Hyperparasite: You Have More Followers Than You Think
The privacy scholar Alan Westin foretold of serious consequences from a new form of surveillance based on monitoring people via their personal data stored in government databases. Today, the behaviors, movements, social relationships, interests, weaknesses and most private moments of billions are constantly recorded, evaluated and analyzed in real-time and turned into vast profits by companies like Google, Facebook, Amazon and Microsoft. To enable profiteering from big data—what Shoshana Zuboff calls “surveillance capitalism”—our most ubiquitous, smartphone and social media technologies, are designed to be addictive making them more difficult to ignore. Like parasites, these objects distract our attention away from important activities, they deceive us into forming harmful habits, and they feed off of and digest vast amounts of our data. Looked at holistically, our devices, the software that powers them, the algorithms that sort our data and the institutions that form the growing surveillance industry, are all components of a massive, automated exploitation machine—a hyperparasite.
Designed for addiction in an attention economy
You don’t wake up one morning and decide to be an addict. It creeps up on you while you’re having fun. Still the first panic attack is a real shocker. Perhaps you’re groping in the dark, fingering across the night table for that shiny, glowing rectangle that contains a mailbox, a private secretary, a radio, a library, a photo album, the weather service, an expert driver, and a boisterous party. For crying out loud, your entire life exists between the glass and the back panel of your mobile phone!
Today, with an ownership rate of 95% in the United States, nearly everyone seems to be peering at, attending to and playing with a smartphone. We are constantly hunting for something to photograph: our food, our morning face, cute baby animals, and the trips we take so that we can “share” them on social media sites and generate “likes.” Remember when you got your first followers, made your first retweets, or received your first “like” notification? Remember how good that felt? Companies are perfecting ways to get us to make the choices they want us to make by targeting the same reward-based behaviors that activate the brain’s dopamine pathways, like those found in gambling and drug use. For example, everytime we unlock our smartphones, the small, red notification bubbles perched atop our social media apps, have been perfected to grab our attention with the promise of novelty—something our brains crave deeply. We can’t resist tapping on buttons expertly designed to interrupt, to distract, and to pull our limited attention into an app and keep it there. We barely notice when our focus begins to ping pong back and forth, between the world and the screen. With each and every “alert,” we remain distracted, which over time begins to feel sort of normal. Meanwhile, little by little, tap by tap, these free, fun, fast-paced distractions are expertly turning us into obedient addicts in search of our next hit from likes and followers.
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Lewis, Paul. “‘Our Minds Can Be Hijacked’: Tech Insiders Who Fear a Smartphone Dystopia.” The Guardian, October 5, 2017. Last modified December 12, 2017.