Aswin Mohan

handcrafted by someone who loves code (mobile, frontend, backend), design and life.

I'm always up for meeting new people and sharing ideas or a good joke. Ping me at hey@aswinmohan.me and let's talk.

2020-Dec-14

Stop being so polarized all the time.

Remember when we used to joke around, debate about politics, have a drink afterwards and hug your friend with a different political view. Remember when we would switch on the news and just casually criticize whatever dumb shit both the political parties were doing. Ahh those were the days.

Remember when we used to hug our friends with a slightly different political view than us. Remember when we switch on the news and make fun of whatever dumb shit those politicians were pulling of. Remember when opinions were objective and not personal.

Now everyone and their grandmother has a political opinion that is so well formed, so true, that neither of them is going to entertain any counter argument. I have seen decade old friendships end, careers destroyed, families torn apart because of differing political opinions.

We do have faint memories of a time before this, where everyone didn’t make everything a part of their identity. Where you could have a reasonable discussion with someone without it ending in a fist fight. Those times are long gone, but how the hell did we arrive here.

Enter Social Media

There is point on the slope where shit goes downhill, and for us it was that point when Social Media appeared. Social Media in all it’s glorious forms aren’t inherently bad, it’s when you add big data magic and billions of dollars of advertisement budget to the mix that messes everything up. Suddenly the thing that you use to keep tabs of your friends and family, start to keep tabs on you.

Advertisement has always been about attention, that’s why big billboards are lit up in the middle of the night showing scantily clad women with legs pointing to some shit your won’t need. The sole purpose is to turn your head and to make you take notice. They don’t care who sees it, they just care a lot of us do.

A lot of advertisement on the early days of the internet were similar, they would put banner ads on the most busiest sites hoping to gather the most eyeballs. It worked like that for some time until they realized rather than billboards on the side of the road, you could target your users. Rather than advertising on a generic forum about the world, you could advertise on a blog about cars for your new useless engine oil. The people who would be visiting the car blog would probably be the ones who would be most interested in buying your shitty snake oil. Hence targeting was born. The ROI of Internet advertisement skyrocketed, and everyone wanted a piece of the pie.

Then Social Media came along with a totally different game. They started to track your each and every move building up intricate profiles of you neatly kept on an offshore data-center, opening up an even better gold mine for those sleazy salesmen. Rather than waiting for someone to show up for that stupid blog post about that broken down car, they could put the ad for the snake oil right in the feed of a person who loves clicking on car pictures. It was all christmas in ad town from then on, and the companies who had the best tracking profiles started swimming in money, and the ones who didn’t started dying out. (Too far ? yeah too far)

After spending a couple of billions and tracking every sneeze and every turn of everyone who ever set foot in their world, they started to realize some thing else. The people who bought the snake oil on the first impression was not the normal person who kind of loved cars, but the obsessed ones who believed that snake oil was the best oil in the world and that the best way to save the world was to buy more snake oil. Those were the people that had the most ROI ever, and the people who wore nice suits in big office buildings decided they wanted more of these obsessed fanatics, and Big Social gladly served them up on a plate.

But even in a large enough population pool the people who are obsessed about a lot of shit is really hard to find, and to keep the money flowing they needed more of them. So they did what anyone with a degree in Operations would do, they started manufacturing them.

Big Social realized that the people who engage most, who drive the most revenue are the ones obsessed with the content. They are the most revenue generating cattle of the ranch, and since everything is a numbers game they started to maximize obsessiveness. Well how do you manufacture people who would die for their views ? How do you manufacture obsessiveness ? Bubbles.

Enter Bubbles

The more the number of positive reinforcement that a person receives about their already existing viewpoints and the more number of negative reinforcements they see around the opposing ones, the more likely they are to believe their beliefs are true. The more they are engrossed in their bubbles the more they are susceptible to being obsessed.

The first time we sign-up for it, they don’t know anything about us. So they ask us for our interests and to add our closest friends. Based on that they show us some generic content based on our and our friends interests. Then we start interacting with them, each and every interaction, each and every pause is recorded and measured and converted to a data point. Initially the content is neutral, leaning just to the side of our interests and our beliefs. The more we interact with it, the more the virtual profile of ourselves get optimized. With our likes and shares and comments we build an echo chamber around ourselves, with help from a black box algorithm designed to optimize for obsessiveness.

But an echo chamber doesn’t make you and obsessed radical, what makes you one is shock.

Enter Shock

Shock is what pushes your towards the edge of obsessiveness. Content that has high shock value are borderline impossible to believe. They rock your belief system and lingers on the edge of possibility. It’s purpose is not to make you believe the content right away, but to expand and reinforce your viewpoint so much so that you believe a little more polarized content than what you are used to. That is how you manufacture obsessiveness, that’s how your manufacture polarization. The cycle is repeated indefinitely nudging you little by little to the edge, until you fall o ver. Is it intentional or a byproduct of an algorithm optimized for profit and engagement maximization is up for debate.

Consider me and Youtube. Like every teenager I had trouble with the ladies and like any other teenager I turned to the internet for help. I started with dating videos, content which I was looking for. Then slowly my recommended feed stared to show just one or two videos on how women were the problem of modern society, not enough to turn me to a believer but just enough to shock me. Having been exposed to that I started to normalize videos that bash feminism, SJW’s being owned and rants about how women are the problem. Then my feed started to get populated with even more anti-women and videos around red-pill and the manosphere. I am not saying these viewpoints are right or wrong, but they were shocking and normalized a lot of stuff that I would never have accepted if I was shown then from the start. After a while I started believing a lot of the what was being said, I was starting to suffocate in my own bubble. Luckily I used to read a lot outside the internet and hence had access to contrasting view points. That’s when I realized how deep in the rabbit hole I was. This prompted me to seek out alternate viewpoints and form my own opinions. If I had kept going I would most probably have turned into an angry fanatic thirsty for blood on the internet, shouting on some obscure forum on the edge of the internet.

That’s what the algorithms are designed to do. They have the maximum engagement and attention from how obsessed their users are. For being obsessed it’s not only vital that you push the view point forward but also to demean and dehumanize the opposing one, so much so to the point that you believe the views that they hold are clearly wrong. It pushes us into an us vs them mentality, where we are on right ones and they are the wrong ones.

After a while we start to internalize what we interact with, it becomes a part of your identity.You start to believe the extreme content that you are exposed to as your own, you start to defend it with all your might. You can’t entertain an argument because it is no longer an argument against your opinion,but one against your identity. To entertain any argument is to acknowledge you are wrong and to prove everything you have interacted with for a long time to be wrong. This is what polarizes us, this is what makes having a friendly conversation about opposing views impossible in this day and age. This is what is being done to us. We are divided by opinions cocooned in our own bubbles, our own echo chambers which enforce our beliefs and makes us immune to any counter argument no matter how right or wrong.

Breaking Out

It’s not easy and fun getting out once you are inside. It’s like the matrix you see and hear and interact with an artificial world designed to hook you in, and like Neo it’s one hell of a ride to unplug. It’s hard but it’s possible, this is how I did it.

  • Clear the data that they have on you, take away the data and take away the power.
  • Humanize the opposing view points and the people who make them. Realize they too have a valid point and that they believe it enough to defend it with all their heart.
  • Seek out alternate view points, it’s kind of a fun exercise. When you start everything looks stupid and dumb, persist and after a while you will feel a switch inside your brain, when you realize they also have a valid point.
  • Take some time off and think deeply about everything and put together a version of the reality and form your own opinions based on them.
  • Refine those opinions as you learn more about reality.

OR

  • Logout of all your Social Media, it’s not that useful anyway
  • Get a Flip Phone, looks cooler than a dumb phone
  • Life life as nature intended it to be

The saddest thing about all this is reality outside Social Media is getting polarized at an even faster pace. People are so accustomed to such polarized content that News Channels and News Papers have no other choice but to polarize their content. In the golden days, TV channels used to broadcast neutral content in the hopes of getting the most eyeballs. Now those same neutral content is boring, we have grown so accustomed to being shocked so much so that we crave it. It’s an addiction sweeping through the masses. So television turns up the heat even more, positioning and presenting otherwise neutral stuff in the most provocative way. It’s all an eyeballs game, they don’t care even if you agree with them or not, they just want your attention. That’s why there is an epidemic of fake news on the planet, nothing gets attention like a beefed up fake news piece. All this turned the once fun filled family TV time into a mess of stressors and blatant fake news.

The world is a fun place. It’ designed to be fun to live in and to have fun with your friends. Don’t spoil it in endless debates and unnecessary brawl fights with the people whom you care about because some bits on a server decided to make you an obsessed fanatic.

Stop being so polarized all the time. Don’t believe everything you read on the internet. Every argument has a counter argument, that’s why it’s called as an argument and not the truth. Use your own brain to think for yourself, and to form your own opinions. Be free.