reason to regulate and censor.

          1. To listen or to own a device?

            There is a difference and it is important.

            Also a bit off topic, but I do see where it fits.

              1. That may well be correct, but your comment stated that *listening* required a permit.

                Nit-picking I know, but I think that accuracy is more important than ever in these types of discussion/debate as it keeps things on track (sometimes).

                But now that you mention it – the onus seems to have shifted in this respect from the listener to the publisher (or broadcaster – I’m not sure of the nomenclature). Is that the same as censoring social media? It seems to have some of the same features but I do not know enough to say if all the same features are present in both.

  3. Ah, so refreshing to see you posting Taibbi here. One of my most trusted journalists, and sources of information, along with the likes of Glenn Grenwald and others.

    I feel as if those of us the grew up without the current tech were in some sense inoculated from its more negative affects – I myself have a certain distance to online social media networks and can easily separate myself from them. The younger generations I think are completely exposed. As Taibbi says, companies are spending millions on research trying to ‘hack’ human psychology and behavior.

    Makes me wonder – if the tech they have for control and manipulation is so powerful, why do we rely on outdated and ineffective tech in our education systems?

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