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Josh Hawley (R-MO) and How the Social Media Economy Addicts Users

Summary:
By Lambert Strether of Corrente. “What’s that?” Laney asked, indicating the man on stilts. “A sect,” Arleigh McCrae said. “‘New Logic.’ They say the world will end when the combined weight of all the human nervous tissue on the planet reaches a specific figure. … [As a musician,] Rez was interested in them, apparently. He tried to arrange an audience with the founder.” “And?” “The founder declined. He said that Rez made his living through the manipulation of human nervous tissue, and that that made him untouchable.” — William Gibson, Idoru I’ve been looking for a way to write about gaming — I’m so old I associate “gaming” with a family-friendly Vegas rebranding of “gambling” — and just the other day I finally found an opening. Oddly, a Republican Senator, Josh Hawley, provided it in the

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By Lambert Strether of Corrente.

“What’s that?” Laney asked, indicating the man on stilts.

“A sect,” Arleigh McCrae said. “‘New Logic.’ They say the world will end when the combined weight of all the human nervous tissue on the planet reaches a specific figure. … [As a musician,] Rez was interested in them, apparently. He tried to arrange an audience with the founder.”

“And?”

“The founder declined. He said that Rez made his living through the manipulation of human nervous tissue, and that that made him untouchable.” — William Gibson, Idoru

I’ve been looking for a way to write about gaming — I’m so old I associate “gaming” with a family-friendly Vegas rebranding of “gambling” — and just the other day I finally found an opening. Oddly, a Republican Senator, Josh Hawley, provided it in the form of the following YouTube video (recommended by Stoller). It’s only about fifteen minutes long, and its worth a listen:

This article in First Things (“The Big Tech Threat“) is not a transcript, but does seem to be the original from which Hawley delivered his speech. In relevant part:

It is heresy to say that here, with Stanford University over my shoulder, but is Silicon Valley—the platforms, the products, the business models it has been giving us of late—really the best that our best minds have to offer?

My thesis is that the evidence strongly suggests there is something deeply troubling, maybe even deeply wrong, with the entire social media economy. My thesis is that it does not represent a source of strength for America’s tomorrow, but is rather a source of peril. Consider for a moment the basic business model of the dominant social media platforms. You are familiar with them. You might think of it as akin to financial arbitrage. Maybe we’ll call it attention arbitrage. Users’ attention is bought by tech giants and then immediately sold to advertisers for the highest price.

Now arbitrage opportunities, as those of you familiar with markets know, are supposed to close. The market eventually determines that something is off. So how is it that this attention arbitrage in the social media market is preserved and renewed over and over again? That’s where things get really scary, because it’s preserved by hijacking users’ neural circuitry to prevent rational decision-making about what to click and how to spend time. Or, to simplify that a little bit, it’s preserved through addiction.

Social media only works as a business model if it consumes users’ time and attention day after day after day. It needs to replace the various activities we did perfectly well without social media, for the entire known history of the human race, with itself. It needs to replace those activities with time spent on social media. Addiction is actually the point. That’s what social media shareholders are investing in: the addiction of users.

Now, I should caveat that since I came up as a Democrat, I know only a little more about Republicans than I know about gaming; I don’t know their factions, I don’t know their districts, I don’t know their rising stars or old bovines, I don’t know how they fit into Ferguson, Jorgensen, and Chen’s industrial structure, or much else. (Yes, ME-02 is Republican, but not my town, and in any case ME-02 is cranky.) Obviously, I’m going to have to write at a high level, as they say, because on this topic there’s no other level I can wiite at! That said, I think Hawley has the right of it here, and his concision is admirable. It also took some courage for him to come into the Hoover Institute, an outpost of Stanford, where so many Silicon Valley founders were spawned incubated, and tell them their business models are morally wrong. Certainly, I would disagree with him on much else, but not on this. Oddly, or not, I don’t recall any West Coast Democrats doing what Hawley did here (see Ferguson et al., supra).

So in this brief post I’ll look first at Hawley’s solution to the social media problem he names, then at two UI/UX practices that monetize addition (loot boxes and pay-to-win), and finally at the larger social issues to which Hawley points (or does not point). I’ll throw together some random comments about Hawley qua Republican Senator from Missouri in an Appendix.

“The Protecting Children from Abusive Games Act”

Hawley’s bill is named “The Protecting Children from Abusive Games Act” (PCAGA), but as of this writing it has not yet been introduced, so I can’t tell you who the co-sponsors, if any, are. Hawley has, however, provided a one-pager:

Senator Hawley’s legislation would apply new consumer protections to games played by minors including:

• Games targeted at those under the age of 18.

• This would be determined by subject matter, visual content, and other indicators similar to those used to determine applicability of the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA)

• Games with wider audiences whose developers knowingly allow minor players to engage in microtransactions

And from McClatchy, Hawley:

“When a game is designed for kids, game developers shouldn’t be allowed to monetize addiction,” Hawley said in a statement announcing the bill. “And when kids play games designed for adults, they should be walled off from compulsive microtransactions. Game developers who knowingly exploit children should face legal consequences.”

My concern here is that the problem and the solution are disproportionate; the addiction (“attention arbitrage”) problem encompasses an entire industry and affects the whole of society; and yet the PCAGA solution protects only children. (I have the same problem with some of Elizabeth Warren’s proposals.) Do adults not have the same moral claims? Particularly since many adults are caregivers to children? The parallel to the opioid epidemic is exact, with the Sacklers in the role of Silicon Valley. Or cigarettes. Now it is true, as Hawley says of a parallel bill during the Q&A period in the video, that this is “a place we can begin immediately,” but I have the sense that the mountain has brought forth a mouse without even laboring. So, more like this, please.

Loot Boxes and Pay-to-Win

Still from the one-pager, the PCAGA would prohibit two forms of “manipulative design”[1]:

Loot Boxes

• Microtransactions offering randomized or partially randomized rewards to players Pay-to-Win

Pay-to-win

• Manipulation of a game’s progression system – typically by building artificial difficulty or other barriers into game progression – to induce players to spend money on microtransactions to advance through content supposedly available to them at no additional cost

• Pay-to-win – Manipulation of the competitive balance between players of multiplayer games by allowing players who purchase microtransactions competitive advantages over other players

Here is an example of a “loot box” From ParentZone:

The game Overwatch offers players the chance to buy loot boxes in randomised bundles with prices starting at £1.50 for two loot boxes going up to £30 for 50 boxes. But when a player purchases each bundle they’re not paying for the items within the loot box, but rather the chance of getting something worth using in the game. The probability of a player’s loot box containing anything of actual value is not shown and so there is no idea of knowing the odds of winning

(So loot boxes, despite industry protestations, are gambing, especially if the game includes money and a secondary market where loot can be resold. And just as in Vegas, it’s the random element that hooks the user:

“We know that when there is randomization people are more enticed to open more boxes and get more things. We’ve been using that idea for decades in things like card packs. What’s a bit different with games is that the dematerialization of money removes a barrier. When you buy a card pack as a kid, you need to ask your parents for physical money and the transaction is very concrete. When money is not physical anymore, it’s way easier for people to buy it without the moment where you see the money leaving your pocket. It’s harder to stop yourself,” [Epic Games UX Director Celia Hodent] said.

And likewise of “pay-to-win“:

[P]retty much the entire mobiles games industry is built on the principle of pay-to-win in a much more blatant way. Pretty much all the most popular mobile titles in the world have some way to pay to “advance,” whether that’s buying lives in Candy Crush, buying chests in Clash Royale, buying raid passes in Pokémon GO, paying to skip wait timers in…literally everything.

It will not have escaped the reader that these dark patterns in games are very much like, well, the dark patterns in Our Neoliberal Democracy. For example, a college degree is a loot box. You pay a lot for it, but you don’t really know what’s in it, and there’s a strong random element to what you get. And speaking of college, “pay-to-win” is what happened in the Varsity Blue admissions corruption case, isn’t it?

Beyond Neoliberal Gaming

Hawley concludes his speech this way, again from First Things:

An economy that does not value the things that matter produces a society shaped in its own image. That, I want to suggest to you, is something that we cannot afford. It is something that we cannot allow, and it is within our power to change it. And that is the great challenge and task of our time. I think it is incumbent upon all of us, as we consider the place that we’re in now, as we consider the new era that we’re living in—particularly those of us who believe in free markets, in the free and open economy—to be asking ourselves: What kind of economy are we encouraging? What kind of a society is that producing? And what is our responsibility, as members of that society, to shape it in the best way for the future?

What is clear is that Hawley believes that the economy of attention arbitrage produced by the social media “platforms” is a form of social engineering somehow inimical to free markets. Some would disagree; above I broached the idea that loot boxes and pay-to-win mirror the “free market” society that already surrounds us — and which hatched and grew decades before personal computers, let alone gaming platforms, developed. What I would like to suggest is that other forms of gaming are possible. I’ve been slowly and intermittently reading Jared Diamond’s The World Until Yesterday Here (page 91) is a game:

The anthropologist Jane Goodale watched a group of children (the Kaulong people of New Britain) who hd been given a bunch of bananas suffcieint to provide one banana for each child. The children proceeded to play a game. Instead of a contest in which each child soich ti win the biggest banana, each child cut his/her banana into two equal halves, ate one half, offered the other half to another child, and in turn recieved half that child’s banana. Then each child proceeded to cut that uneaten half of the banana into two equal quarters, ate one of the quarters, offered the other quarter to another child, and recieved another child’s uneaten banana in return. The game went on for five cycles, as the residual piece of banana was broken into equal eighths, then equal sixteenths, until finally each child ate the stub representing the one-thirty-second of the of the original banana, gave the other thirty-second to another child to eat, and received and ate the last thirty-second of another banana from still another child. That whole play ritual was part of the practicing by which New Guinea children learn to shar, and not to seek an advantage for themselves.

No loot boxes or pay-to-win at all.[2] Can’t we have games like that?[3] And if the platforms are doing to do social engineering, regardless, could we perhaps nudge them a more co-operative, and less vicious and greedy direction?

NOTES

[1] A.k.a. dark patterns. “Dark Patterns are tricks used in websites and apps that make you do things that you didn’t mean to, like buying or signing up for something. The purpose of this site is to spread awareness and to shame companies that use them.” Leaving open the question of whether the addict means to satisfy their addition.

[2] Not to idealize New Guinea. Diamond makes clear they could play First Person Shooter games all day long.

[3] I’m trying to work through how to introduce a dark pattern into the banana game. I’m not sure it’s possible with the rules as they are. Readers?

Appendix: Random Notes on Josh Hawley

(1) The right people dislike Hawley. Like Obama’s speechwriter:

Claire McCaskill? Really?

(2) Hawley is also after Google. Ars Technica:

“There is strong reason to believe that Google has not been acting with the best interest of Missourians in mind,” Hawley said in a November 2017 statement. “When a company has access to as much consumer information as Google does, it’s my duty to ensure they are using it appropriately. I will not let Missouri consumers and businesses be exploited by industry giants.”

In addition to exploring privacy concerns, Hawley also vowed to dig into potentially anti-competitive behavior—including “Google’s alleged manipulation of search results to preference websites owned by Google and to demote websites that compete with Google.”

Hawley’s stance has been particularly surprising—and ominous for Google—because Hawley is a Republican. Republicans have traditionally been more friendly to big business and skeptical of privacy and antitrust regulation. But Hawley’s success is just the latest sign that attitudes on the right may be shifting.

(Note that Hawley is willing to name names, very much unlike Cory Booker and Kamala Harris.

(3) Hawley is Peter Thiel-adjacent:

Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley’s office would not directly answer Wednesday when asked whether his investigation into Google had any connection to campaign donations from billionaire Peter Thiel, a high-profile critic of the company.

Thiel, a co-founder of PayPal and early Facebook investor, donated $300,000 to Hawley’s campaign for attorney general in 2015 and 2016, a fact first noted by Bloomberg.

Thiel previously donated to Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, who brought an anti-trust action against Google as Texas attorney general in 2010.

(4) Here’s the About page on Hawley’s Senate campaign site. Much to ponder.

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