“Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” is a sci-fi novel by Philip K. Dick from 1968 and the source for the Bladerunner movie. It is eerily relevant in this age of algorithms and generative AI.
The setting in the novel is a post-nuclear war world, covered in radioactive dust. Anyone who can, has left for the space colonies. People living on Earth are struggling to survive. Beyond the drudgery of work, there aren’t many amenities left:
- The Mercer empathy device is used feel connected to other people and share emotions.
- Caring for a live animal is another way to exercise empathy. It’s also very expensive, since most animals are extinct.
- There’s TV, with Buster Friendly being the 24h comedy chat show that everyone tunes to.
- And there’s the Penfield Mood Organ that people use to routinely change their emotional state.
With the Mood device, one just types in the mood they want to have, and zapp!, that’s how they are feeling. It’s a relatively dystopian idea at first, to use a brain-altering device to artificially change one’s mood. But on second thought, aren’t all life events, media, and food also affecting our moods, often intentionally chosen by us? Playing a game or watching a movie provides emotional stimuli. What’s wrong with the “fast food” version of just dialing and getting the mood you need?
The novel does not provide the full list of emotions available on the device, but here are the ones it mentions:
- 481: Awareness of the manifold possibilities open to me in the future.
- 594: Pleased acknowledgment of husband’s superior wisdom in all matters.
- 888: The desire to watch TV, no matter what’s on it.
- 003: (Urge to make a selection on the Mood Organ)
- 104: (Something positive, mentioned in chapter 1)
- 382: (Emotional numbness)
- (unknown). (Professional conduct.)
- (unknown). (Despair, feeling hopeless about everything. Hidden setting.)
Thoughts on social media
Continuing on the idea of a “fast food emotional stimulus”, let’s consider social media: the platforms that connect us to other people, allow us to chat, share emojis and images and stories, and be influenced by others.
Except there’s no way to change the setting on social media, as there is in the fictional Penfield Mood Organ.
Social media platforms use their internal, secret algorithms to learn from user behaviour, build a detailed profile, and then use that information to affect the users’ behaviour. Mostly social media platforms just want you to stay on the platform for as long as possible, to show you promoted content and advertising. Setting: 888.
Of course, other users have their own agendas, and they are gaming the algorithms to spread their messages. More nefarious consequences of the 888 setting are eg. opinion polarisation, hate speech, election rigging, propaganda, false news, destabilisation of societies, plain old scams, and so on. One just needs to package one’s message in a way that keeps people engaged, and the platform’s 888 will boost your message even further.
To feel or not to feel
After reading Philip K. Dick’s novel, I started thinking that having emotional settings on social media would actually be quite useful.
If I feel a bit stressed after work, I could choose to have content to help me wind down. If I’m feeling sad, something cheerful. Or I could wallow in grief for, say, 30 minutes, and then follow it with another mood setting. On my way to work or an event, perhaps I’d like to get suitably attuned to what the day is bringing – whether it’s calmness or excitement.
On social media platforms, we have just one profile. Once the system has learned how you tick, it’s quite hard to reprogram it. Searching for certain content will have the algorithm provide more similar content for a short while, but usually the stream of content veers off on a tangent and back to 888, trying to keep me on the platform based on my basic profile.
Settings are coming
European Digital Services Act will be in force from February 17 2024 onwards. It requires that online platforms, if they have alternative settings on their recommendation algorithms, must make those settings visible and usable for the user.
Also, very large platforms (such as Meta, YouTube, X, TikTok) must provide an option to turn off the recommendation algorithm altogether! I imagine people would spend a lot less time on a platform if they only saw their contacts’ updates in chronological order, and not the usual addictive cocktail of content.
In which situations would you turn off the recommended feed? Or suggest it to someone in your family?