Algorithm as mirror

Narcissus and Echo by John William Waterhouse

An interesting study out today has found that teens “prefer a social media completely customized for them, depicting what they agree with, what they want to see and, thus, who they are.”

“In our qualitative interview study of teens 13-17, we found that personalized algorithmic content does seem to present what teens interpret as a reliable mirror image of themselves, and that they very much like the experience of seeing that social media reflection.”

From a report in The Conversation

This idea of the ‘algorithm as mirror’ presents some interesting questions. To what extent is the ‘accurate reflection’ that is presented accurate in terms of the external, world-facing image, and/or to what extent does it reflect something deeper about – as Camus would have it – the ‘abyss of person’?

A mirror is a flattened representation, an echo of light signals only. And yet, as I argue in the new book (developing ideas I wrote in a piece for the Times Educational Supplement with Professor of Anthropology, Trevor Marchand), we are witnessing a flattening of our experience into screens – and a flattening of learning too. The risk of this is that there are reduced capacities and opportunities for anything other than gazing into the thin mirror. The idea of depth literally makes less sense.

When personalized content is not agreeable or consistent with their self-image, the teens we interviewed say they scroll past it, hoping never to see it again. Even when these perceived anomalies take the form of extreme hypermasculine or “nasty” content, teens do not attribute this to anything about themselves specifically, nor do they claim to look for an explanation in their own behaviors. According to teens in our interviews, the social media mirror does not make them more self-reflective or challenge their sense of self.

From a report in The Conversation

And yet… the research shows otherwise. No matter that those interviewed felt that they could just scroll past stuff that wasn’t agreeable to their carefully constructed self-image – the blips in the algorithmic self-representation, if you will – studies show that it is, albeit less consciously, getting through.

[Teens] have, in fact, proven themselves highly vulnerable to self-image distortion and other mental health problems based on social media algorithms explicitly designed to create and reward hypersensitivities, fixations and dysmorphia – a mental health disorder where people fixate on their appearance.

Given what researchers know about the teen brain and that stage of social development – and given what can reasonably be surmised about the malleability of self-image based on social feedback – teens are wrong to believe that they can scroll past the self-identity risks of algorithms.

This is a major red flag for me. Why? Because we haven’t yet even entered the age of socials content being generated by AI.

This GenAI content will be laser-focused by well-fed algorithms that have hoovered up almost every last hair of a young person’s life to then push every single button they have. Remember, a socials site is not a passive mirror: it is a machine with a single purpose – to keep people scrolling for longer so that they see more ads.

So the GenAI content will not lead to a more accurate ‘self image’, it will lead – necessarily, by the goals it has been set – to a distorted self-image that has desires that the ads will then offer to fulfil.

Human brains have not evolved to handle this, and teenage brains definitely are even more vulnerable.

What then to do in this age of algorithmic narcissism? Well, we need to understand that it is meeting other people – seeing the reflection of ourselves in their eyes – that we grow in rich empathy. This is route to trust… and as the case of the Liz Bonnie – the Irish actor who found that scammers had used AI to convince a company to pay them for Bonnie to ‘endorse’ their products.

Good to hear that Evan Davis, on PM on BBC Radio 4 this evening, came to the same conclusion as I do in the book: we have to learn to re-encounter one another again:

Get a copy of the book here.


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