Breakout Three: Social Media in the Pre-Forum Age
The easiest way to understand the difference between the modern mindset and the mindset which prevailed in the Pre-Forum age can best be summarized by the following: prior to the Forum the common person had no appreciation of the power of incentives, developmental sequences, recursion, or emergent behavior. It was unheard of for grade school children to even learn the fundamental components of a Neural Network let alone trace inputs to outcomes. While these were well known to Chaosticians, Economists, and were discussed in some Psychology departments, a normal person could go their entire academic career without ever putting them into practice.
Melvin Sninkle hosted a special eight hour demonstration on emergent behavior on the Presidential Podcast using a simple program featuring computer-simulated ants to demonstrate the concept. At first, he used simple algorithms to drive the motion of the ants in random directions and explained that as each ant had no idea what the other ants were doing they could not organize into complex systems. All the ants were only as smart as a single ant. Without external stimulus and a common framework they were little different than the particles of a gas. He added additional layers of programming, giving the ants the ability to sense one another, and the ants began to form into lines and circles and other shapes. He gave them the ability to seek food and to carry food to others, and they formed production lines. Then using the work of one of his graduate students he gave the ants the ability to sense virtual pheromones, virtual wind currents, and virtual hierarchies. Suddenly, the ants made an ant colony quite like that in real-life with many elaborate ducts and even a form of proto air-conditioning. The important thing, Melvin Sninkle said, was to remember that at no point did the ants themselves become smarter. The program had fixed the working memory of each individual ant through the course of the simulation to a shockingly small amount. The ants simply experienced different pressures and became subtly more aware of what the other ants were doing, and because of these things they became better able to collaborate. In this way the colony as a whole was able to become more intelligent than the individual ants, or extelligent, as Melvin Sninkle put it. In the mind of each ant was a model of all the other ants that allowed the individual to determine what was most productive to do. Extelligence, Melvin Sninkle concluded, was the most powerful force in the universe. Compounding Interest -the previous contender for the most powerful force in the universe- couldn’t even exist without an Extelligent host network.
He explained further that the purpose of the Forum was to replace the social queues and pressures that had disappeared with the emergence of large populations and long supply chains. In small villages, it had been easy to understand the common good. Everyone knew everyone else. It had been easy to know who was good at what, because everyone could see everyone else’s work. This level of visibility had disappeared as populations expanded. The coordination of will and skill had been deferred to the democratic process and economic pressures, respectively. These had allowed humans, vaguely and at a distance, to understand and work with one another. Yet as the nation continued to grow and technology continued to explode, a natural limit had been reached and almost every social ill could be traced back to its fundamental symptom: due to a combination of scale, noise, and complexity the old systems were no longer Extelligent enough to make good decisions. No one had a good enough model of what everyone else was doing to allow them to economically apply their focus. The Forum could return this level of coordination to the citizens of the United States. In this way, the Forum was the antithesis of social media and could be used to dramatically increase the nation’s Extelligence.
Imagine that every neuron in your brain sent a signal of equal strength to every other neuron in your brain, all day, without end, and you might have some notion of the epileptic horror of social media in the Pre-Forum age. Like the ants driven by random numbers, sense and nonsense were promoted equally on social media and one could find the pinnacle of reason and the depths of insanity side by side in the same comments section. No process of limitation or open and universal adjudication existed. Society was as unconcerned with their information diet as their predecessors had been about smoking. Even children were not spared and many of them were given smartphones even before the onset of puberty and experienced limbic hijacking so severe that they were unable to focus or withstand the silence of their own company for the remainder of their lives. Members of the society unable to take their attention away from their smartphones became known as “Zombies” and many seemed to lose the ability to make any kind of long-term plans, or even think beyond the next oxytocin hit from social media engagement. Some became trapped behind what was known as the “Fourth Wall” forever acting not as if they were an actual living person, but only an actor pretending to be an actual person for a breathless audience. All social media, with a level of careless monstrosity unfathomable today, did not incentivize wisdom, discretion, or correctness but merely attention. Most engagements ended with pleas to like and subscribe. This problem was widely felt by the entire populace -indeed, the rise of social media and its uncontrolled incentives are considered the chief reason the Alpha United States began to fail- even if not fully understood, although the term “The Attention Economy” came closest to capturing the problem. Even so, Pre-Forum people did not fully appreciate that minds are limited and so did not appropriately fear that social media provided unlimited attractive distractions.
While it is tempting to say that social media arose at the first time in human history where there were more Very Important Things to think about than a person was capable of thinking about, this is not true. Existential despair, war, famine, and disease had put previous generations of people under enormous and significant stress. What social media did was make that stress almost impossibly addictive as well as so ubiquitous as to be unavoidable, and with simple algorithms written to keep readers attentive it also removed all sense of prioritization and proportionality from each concern. People were rewarded for self-destructive acts and were made to feel that without their constant attention problems would never be fixed. Yet at the same time, provided no solution to fix these problems or assurances that someone else was resolving the matter. What is perhaps most remarkable is that the business people who designed these systems had not intended for any of this to happen.
An application called Facebook had been designed for college students to share pictures and brief posts about their interests, and was later reimagined as a sort of collective network where all people in the world could meet and collaborate. This could have easily evolved into the Forum, however the primary incentive of attention gathering was never resolved. As the scale of the users increased, the algorithms designed to capture their attention stumbled into the only possible interest broad enough for them all to share: political conflict. Therefore, what had begun as a place for people to share pictures of their pets wearing human clothing or posting funny jokes quickly evolved into a machine whose primary function was to make people despise their friends and family and foment Civil War.
Tensions in the nation soared. Social Media sites were not considered publishers, as they enforced no editorial function, yet at the same time the limits of this position were tested constantly. What if content was blatantly illegal? Surely that had to be removed? So they designed great moderation schemes. But more problems emerged from this than before. Who decided what was and what wasn’t illegal? The law, surely, but who would interpret the law? At a scale of tens-of-thousands of reports per day, how could a lawyer or judge keep pace with the demand? If a moderation scheme was broad and encompassing how was it different from an editor?
Social Media companies responded by vesting broad power into the only individuals who felt equal to the task of separating right from wrong, truth from fiction, and the blessed from the cursed in all situations, everywhere, no matter the level of expertise required: twenty-something year old political wonks. For they, and only they, believed themselves equal to the challenge of knowing everything.
Doctors of Medicine with decades of clinical experience could find their job-related posts removed by a blue-haired twenty-three year old who had barely graduated high school on the basis it was “incorrect.” Elected officials tended to fare no better and as their content was removed, they became more and more passionate in their cries of tyranny. The common person was often thrown into “Facebook Jail” or the “Twitter Gulag” when they broke rules they could not really, truly, define as the rules were as nebulous and ill-executed as their enforcement. Removal of content or banning of accounts was also the only imaginable punishment, as if there was a legal system where the only prescribable punishment was death. Those targeted were not able to offer defense, seek representation, or see the decision making behind their punishments. The punishment process was a total mystery. Yet how could it not have been so? The problem was too vast and the only economic solution that still gave the companies control over the content was to vest under-developed, busy-body, hall-monitor, sanctimonious children with the divine right of kings.
There were good uses of social media, of course. Wikipedia exists to this day in much the same form, as it will no doubt exist for centuries to come as the jewel of human knowledge, and it began in this age. Yet if you had told the leaders of various social media companies that the difference between a civil war generator and a self-assembling encyclopedia, more encompassing and accurate than any which had ever previously existed, was only a matter of a few incentives on their page layout they would have thought you’d gone insane.
The problem could not have persisted much longer, even if the Forum had not appeared. Already social media had sparked protests in other countries, and fomented rebellion everywhere at almost all levels of society. Tensions were escalated with no equalizing pathway to create solutions. And sooner or later, it would have led to collapse. Again, what country of such limited construction could have withstood the constant scrutiny of all of its citizens?