Back in the 1980s, actually, I gave my first talk at TED, and I brought some of the very, very first public demonstrations of virtual reality ever to the TED stage. And at that time, we knew that we were facing a knife-edge future where the technology we needed, the technology we loved, could also be our undoing. We knew that if we thought of our technology as a means to ever more power, if it was just a power trip, we'd eventually destroy ourselves. That's what happens when you're on a power trip and nothing else.
So the idealism of digital culture back then was all about starting with that recognition of the possible darkness and trying to imagine a way to transcend it with beauty and creativity.
I always used to end my early TED Talks with a rather horrifying line, which is, "We have a challenge. We have to create a culture around technology that is so beautiful, so meaningful, so deep, so endlessly creative, so filled with infinite potential that it draws us away from committing mass suicide." So we talked about extinction as being one and the same as the need to create an alluring, infinitely creative future. And I still believe that that alternative of creativity as an alternative to death is very real and true, maybe the most true thing there is.
In the case of virtual reality—well, the way I used to talk about it is that it would be something like what happened when people discovered language. With language came new adventures, new depth, new meaning, new ways to connect, new ways to coordinate, new ways to imagine, new ways to raise children, and I imagined, with virtual reality, we'd have this new thing that would be like a conversation but also like waking-state intentional dreaming. We called it post-symbolic communication, because it would be like just directly making the thing you experienced instead of indirectly making symbols to refer to things.
It was a beautiful vision, and it's one I still believe in, and yet, haunting that beautiful vision was the dark side of how it could also turn out.
And I suppose I could mention from one of the very earliest computer scientists, whose name was Norbert Wiener, and he wrote a book back in the '50s, from before I was even born, called "The Human Use of Human Beings." And in the book, he described the potential to create a computer system that would be gathering data from people and providing feedback to those people in real time in order to put them kind of partially, statistically, in a Skinner box, in a behaviorist system, and he has this amazing line where he says, one could imagine, as a thought experiment—and I'm paraphrasing, this isn't a quote—one could imagine a global computer system where everybody has devices on them all the time, and the devices are giving them feedback based on what they did, and the whole population is subject to a degree of behavior modification. And such a society would be insane, could not survive, could not face its problems.
And then he says, but this is only a thought experiment, and such a future is technologically infeasible.
And yet, of course, it's what we have created, and it's what we must undo if we are to survive. So—
I believe that we made a very particular mistake, and it happened early on, and by understanding the mistake we made, we can undo it. It happened in the '90s, and going into the turn of the century, and here's what happened. Early digital culture, and indeed, digital culture to this day, had a sense of, I would say, lefty, socialist mission about it, that unlike other things that have been done, like the invention of books, everything on the internet must be purely public, must be available for free, because if even one person cannot afford it, then that would create this terrible inequity. Now of course, there's other ways to deal with that. If books cost money, you can have public libraries. And so forth. But we were thinking, no, no, no, this is an exception. This must be pure public commons, that's what we want.
And so that spirit lives on. You can experience it in designs like the Wikipedia, for instance, many others. But at the same time, we also believed, with equal fervor, in this other thing that was completely incompatible, which is we loved our tech entrepreneurs. We loved Steve Jobs; we loved this Nietzschean myth of the techie who could dent the universe. Right? And that mythical power still has a hold on us, as well. So you have these two different passions, for making everything free and for the almost supernatural power of the tech entrepreneur. How do you celebrate entrepreneurship when everything's free?
Well, there was only one solution back then, which was the advertising model. And so therefore, Google was born free, with ads, Facebook was born free, with ads. Now in the beginning, it was cute, like with the very earliest Google.
The ads really were kind of ads. They would be, like, your local dentist or something. But there's thing called Moore's law that makes the computers more and more efficient and cheaper. Their algorithms get better. We actually have universities where people study them, and they get better and better. And the customers and other entities who use these systems just got more and more experienced and got cleverer and cleverer. And what started out as advertising really can't be called advertising anymore. It turned into behavior modification, just as Norbert Wiener had worried it might.
And so I can't call these things social networks anymore. I call them behavior modification empires.
And I refuse to vilify the individuals. I have dear friends at these companies, sold a company to Google, even though I think it's one of these empires. I don't think this is a matter of bad people who've done a bad thing. I think this is a matter of a globally tragic, astoundingly ridiculous mistake, rather than a wave of evil.
Let me give you just another layer of detail into how this particular mistake functions. So with behaviorism, you give the creature, whether it's a rat or a dog or a person, little treats and sometimes little punishments as feedback to what they do. So if you have an animal in a cage, it might be candy and electric shocks. But if you have a smartphone, it's not those things, it's symbolic punishment and reward. Pavlov, one of the early behaviorists, demonstrated the famous principle. You could train a dog to salivate just with the bell, just with the symbol. So on social networks, social punishment and social reward function as the punishment and reward. And we all know the feeling of these things. You get this little thrill—"Somebody liked my stuff and it's being repeated." Or the punishment: "Oh my God, they don't like me, maybe somebody else is more popular, oh my God." So you have those two very common feelings, and they're doled out in such a way that you get caught in this loop. As has been publicly acknowledged by many of the founders of the system, everybody knew this is what was going on.
But here's the thing: traditionally, in the academic study of the methods of behaviorism, there have been comparisons of positive and negative stimuli. In this setting, a commercial setting, there's a new kind of difference that has kind of evaded the academic world for a while, and that difference is that whether positive stimuli are more effective than negative ones in different circumstances, the negative ones are cheaper. They're the bargain stimuli. So what I mean by that is it's much easier to lose trust than to build trust. It takes a long time to build love. It takes a short time to ruin love.
Now the customers of these behavior modification empires are on a very fast loop. They're almost like high-frequency traders. They're getting feedbacks from their spends or whatever their activities are if they're not spending, and they see what's working, and then they do more of that. And so they're getting the quick feedback, which means they're responding more to the negative emotions, because those are the ones that rise faster, right? And so therefore, even well-intentioned players who think all they're doing is advertising toothpaste end up advancing the cause of the negative people, the negative emotions, the cranks, the paranoids, the cynics, the nihilists. Those are the ones who get amplified by the system. And you can't pay one of these companies to make the world suddenly nice and improve democracy nearly as easily as you can pay to ruin those things. And so this is the dilemma we've gotten ourselves into.
The alternative is to turn back the clock, with great difficulty, and remake that decision. Remaking it would mean two things. It would mean first that many people, those who could afford to, would actually pay for these things. You'd pay for search, you'd pay for social networking. How would you pay? Maybe with a subscription fee, maybe with micro-payments as you use them. There's a lot of options. If some of you are recoiling, and you're thinking, "Oh my God, I would never pay for these things. How could you ever get anyone to pay?" I want to remind you of something that just happened. Around this same time that companies like Google and Facebook were formulating their free idea, a lot of cyber culture also believed that in the future, televisions and movies would be created in the same way, kind of like the Wikipedia. But then, companies like Netflix, Amazon, HBO, said, "Actually, you know, subscribe. We'll give you give you great TV." And it worked! We now are in this period called "peak TV," right? So sometimes when you pay for stuff, things get better. We can imagine a hypothetical...
We can imagine a hypothetical world of "peak social media." What would that be like? It would mean when you get on, you can get really useful, authoritative medical advice instead of cranks. It could mean when you want to get factual information, there's not a bunch of weird, paranoid conspiracy theories. We can imagine this wonderful other possibility. Ah. I dream of it. I believe it's possible. I'm certain it's possible. And I'm certain that the companies, the Googles and the Facebooks, would actually do better in this world. I don't believe we need to punish Silicon Valley. We just need to remake the decision.
Of the big tech companies, it's really only two that depend on behavior modification and spying as their business plan. It's Google and Facebook.
And I love you guys. Really, I do. Like, the people are fantastic. I want to point out, if I may, if you look at Google, they can propagate cost centers endlessly with all of these companies, but they cannot propagate profit centers. They cannot diversify, because they're hooked. They're hooked on this model, just like their own users. They're in the same trap as their users, and you can't run a big corporation that way. So this is ultimately totally in the benefit of the shareholders and other stakeholders of these companies. It's a win-win solution. It'll just take some time to figure it out. A lot of details to work out, totally doable.
I don't believe our species can survive unless we fix this. We cannot have a society in which, if two people wish to communicate, the only way that can happen is if it's financed by a third person who wishes to manipulate them.
In the meantime, if the companies won't change, delete your accounts, OK?
That's enough for now. Thank you so much.