For now, think of the jar in this example as being like your identity, as it is presented through social media. Your identity is Packified by BUMMER. By putting yourself out there, you are erasing yourself. As long as people are thinking for themselves, then collectively they’ll guess the number of jelly beans in the jar, but that won’t work if they’re in a pack and stuck in groupthink.
When a teenager fakes an Instagram account, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Becoming literate in the ways of one’s society is essential if one is to become a first-class citizen in it; if the society is based on fake people, you’d better learn how to make a fake person yourself. We have given up our connection to context. Social media mashes up meaning. Whatever you say will be contextualized and given meaning by the way algorithms, crowds, and crowds of fake people who are actually algorithms mash it up with what other people say.
To make the distinction clearer, I’ll invent a way to ruin podcasting. Nobody do this, okay? Some crummy person could make an app that transcribes all the podcasts available in a store and synthesizes a new “artificially intelligent” podcast that combines snippets from lots of different podcasts that—as one example—contain the same set of keywords. You could say, “I want to hear opinions about x political candidate,” or maybe about some celebrity. Then you’d hear a rapid-fire sequence of people saying things about the subject. You would not hear what had come just before each snippet or what comes next. The snippets would go by so fast, and there’d be so many of them, that even if a computer voice identified where each snippet was snipped from, you wouldn’t be able to take it in.
AI researchers would proudly show how one podcaster’s voice can be made to speak what another podcaster has said. You could get all your podcasts read by the actor of your choice. What Ezra Klein says, intoned by Gilbert Gottfried. Plus, personal voicemail messages would be inserted into the queue, just to up your engagement; maybe that would be the only way to even hear your own messages. Oh, and there would be ads mixed in. Your spouse’s voice talking about that new internet-of-things sensor clothing that reports your posture to unknown targeted advertising services. In the middle of a mush of fragments of politics podcasts, a voice would talk about how a politician is running a child sex ring in the basement of a pizza parlor. Armies of trolls and fake trolls would game the system and add enough cruel podcast snippets to the mix that your digest would become indigestible.
Or, maybe your aggregated podcast will be a filter bubble. It will include only voices you agree with—except they won’t really be voices, because the content will all be mushed together into a stream of fragments, a caricature of what listeners supposedly hold in common. You wouldn’t even live in the same universe as someone listening to a different aggregation. The podcast aggregator app might be called something AI-arrogant, like Podcast Meta-genius, or maybe something toddler-cute, like Poddytraining. If this scenario sounds preposterous and bizarre, look at what has happened to text, image, and video already. How is Poddytraining different or worse than what people who rely on social media feeds to connect to the world already accept? Another way to see the problem is to think about public spaces. If you share a space with people who aren’t looking at their smartphones, you are all in that space together. You have a common base of experience. It can be an amazing feeling, and it’s a big reason why people go to clubs, sports events, and houses of worship.
I have no way of seeing your social media feed, however. I therefore have lessened powers to empathize with what you think and feel. We don’t need to all see the same thing to understand each other. Only old-fashioned authoritarian regimes try to make everyone see the same thing. But we do need to be able to peek at what other people see. Empathy2 is the fuel that runs a decent society. Without it, only dry rules and competitions for power are left.
Addiction is associated with anhedonia, the lessened ability to take pleasure from life apart from whatever one is addicted to, and social media addicts appear to be prone to long-term anhedonia. The people who run the BUMMER companies need never find out what brought you down. That is for you to know, your last privacy. You might become anxious that you’re not as attractive or successful as other people you are exposed to, even as you’re harnessed by the system to make someone out there feel the same way.
The BUMMER experience is that you’re just one lowly cell in the great superorganism of the BUMMER platform. We talk to our BUMMER-connected gadgets kind of as if they’re people, and the “conversation” works better if we talk in a way that makes us kind of like machines. When you live as if there’s nothing special, no mystical spark inside you, you gradually start to believe it.