Algorithms

Algorithms, particularly social media algorithms, have been on a lot of our minds lately. But what even are they? Well one definition I found says that algorithms are: a process or set of rules to be followed in calculations or other problem-solving operations, especially by a computer. So basically they are like an ever evolving blueprint guiding the computer’s actions. This isn’t much different from the way that our brains work, at least from my limited understanding of both.

I was thinking over how strange and ironic it is that we as a society have been struggling so much with technology and social apps. Even though we don’t want to argue, fight, compare, etc. These apps feed us the type of content that will get us to react in that way. This morning the parallel between that struggle, often leading to mental illness, and the struggle to cope with mental illness itself really became apparent to me.

Sometimes it’s almost as if the universe presents us with clever metaphors to force us to confront the things we try to avoid. Humanity has been running from itself, especially in the last few decades. We’ve submerged ourselves in these digital landscapes as a distraction from our thoughts and worries and fears. The internet, in a way, is the ultimate form of disassociation. Yet, there is still so much we can learn about ourselves through this unlikely medium.

It’s ironic that the very place we’ve gone to escape ourselves has become a mirror of the worst within us. These algorithms online tailor what we see, they filter the world through a lens of violence, outrage, and disgust. As I explained before it’s because we are naturally inclined to react to these things more forcefully than things that inspire joy, happiness, comfort, or love. Even while pointing that out in my post about personal responsibility, it didn’t occur to me just how much these algorithms are actually amplifying the algorithms within our own brains.

This public discussion about social media and Facebook are actually a fascinating parallel to the discussion of neuroplasticity. Unfortunately, no one has the power to change the algorithm in our heads except us, so in this instance, while not our fault, it is up to us to make a change. While that autopilot algorithm does do a lot of the work behind the scenes of our consciousness, we are able to take back the wheel and steer ourselves in a new direction.

Let’s get back to what I mean when I say this is a metaphor though. Think about the internet, for the most part, we all understand that what comes up in our feed every day isn’t all that exists on the web. Yet, somehow the things we take notice of in our everyday lives, start to seem like all there is to notice. We become cynical, or at least I did.

I can still remember arguing with someone when I was in high school. I was insisting that life was mostly negative or neutral events with light sprinkles of happy ones in between. How sad it is to look back at my young self who truly believed such a terrible thing. At the time, that was true though, at least for me. Because that’s what I was looking for, so of course, that’s all I found.

We are always subconsciously looking for evidence to support our beliefs, even when those beliefs aren’t something we are happy about. It starts with a belief, just like our apps start with an interest. Our “feeds” in life then fall into place around that central idea. That isn’t all there is to see, but it is all that we’ll see.

That inner world of ours, our perceptions of life and those around us, seem so real. It’s hard to conceptualize that there may be so much more that we are not aware of, that our view is skewed by the limited scope of what we are taking in. The world around us is continuously colored and altered by our mood, our knowledge base, our preconceptions, our biases, our past experiences, and so much more. These are the “filters” that we use on the universe. But the small amount that we are able to take in, that is not an accurate reflection of existence. Just as our Facebook or Instagram feed is not an accurate representation of the content available online.

So don’t get too trapped in your own perceptions of this life. While we may not be able to make a new account or scrub our hard drive so we can start again from scratch, we can make an effort right now to challenge our preconceived notions. We can practice compiling new evidence to support beliefs that we choose to hold. We can make our mantra each day that the world is good, that there is beauty and happiness all around us. I promise you, no matter how dark the world may seem to you now, practice believing that there is light and you will find it.

AI Algorithm Enhances Brain Stimulation Devices Used for Treatment

Overriding the Algorithm

Everything that we consume becomes integrated, it all becomes a part of us. Whether its the food we eat, the things we drink, the substances we use, the physical atmosphere of the space around us, or even just the things we watch and listen to, all of these things effect us. Often in ways we don’t intend for them to. I’ve been contemplating this idea a lot lately. I’ve always been hyper aware of the things I put into my body. Although that doesn’t necessarily mean I make the right choices in that area often enough. My primary concern was always with the effects these things have on my weight and physical appearance. The subtler aspects of how what I consume effects my mental and emotional wellbeing always seem to remain largely overlooked.

Without looking at the scientific data showing correlation, it can be very difficult to even connect the way we feel with what we are consuming day to day. It is probably effecting us more than we realize, especially when it comes to anxiety disorders. In addition to cutting back on processed foods, artificial sweeteners, sugar, caffeine, and nicotine, I also want to start changing the content that I consume online. It would be interesting to make these changes just to see if I notice a difference. To log my mood and anxiety level throughout this process to try to gauge just how different I might feel without all of these harmful influences being so enmeshed in my life.

Knowing what I do now about the way our internet experience is basically tailor made for us by algorithms, I would like to try my hand at making that algorithm serve me instead of steer me. I’ve always been someone who enjoys the grittier side of movies and series. So the videos that are offered to me for easy access are primarily about murder mysteries, drug addiction, mental illness, homelessness, social injustice, civil unrest, etc. And while these topics are very interesting, they can also be very upsetting and depressing. When this is the only content that is readily available to you, it can start to feel like all that there is. I wonder how much of what I think and feel every day is directly impacted by this endless background noise of destruction, violence, and despair. Would I be a different person, would I think differently if I actively sought out different content?

One of the reasons the idea of the algorithm guiding our hand has been on my mind so much lately, is because of what’s currently happening on my Netflix account. Somehow I fell down a rabbit whole of watching English dubbed, foreign TV series. Don’t get me wrong, quite well-produced and intriguing stuff, but after awhile I get tired of the voiceover and the dialogue not lining up with the actors’ lip movements. Much to my dismay I seem unable to extricate myself from this issue. Netflix continues to suggest only these shows, and due to my general laziness I put up with watching another one rather than put any effort into finding a good American made show instead. Thus furthering Netflix’s propensity toward offering me foreign series and films. The algorithms that were created to assist us, eventually start to direct and limit our ability to make our own decisions. Only with great, intentional effort can we overcome this endless loop.

Another reason I am interested in the idea of changing the content I consume is to discover just how difficult it would actually be to do. How quickly would the algorithm adjust to a drastic change in interest? The only reason I haven’t done this sooner is because I enjoy the content I consume as I’m sure we all do. I don’t feel confident that I will be able to find more positive content that will interest me as much. I worry that I won’t be satisfied if I limit myself to only watching lighthearted, fluffy shows. I suppose if that ends up being the case, I can always transition away from it again. Perhaps I’d even be able to establish a nice balance between these opposing genres.

I’m going to do some investigating and see if there are any useful resources already out there online for ways to go about shifting your internet experience so that you are exposed to more uplifting content. It seems that someone must have already had the idea to consciously manipulate the algorithm for the benefit of their mental health already. It will be interesting to expose myself to a whole new side of the internet that has remained hidden from me until now. Who knows what I may uncover? I’ll be sure to make an update to this post once I implement this new plan and discover how this seemingly innocuous change effects me.

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The Social Dilemma

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The Social Dilemma is a new documentary on Netflix that everyone needs to see. It is a harrowing look at what social media and the internet in general are doing to us as individuals and society as a whole. I’ve long suspected that this new age of technology was having a deleterious effect on our brains, but never could I have imagined how serious it actually is.

We have been trapped under the wheels of a machine that we created and set into motion but now have no power to stop. The tropes about robots taking over and destroying humanity didn’t manifest in exactly the way we pictured it, but I would argue the age of AI overlords has already begun. We have become the victims of our own advancements. Our biology and slow rate of evolutionary change simply cannot keep up with and stay on top of the rapid growth of technology.

Our psychology is being used against us for the sole benefit of corporations and advertisers. This documentary points out that we are no longer the consumers. We are the products being sold. More specifically our attention is being sold. And it seems for the most part we are helpless to overcome the addictive nature of this new market. Not only that, while we feed into this system, society as a whole is becoming more and more anxious, depressed, and isolated from one another. This isn’t necessarily a purposeful outcome, yet it is an insignificant side effect for the people and algorithms running the show.

If you’d like some first hand evidence, try logging off of Facebook for a few weeks. I have been avoiding that site for over a year now. You wouldn’t believe the lengths the site has gone to try to reel me back in. I found it funny at first, seeing notifications for less and less relevant things when I did open the app. How desperate Facebook is to somehow regain my attention! But now I think it’s actually quite scary.

I will say I have felt much better mentally since I stopping using Facebook. I don’t spend nearly as much time on my phone for one thing. I am not weighed down by constant updates and online drama. I don’t waste time thinking up a status update or obsessively checking to see how many people liked it. It is freeing. I feel lighter now.

However, despite my success at overcoming the algorithm in that regard, I am still not completely free of the strong psychological drive to seek dopamine “rewards” online. For instance, I now post on here everyday. I do greatly look forward to seeing how many people like what I’ve written. Although I limit myself to checking my notifications once a day. I also still scroll my feed and post drawings on Tumblr. Not to mention I am perpetually watching either YouTube or Netflix all day long.

While I am able to remember, and think back fondly, on a time before the internet and social media, newer generations will not have this luxury. This new form of society is all they have ever known. Soon humanity will not even be able to conceive of a world without these detrimental influences.

I desperately long for the simplicity of my childhood spent away from screens, enjoying the real world. But even more than that, I pity the children of today. They have become victims without even realizing it. And what choice do they truly have? While disconnecting from our devices is liberating and beneficial in many ways, it is also extremely isolating in others. It is choosing to be apart from the rest of society in a major way. Even though it is better for your own mental health, it is also lonely, a virtual exile.

Ultimately I don’t know what the solution could be to this problem we’ve unwittingly created. Humans are forever hopeful. The executives that once had a hand in creating this new world seem to believe we can overcome it somehow. But I don’t know if I agree. I see it as just another sign of our rapidly advancing inevitable demise as a society and as a species. Although I sincerely hope I am wrong.

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