When, a few weeks ago, I suggested that the dystopia is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed, I cited a story about the strange and disturbing world of children’s YouTube. Today, you can read more about YouTubers who made hundreds of thousands of dollars creating and posting these videos until YouTube started shutting them down.
There’s one line in this story to which I’ll draw your attention. One prominent “content creator” described his method this way: “We learned to fuel it and do whatever it took to please the algorithm.”
I submit to you that this line is as good a slogan for our emerging social reality as any you’re likely to find: do whatever it takes to please the algorithm.
It reminded me of the bracingly honest and cheery slogan associated with the 1933 World’s Fair in Chicago: “Science Finds, Industry Applies, Man Conforms.” Or Carlyle’s complaint that people were becoming “mechanical in head and heart.”
It is true, of course, that we will bend to the shape of any number of external realities: natural, social, and technological.* To be human is to both shape and be shaped by the world we inhabit.
But what is the shape to which our tools and devices encourage us to conform?
Who or what do we seek to please by the way we use them?
Do they sustain our humanity or erode it?
These are the questions we do well to ask.
* It is also true that the boundaries between those categories are blurry.