TikTokfication I: an AI-driven Idiocracy (when AI gets better at distraction)

An existential risk is a term coined by futurologist and philosopher Nick Bostrom, defined as an adverse outcome which would annihilate life on Earth permanently, or drastically curtail its potential. Existential risks can be non-anthropocentric or natural, such as asteroid impacts, volcanic eruptions or the Sun swallowing the Earth when entering the red-giant phase in about five billion years. Scarier existential threats are anthropocentric or man-made ones, because they imply we have the potential to destroy ourselves, suggesting that, ironically, our own self-destruction could be the answer to both the Great Filter hypothesis — that there is a very low probability (or a barrier) to the evolution of detectable intelligent life— and the Fermi paradox — the apparent lack of intelligent life out there.

The development of some form of destructive artificial intelligence (AI) is posited as one of the many anthropocentric or man-created risks threatening to wipe out humanity. This is in fact the thesis behind the famous movie Terminator, in which the superintelligent defense system Skynet gains consciousness, leading the machines in an attempt to annihilate humanity before being shut down. Perhaps because of this representation in pop-culture, it is easier to think of an AI-driven extinction in terms of a programming error or an unintentional feature, turning the AI against its creators. But it doesn’t have to be this way; there is a much grimmer and terrific picture lurking on the horizon: TikTok.

In this post, I argue that TikTok (and more broadly social media) is curtailing our potential as a species in two ways: by hijacking our attention and eradicating boredom, and by entirely transforming our society by virtue of changing the way in which information spreads.

Is social media turning us into mindless monkeys? Created with Dall-E.

How much do we own to concentration? Would Isaac Newton had written the laws of motion and gravitation weren’t it thanks to its perseverance to reflect upon a problem over and over? Do you think Isaac Asimov was able to produce the equivalent of a full novel every 2 weeks for 25 years weren’t it for his ability to seclude himself and create ideas in a distraction-free environment? Would Charles Darwin had come up with his theory of evolution weren’t it because he allowed the space and time needed for his mind to wander off and come up with his great ideas?

The biographical recounts of the greatest minds of all times speak for themselves: It is said that Isaac Newton generated all his ideas and devised all the experiments that led him to write the laws of motion and gravity, make important contributions to calculus and resolve light into its “colours” (wavelengths) when he found himself in solitude secluded in the farm of Woolsthorpe, in order to escape the sweeping Black Plague. When asked about how he was able to generate all his ideas, he responded: “by thinking about it continually”. Isaac Asimov said that “my feeling is that as far as creativity is concerned, isolation is required. The creative person is, in any case, continually working at it. His mind is shuffling his information at all times, even when he is not conscious of it.” Charles Darwin had what he called his “thinking path”, a walking route around his house in Kent which he would stroll daily, going as far as kicking a pebble each lap into a pile.

It is easy to find how all greatest minds of all times would have some routine geared towards isolation and concentration, needed to foster the generation of ideas. Some of them chose to walk for long stretches of time, such as Friedrich Nietzsche, who once said that “all truly great thoughts are conceived while walking” and would routinely go for two-hour walks through the nearby forest. Others instead opted for more unconventional activities, such as Albert Einstein, who found in the sea the distraction-free environment needed to think clearly. He would routinely just sail adrift and considered “a cruise in the sea” as “an excellent opportunity for maximum calm and reflection on ideas from a different perspective” His wife would write that: “there is no other place where my husband is so relaxed, sweet, serene and detached from routine distractions, the ship carries him far away.” He would go as far as writing that long sea voyages were conductive for “working and thinking — a paradisiacal state without correspondence, visits, meetings, and other inventions of the devil!” during a very busy year in which he was awarded the Nobel Prize in physics and toured Japan, China, Palestine, and Spain.

It is clear that silence, isolation and concentration are needed to produce the kind of deep ideas that stand the test of time and go on to influence entire generations and advance our understanding of reality. But that is not enough. According to Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi — the psychologist behind the “flow state”, the pleasant immersive state creators ranging from scientists to musicians experience at work — it is well established that it takes at least 10 years of immersive technical knowledge in a particular field to be able to create or modify something in a novel way, better than what already existed. Hence if the greatest painters, scientists, architects, doctors, economists, philosophers, etc. of all times had one thing in common was an immense ability to deeply focus and put off instant gratification over long stretches of time — they effectively became masters of concentration.

You may argue that these are the “outliers”, they were already born geniuses and may not be a good representation of the importance of concentration. But it is not only the greatest minds of all times who leverage on this ability, society relies on it. Don’t you agree that most contractual agreements in society are an exchange of money for expertise and concentration? Or don’t you want your surgeon to remain focused and undisturbed during the operation? The pilot of the plane you are about to take? Your taxi driver? In these cases, security is at stake, and therefore the detriments of distraction are obvious. But what about less obvious cases such as artists, scientists or engineers? What’s at stake when their ability to deeply focus is impaired? Here it is the quality and quantity of their outputs that will suffer from increased levels of distraction. Without deep immersion in the process, creators will produce quick and shallow pieces of work. Hence distraction will lead to an increase in human errors — in some cases fatal and readily observed ones (e.g. car accidents) — but also a loss of quantity and quality of the outputs of a society, along with a reduction in the number of musicians, entrepreneurs, artists, scientists, etc.

Now ask yourself: what kind of behaviour does social media promote? Isn’t it the complete opposite of the kind of behaviour I have just described? What will happen when our ability to deeply focuse is impaired on a global scale? And if this distraction is powered by AI?

In simple terms, all you need to train an AI is a quantifiable metric of “success” and large amounts of data. The AI is fed with data (e.g. images with or without horses on them) and the outputs of a certain task (e.g. identifying a horse in an image) are matched against this success metric (did the AI correctly identify whether there was a horse in the input image?). Through an iterative process, the AI will optimize some internal parameters to maximize this success metric. From simple image recognition to Alpha GO, an AI will get better and better at their task as more data is fed to it through this iterative process. So this begs the question, what success metric are Youtube, TikTok, Instagram, Facebook… maximizing for? What is it, that their AIs are getting better and better at? Simply put, your attention.

Aren’t these platforms designed to interrupt your thought process? To caught your attention as frequently, and for as long as possible? To encourage distraction and deviate your attention? And aren’t the type of behaviours these platforms encourage, the complete opposite from the type of self-immersive thought process needed to generate deep ideas? What kind of deep work can a person do when his attention is interrupted 58 times day? And when thirty of those times happen while at work? What is our society losing as a result of people checking their phones 30 times a day? And if we already check our phones compulsively and these AI algorithms are becoming better by the day, how does the long-term trend look like? How many more Descartes, Marie Curies or Einsteins will we lose to TikTok until, we consider social media to be curtailing our potential?

It is also baffling and paradoxical that at the same time that the Future of Humanity warns that “someone could accidentally or intentionally unleash an AI system that ultimately causes the elimination of humanity”, we have Mark Zuckerberg and the likes using advanced algorithms with self-improving capabilities to hack the human brain on a global scale. Isn’t transforming a society in a bunch of mindless scrolling monkeys not an existential threat? Isn’t rewiring the human brain to seek effortless dopamine rewards, impairing it from carrying cognitive demanding tasks not an existential threat? Isn’t letting AI algorithms manipulate our brains and literally influence our decisions not an existential threat? And isn’t boredom — this “dreadful” sensation that the limitless entertaining offered by social media has put an end to — the necessary catalyst to gather motivation to do the effortful, the necessary space and time for self-introspection and for the generation of new creative ideas?

The long-term trend looks like a mixture of Wall-E and Ready Player One, in which as we progressively become more connected to our phones, we slowly become disconnected from the physical world, leaving it to its own devices. We will be at the mercy of an unconscious AI, one that is neither good or evil, just an automaton that all it cares about is to hook us on the screen for as long as possible, simply because that is what we programmed it for.

And at the same time that our ability to concentrate is being hijacked, social media is transforming our society in some really scary ways.

At first glance, it may seem that interrupted-attention problems should only affect social media users. The problem however is that any technology’s or form of communication’s sphere of influence is not contained within its users. For instance, the advent of the car brought with it restrictions, street markings and laws to everyone, transforming cities for both car drivers and pedestrians. Similarly, social media is slowly transforming our society, and whether we have to blame TikTok or Instagram doesn’t matter, as TikTok has already cannibalized all other social media platforms. We can compare Youtube and TikTok to illustrate this first point.

While on the surface Youtube and TikTok may seem clearly distinct platforms — the former was a video-sharing platform focused on long-format content, the latter a social media platform focused short-format musical videos devoided of real content — their end goal is the same: your attention. Because your attention is limited to 24h a day, these two giants compete for a piece of the same pie. This implies that Youtube doesn’t care about being Youtube — i.e. focusing on long-format content — and it’ll be ready to change if the circumstances require so — e.g. due to declining times spent on the app. For this reason, it is the leading platform which causes the others to adapt, as whatever recipe is using to attract audience is being more effective than any of the ones already in practice. This is why Instagram is essentially a Frankestein version of Snapchat (stories), TikTok (reels) and Youtube (Instagram TV) and it is the same reason why Youtube — initially a video-sharing platform that has always focused on long-format content — is now considered a social media platform and has even gone as far as introducing its own TikTok version (Youtube shorts).

But there is something particularly worrying about the dominant player this time —TikTok, predicted to become the leading social media platform by the end of 2022. You see, it wouldn’t be terrible if Youtube (notably the pre-TikTok version) would expand its sphere of influence, as there’s plenty of well-thought content, often packed with well-researched and interesting information, or simply extremely useful — like the countless tutorials available from which you can learn literally anything — while one could argue that its long-format content encourages concentration. Instead, TikTok content is the uttermost reduction to the absurd — short, self-contained and often if not always accompanied by music. This form of content doesn’t lend itself to be educational in any way, even if some pretend the opposite. In fact, what is worrying is that it doesn’t even lend itself to the transmission of actual information.

That was the sentence coined by Canadian communication theorist Marshall McLuhan to express that information is shaped by the mean of communication. In other words, the mean and the message are not independent. For instance, as Neil Portman puts its, to engage in the written word “the reader must come armed, in a serious state of intellectual readiness.” Reading “means to follow a line of thought, which requires considerable power of classifying, inference making and reasoning.” This is why science is mainly disseminated in the form of written articles, because reading forces a slow, rational and focused processing of the information, which is needed to carefully inspect the methodology and the validity of new results. It is also why the content on the Internet is in general short and shallow, while books provide a much deeper and complex dive into a particular topic. The former is provided in a mean which encourages interruptions and distraction (ads, pop-ups, notifications, autoplay) and active consumption of information (clicks, scrolls, etc) while the latter requires an immersive and distraction-free consumption of information. It is also why you can scroll through your Instagram feed while watching Netflix, whereas it’ll be impossible to read while watching TV.

Now ask yourself: What information can be transmitted in a mean that only allows self-contained and decontextualized dancing videos with background music that require zero attention and that in fact, encourage second-duration attention spans? None or if any, an extremely shallow one.

There is no room for complex information to be transmitted through TikTok, because the medium is simply not apt for it. As TikTok spreads its sphere of influence, serious content will be dismissed and all the complex information will be dumbed down, simplified, reduced to the bare minimum, so it can be consumed with background music by our sluggardized minds. This TikTok is the perfect illustration of what I’m talking about (funnily enough found on LinkedIn).

If you’ve never watched a TikTok before, it may even be hard to recognize what the hell this video about. To me, this type of content looks straight out of the move Idiocracy, in which we’ve become so dumb that remotely-hard-to-swallow information — such an excel tip — needs to be accompanied by a dance performance, so it is entertaining. We no longer can read or watch a “tutorial”; now topics ranging from finance to science need to be entertaining and as this type of content cannibalizes other means of transmission of information due to the need to make content more enticing as a consequence of the ever-increasing flow of information, the content will be dumbed down to the uttermost absurd, with ourselves in the process.

And the transformation can already be felt: music is now being produced to suit TikTok-duration spans, it is now acceptable to do politics on Twitter, Tweets are often part of “news”, the “news” are shorter by the day, science and finance are now being disseminated in TikTok-style format and “memes” are now currencies or stocks. We have reached the point where it is actually possible to produce “content” that has no “content” anymore, content that is neither informative nor funny, purely “entertaining”—something I call contentless content — a possibility only realizable through TikTok, the only mean of communication that allows background-noise-replacing silence as a legit form of communication.

Example of contentless content. People are spending time and energy in CREATING and WATCHING this type of content, which begs the question: Is social media dumbing us down? Drowning us in a sea of irrelevance?

AI-powered social media has precisely created the sea of irrelevance Neil Postman in Amusing Ourselves to Death was warning us about: “What Aldous Huxley feared with his Brave New World is that there would be no reason to ban books, because no one would want to read one. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance.” These are the dangers Huxley saw already coming in 1932 with his Brave New World, but what Huxley failed to realize is that we wouldn’t be taking a soothing, happiness-producing drug, instead, it is enough to reach for your pocket, take out your phone, open your favourite social media app, and start scrolling.

Note: Because I cannot afford to a 10+min post in our current society, part 2 reviewing the evidence for social-media dumbing us down will be published in a following post.

If this was of interest to you, I can recommend reading:

The Shallows: How the Internet Is Changing the Way We Think, Read and Remember, Nicholas Carr

Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, Cal Newport

Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, Neil Postman

Brave New World, Aldous Huxley

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Down-to-earth thoughts from an astrophysicist.

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