After I graduated from college, my first job was as a behavioral therapist for children with autism. I was trained as an applied behavioral analysis therapist (ABA). When we would start a home program, usually the child had enjoyed the run of the house for a while. There would be very little structure in order. The TV was always on, every toy was lined up in a row. There was paper where they could trace the same numbers over and over; they would sometimes start to rearrange furniture to make it into the shapes of the numbers that they wanted to see.
We started off with behavior tallies, watching for the number of times they performed behaviors like sticking their hand into their face or biting their finger. Then we would do a reinforcer assessment. We would observe the highest priority treats and toys for the child. We would then bring new versions of these toys or new candies, so that we could become a “giver of good.” If the boy never got skittles or lemonade, we’d bring that. If he’d been banned from watching Barney, we’d bring a video. We gave the kids what no one else could.
We taught via repetitive trials. I would say “OK, here’s three fruits, choose apple.” I would have an apple and banana and a pear on the table. The child would choose the banana. I would say “no, try again, choose apple,” and then I would point to the apple. Then I’d shuffle the fruits on the table, and say, “OK, choose apple!” If he chose the apple then I’d say “hooray, good job big guy! I knew you could do it!” Then they’d get the candy.
Using these repetitive trials with high-level reinforcers brought about great behavior compliance. If we didn’t want the child to do something, we would try and teach them an incompatible behavior. If we didn’t want them to bite their finger we would say, “oh, Brandon, hands in pockets” or “shake my hand” when we saw him going to do it. This allowed us to redirect him from the self injurious behavior.
Here was how we made those behaviors stick. We would generalize the skill in “random rotation,” in any sequence. Then we would generalize them to different prompts in different situations. We’d fade the reinforcers. If they got five skittles for picking the apple, then they got one, and then only every third time they did.
The variable reinforcement schedule is the most resistant to extinction. If you only deliver rewards on a random unpredictable schedule of reinforcement, you will lead to highest levels of performance of that behavior. So, if I pick the apple, and I do it all day, and you give me 10 skittles after I do it once and then you give me five skittles after I do it 100 times, and then you give me 10 skittles after I do it 200 times, I will choose that apple all day every day.
Now, let’s say you were some kind of . . . mega-powerful corporate entity that has so much influence and employs so many people and also is involved with so many government projects that you were essentially a hybrid between corporate power and the power of the state.
What would you want to do? You would want to create a technology that would allow you to get whatever you want it from your people.
You would do like we did as therapists. We would watch what the kids did with their toys. You would look at 4Chan, an unmoderated wild adventure through the collective unconscious. This is like when the kid is running the house and does whatever he wants.
Then, you look at what are the most preferred items. And then you give them a better version of that. So, if you’ve been scrolling through Reddit for hours a week, and then you get Twitter, and the posts that are there are much more tailored to your interests and you can have a longer conversations with people who aren’t incredibly antagonistic, you’re gonna say, “yeah, I want more of that.”
Your every keystroke is collected. Every photo that you send. Every word that you type. The number of seconds that you read a tweet. They have the data on how their intervention changes your behavior.
So they’re collecting high-level information on you. And they use that to deliver content that will get you to spend more time with the tech. And so, you give them more information, you give them more time. You buy the products. You share their information. You advertise their products to other people.
I tend to follow people who like to tell jokes; they may reference politics, but not usually in the heavy-handed or overly negative way. These are people who write, who read, and who are interested in art and music and esoteric philosophy. They make wordy references. And so I spend more time there, because they have more in common with me than even my family and friends.
And, what’s the reward, the reinforcer? It’s the little numbers and the little blue notifications. It’s a little envelope and it’s a little bell that says that people have responded to me. How many people are following me? Am I an influencer?
And then, people aren’t sending me messages. People are not liking my posts. I am not getting re-tweeted. So, I look at what’s trending. I think to myself, I should make content, or write a story, or blog post that’s related to what people care about. How can I keep focused on something that is going to get peoples attention? Now I’m trained to work for their treats. Not only do I read everything that’s suggested, but I also tailor my content to fit it.
And then you need to have me generalize my behavior to different settings. So I want to talk to other people about Twitter. I want to bring up the topics of conversation that I have seen on my newsfeed. I think about them. And I have read about them, and I have a lot to say about them, I’m emotionally invested in talking about them. So now you’ve taken your agenda and taken over my mind. I do what you want me to do and I say what you want me to say.
Always remember: if a technology is free, you are the product.
If you’d like to watch a clip of a very gentle mass hypnosis demonstrated in a shopping mall, this YouTube video from Derren Brown is worth the watch.