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How Human Collaboration Can Beat Screen Addiction

The tsunami of fake news, spam, phishing, cyberstalking and screen addiction motivates Douglas Rushkoff to write a manifesto for restoring live human collaboration.

The tech honeymoon is over. Students in Brooklyn, New York, walked out in protest against a tech-heavy educational program. The very first conference on “screen addiction” attracted 200 teachers, parents and psychologists from three continents, almost all paying their own way. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was grilled on the US Senate floor. France banned cellphones in schools.

The more technology tries and claims to “connect” people, the more distrustful and disconnected people seem to be. Metrics of mental misery are rising worldwide, from loneliness and depression to suicides and suicide-killings. Many ordinary people blame technology.

Douglas Rushkoff’s new book, Team Human, decries the human damage done by digital technologies, some of which I helped create. He says the nemesis of humanity is “team algorithm,” and I was Silicon Valley’s first “algorithm officer.” He denounces smartphones, and I collaborated with the guy who invented them. He says we need to get back into lived, touchy-feely experience — for years I wrote my own code and still live by math.

Rushkoff, an American media theorist, has been writing books criticizing technology for years; two of the most recent were Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus and Program or Be Programmed. You get the idea. The current hardback is bright red and yellow, the colors of McDonald’s, or communism, take your pick.

Team Human is cleanly organized into 14 chapters containing a hundred two-page, bite-sized ideas, such a tight design that with the first sentence of each essay you can fairly represent the whole book’s arc. His entire case can also be extracted from the first two pages, forming a different but equally crisp miniature.

Rushkoff’s theses together form a manifesto against “the machine,” a social broadside reminiscent of Martin Luther’s 95 theses on the church door 500 years ago. The Wall Street Journal caricatured Rushkoff’s book using the phrase “Users of the World, Unite!

Perhaps The WSJ painted him as a has-been hippie because of this quote: “Capitalism’s vision of the individual as a completely self-interested being, whose survival was a Darwinian battle royale, is at odds with our social evolution and our neurobiology.” Or maybe this quote from Team Human’s final chapter: “As much as we think we’re separate individuals, we’re wired from birth and before to share, bond, learn from, and even heal one another. We humans are all part of the same collective nervous system. This is not a religious conviction but an increasingly accepted biological fact.”

Rushkoff Is Right

There are all kinds of scientific “facts.” The most common so-called facts are at the evidence-end of the truth spectrum, facts gathered with time and money, often incentivized and organized to serve an agenda and, therefore, even worse than hearsay. At the other end of the truth spectrum, only a rare few scientific are formal, mathematical facts — facts about numbers themselves, facts so absolute even Albert Einstein would accept them sight unseen. Facts that would be true on Mars or on Alpha Centauri. What Rushkoff doesn’t tell you is that hard-wired human sociability is the second sort. Human social resonance isn’t hearsay or paid-for propaganda, it is a mathematical fact.

That is the conclusion of one peer-reviewed paper Team Human cites, “Sensory Metrics of Neuromechanical Trust.” In fact, that paper concludes with an anti-capitalist claim as totalizing and absolute as Rushkoff’s final fanfare: “Like all other nervous systems, ours evolved to forage, not produce. Humankind uniquely produces things which captivate its senses, and now they do.”

In fact, that second statement goes beyond being anti-capitalist, all the way to being anti-productive. I know because my wife and I wrote it. Criscillia Benford and I agree with Rushkoff, he interviewed us on his podcast Team Human and we like him. Most of all, we reached the same conclusions as Rushkoff independently, a single answer originating from three different disciplines (media theory, literature and neurophysics).

These are the same basic conclusions also expressed ages ago in stories like The Machine Stops, Brave New World, Fahrenheit 451 and recently in an essay by computer-historian George Dyson’s called “Childhood’s End.” A universal set of truths is emerging, a coherent consensus among intellectuals about the existence and spread of inherently toxic patterns in the modern human behavior and  communications system. Historically, when so many smart people independently reach the same answer, it’s the right one.

Rushkoff is the first to distill the coherent consensus into book form, and I know he’s right. Plus, among the world-class brilliant people I’ve interacted with, I think he’s even more brilliant, high in the firmament near Freeman Dyson. So, this review is biased toward Rushkoff.

While I can’t remove my bias toward mathematical truth (my parents were both nuclear physicists), I can explain where math supports Rushkoff, and where it doesn’t, by explaining a few of his culture/media-theory ideas in our information-theory, data-science terms. I’ll start with what’s obviously in Team Human, then what is implied but not elaborated and then end with some specifically wonderful solutions even Professor Rushkoff doesn’t know yet.

Tech, Screen Addition and Human Interaction

Team Human’s core warning is that human-created technology on the whole, including even words and writing, damages human interpersonal interaction and affection via a tangle of runaway vicious circles that are accelerating year on year. Its core advice is to revive and practice our hard-wired natural capacity for social resonance.

More specifically, Rushkoff says that one-way communications like broadcast media undermine human resonance and trust in a particularly specific vicious cycle: Technology makes us feel and act less human, and thereby makes us see and treat others as less human too. This erosion of trust caused by indirect (mediated) communications began thousands of years ago with micro-insults like memorization and writing, but is now exploding in potency to dazzle our anxieties with fake news and cyberstalking.

Math says Rushkoff is right. Mathematically, trust is built from lots and lots of back-and-forth interactions among autonomous individuals. Trust accumulates statistically, from data, as it does in any data-processing algorithm. Through that lens, two people talking and touching face-to-face share so many millions of micro-messages a minute they have plenty of time to lock in and confirm that they’re on the same page. They can trust each other’s “content” (whatever that is) because they can see and interact in real space and real time at maximum sensory-motor bandwidth, which is the native communications protocol for homo sapiens’ 3-D nervous systems.

Math also says, therefore, that when you break the interactivity, you break trust formation. Because broadcast is one-way, no interaction, therefore the medium of broadcast provides no trust and only consumes it.

To be sure, broadcast does have uses. Among the antelope on the savannah, when one white tail whips, all antelope around take note and flee. No time for interaction during an alarm, just fear or fight or flight. Since even antelope can broadcast, obviously humans can too, so broadcast isn’t bad in and of itself. But broadcast only works for sending fast negative signals like alarm or hostility. No instant, one-way signal could ever carry the back-and-forth signals that slowly accumulate into positive human qualities like empathy, trust, affection, collaboration and love.

Humans don’t actually suck. We aren’t bad people, and people aren’t bad. We’ve just spent so much time looking at each other through a weird kind of glass that filters out the good parts, that we’ve forgotten what the good parts look like or even where to find them. That’s the problem Team Human poses.

Team Human vs. Team Spreadsheet

What Team Human doesn’t and cannot pose is the awful, epic, apocalyptic scale of a problem that originates in the statistical structure of life itself, and whose built-in feedback traps precede all the human ones that Rushkoff cites a million-fold in time. To wit:

1) When self-replicating patterns like RNA and DNA first emerged, the chemo-sphere became a biosphere, starting its slide down a slippery slope called entropy reduction, otherwise known as plummeting diversity. Raw diversity is in fact going down, and not just in human things like languages, ethnic groups and political parties. Diversity was going down in species, genotypes, body architectures and such ever since DNA beat out some other chemical. Survival of the fittest means death of diverse others. It means diversity reduction.

2) When moving animals emerged and roved for nutrients, their only choice in life was stay and focus your search or go afield and blur it out. The catch is that too much focus gets you stuck. Now, modern human brains fall into funneling focus on pinpoint pricks of pixels saying “liked” or “viewed” or “clicked” or “purchased.” Or claiming to say that.

3) Communicating animals reset their nervous systems by making ever-grander attention-seeking gestures, interrupting others to receive a confirmation that they’re really there. Like turning up a megaphone. Making extra noise to be heard is an informational instinct, not a human weakness. Unfortunately, when everyone starts interrupting and yelling at once, especially in an echo-chamber, the communications channel collapses and everything gets worse. For example, the mobile SMS/text channel is already collapsing from undelivered or auto-miscorrected messages; the email channel is collapsing from spam and fraud; and the phone channel is collapsing from robo-calls, dropped calls and gurgling over-compression. Communications technology is getting worse, and thereby disconnecting us.

4) Although automated algorithms (Rushkoff’s “team algorithm”) generate the most anti-human signals, even they aren’t the enemy. The real enemy is the metric values that algorithms calculate to supplant human values: the anti-human values embedded in the spreadsheets used by both algorithms and executives. The real enemy of Team Human is “team spreadsheet.”

That’s a lot of gloom and doom. Fortunately, the same mathematical axioms that deliver the bad news promise many miraculous cures: ultra-resonance, ultra-breathing, ultra-acupuncture, ultra-grounding. Poke your skull at this one spot, make this funny face, hold this muscle just so… and pow — instant relief (sometimes). The good news is that a nervous system which can be hacked by social media and digital deception can be un-hacked too, best through the spine, instantly rebooted to feel instead of to see.

This is the only message missing from Team Human, the most optimistic message of all. Yes, humans are drowning in a tidal wave of toxic technologies separating us. But there are also cheap, simple, safe touch techniques and technologies, right under our noses, which give relief surpassing drugs or surgery, which connect us and which help us heal each other. The really good stuff exists already, unmonetizable and thus unexploited. Finding it, inventing it and collaboratively spreading it in time to help will be the challenge of the ages.

*[Team Human is published by W.W. Norton & Company, 2019]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.