Don’t blame the algorithms

I have a confession to make. A few nights ago, I spent more than one hour watching Instagram videos. I ended up going to bed late because of that, inevitably being groggy the morning after, which required extra doses of coffee, which made me jittery by midday and by then my whole day was ruined.

To make matters worse, knowing how fond I am of the tailored mix of funny shit, puppies, and nostalgic 90s cartoons videos that Instagram can serve me, in a moment of wisdom, I had put in place an iOS Time Limit of 5 minutes per day. But that wasn’t enough. The pull of Instagram’s recommendation algorithm was stronger than my willpower. I kept hitting “Remind me in 15 minutes.”

There’s a particular strand of techno-criticism that blames recommendation algorithms for all sorts of issues in society1. In a recent New York Times piece, renowned techno-critics Tristan Harris and Aza Raskin accused A.I. to be unraveling democracy:

The A.I. behind our news feeds is still choosing which words, sounds and images reach our retinas and eardrums, based on selecting those that will get the most virality, the most reaction and the most engagement.

While very primitive, the A.I. behind social media was sufficient to create a curtain of illusions that increased societal polarization, undermined our mental health and unraveled democracy. Millions of people have confused these illusions with reality. The United States has the best information technology in history, yet U.S. citizens can no longer agree on who won elections.

Blaming the algorithms for this kind of stuff is letting the person interacting with it off the hook too quickly. That’s not to say social media platforms and the vectors along which they optimize their recommendation engines are free from responsibility. But I want to stress that I have no one to blame by myself for wasting an evening and derailing the following morning, gorging on Haribo candies for the mind.

I wrote above that the pull of Instagram’s recommendation algorithm was stronger than my willpower. But it would have been more correct to say that my willpower was weaker than Instagram’s algorithm. That inversion makes all the difference. I knew what I was getting myself into, and no one forced me to do it. I had safeguards in place and decided to ignore them. It was not Meta’s fault, it was mine.

Blaming the algorithms is borderline patronizing. Individuals are capable of making their own choices. Big tech might be incentivized to optimize for retention regardless of the externalities, but people are not powerless against that. They don’t need regulators and pundits to save them.

No one is forcing you to watch TikTok, engage with Twitter, or like random shit on Facebook. And when you go there, no one is forcing you to stay longer than you deem healthy. Remember that.

1 A good overview of this critique is Johann Hari 2022 book Stolen Focus, which, unsurprisingly, dips heavily into Tristan Harris’ work. The book makes many compelling points and highlights several genuine systemic issues. Still, I felt it sometimes overlooked the fact that people can opt out of social media. There might be little someone can do when they are discriminated against in the workplace because they need to work to pay rent and feed their family. But the same doesn’t hold true for social media.

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