Culture Pollution is a serious issue. … the modern world is composed of an entirely different set of challenges, perhaps the most signficant of which are called supernormal stimuli.” - Jordan Hall
“Markets only work if people are thoughtfully investing values where they put their money.”
I perceive that the core message Jordan is getting across in Advertising is Culture Pollution is that the modern economic landscape is entirely optimizing for the wrong things and as a result loses all of its perceived value. In optimizing for money we also say that if you can build a successful business at the expense of collective quality of life then that’s still a win.
This is similar to the take that Daniel Schmactenberger proposed on a recent podcast with ZDoggMD. He talks about how we can never label/name what we optimize for. As soon as we label the thing, the essence of what we’re optimizing for is lost.
He used the example of cognitive complexity. Yes, sure, it makes a lot of sense that if we optimized for the complexity of thought and nuanced multi-perspectival thinking on social media platforms that this would probably increase the average complexity of thought that someone is consuming on social media from limbic junk food to nuance. But in that ecosystem, we would also have bad actors because the most intelligent and rational actors would succeed, whether or not they have any ethics and morality. They could be the smartest person in the room, yet still, cause so much destruction because the basis of their thought isn’t oriented by any moral concerns for life and the planet writ large.
The most generative variable to optimize for with new technology is well-being/flourishing, and the nature of that well-being can never be reduced to a mathematical variable.
“Carefully designed to get behind the habits and senses that tell us what we need and what is good for us and, rather than actually give us what we need, give us some “empty calories.” Duping our senses so thoroughly that we lose track of the possibility of authenticity and quality. Leaving us full, but not fulfilled.” - Jordan Hall
The article that Hall links titled Supernormal Stimuli puts forth the research showing that animals will choose fake alternatives of what their biology optimizes for instead of the real thing. (see image)
In this comic, the author argues that this is what humans have done on themselves as well. A second-order effect of our current economic systems (capitalism/free-market) is that the businesses that succeed are the ones that most effectively hijack our evolutionary impulses.
Think Tik Tok, junk food, time square, porn, Twitter, red notification buttons on our phones, and video games.
“Instinct took over, and now the animals’ behaviors were a detriment to their livelihood because they simply couldn’t say no to the fake stimulus.” — Author of article on Supernormal Stimulus
And the author continues on to state that awareness is the key.
I have not removed supernormal stimuli from my life, nor do I intend to do so fully. The key is spotting the stimuli as they appear, and engaging the mind to regulate or override temptation.
I echo Deirdre Barrett’s conclusion that sometimes it can feel more rewarding to say no to the supernormal, than to cave into impulse. Only awareness will help stop the supernormal from becoming what is ‘normal’ in our lives.
But I don’t think the problem is that simple. If more willpower awareness were the key to this problem then so many more people wouldn’t be captured by modern tech.
“supernormal stimuli in social media directly undermine our capacity for individual and collective intelligence”
“hijacking of our evolved functions presents the potential of disrupting our social capacity to respond to the problem itself.”
“We must alter the design and structure of online spaces so that citizens, businesses, and political actors have better incentives, more choices, and more rights.” - Anne Applebaum & Peter Pomerantsev
The problem isn’t just that our attention has been captured, it’s the second-order implications of that fact. It’s the fact that because our attention has been captured our capacity for responding to the social crises has atrophied.
We must start by creating better incentive structures that foster constructive communication, empathy, complexity, and as many positive traits as we can fathom. Sure, mirroring Daniel Schmactenberger’s insight above, this will never be enough and we’ll need to consistently upgrade the complexity of these incentive structures, but we need to start somewhere. Starting with incentive structures that get as close as possible to the true, the good, and the beautiful as we can is the best place to start.
“aimed at creating technology that fosters “constructive communication”—such as algorithms designed to overcome divides.” - Anne Applebaum and Peter Pomerantsev
And this mentality is mirrored by Anne Applebaum and Peter Pomerantsev in their article in The Atlantic going into the negative implications of Hall’s idea of ‘Culture Pollution’ on the very structure of Democracy itself.
Parasitic Processing and Breaking the Cycles of Culture Pollution
John Vervaeke gives us, what I believe, is an invaluable frame for how to approach this problem of culture pollution in his series Awakening from the Meaning Crisis, specifically the episode on Parasitic Processing.
In episode 14 (Buddhism and Parasitic Processing), Vervaeke reframes the first pillar of Buddhism, Life is Suffering, to realize that all of your life is (existentially) threatened with a loss of freedom/agency (self-deceptive, self-destructive behavior). This point is a natural extension of what Hall posits in that they’re both stating that supernormal stimuli cause us suffering because they threaten loss of agency which generates suffering.
Social media is the driver that causes us to fall into negative feedback loops, or as Vervaeke puts it, parasitic processing (complex, adaptive, self-organizing negative feedback machinery) aka downward spirals.
Social media platforms are so harmful because they threaten to hurl us into a downward spiral of suffering and loss of agency in every moment. And then when they inevitably decrease our agency we feel the pain and the suffering that comes along with that.
And then he goes on to say that the eightfold path in Buddhism is just a counteractive complex, adaptive machinery working against the threat of loss of agency / parasitic processing.
Hanzi Freinacht and Political Orientations Towards Counteracting Culture Pollution
I had to include some Hanzi in here because his perspectives help us begin to find solutions to the cultural/collective problems that are limbic hijacking and advertising culture pollution.
“Life is just much too full of suffering and lost potential, and this is keeping our populations from developing psychologically and becoming mature, genuine world citizens. People are hurt and afraid at a subtle psychological level—and are therefore self-absorbed, incapable of taking on larger perspectives and incapable of acting upon the very real long-term risks that are threatening our global civilization.” — Hanzi Freinacht
The reason that we have an economic system that rewards the exploitation of attention and psychological capital is because our society is composed of a lot of hurt, suffering, and fear, and en masse which leads to people taking actions and creating companies in an attempt to solve this fear exploiting other’s fears.
When looking through Hanzi’s frame, the only way to solve the problem of companies hijacking our reptilian brains for profit is for nations to develop to a level of maturity that supports the psychological health of all its citizens such that one isn’t living in a state of fear and getting reward by exploiting others.
“The stunted development caused by emotional suffering affects the individual’s quality of life as well as basic societal concerns such as security, public health and the stability of our institutions.”
“Our ability as a society to support the growth into higher stages is not only an ethical imperative—as our current societies are full of inexcusable suffering—but a requirement for our emerging global society to thrive and survive. The main idea of metamodern politics is to create a listening society that mitigates the suffering of “normal” life and uses a wide range of social technologies and political strategies to support the psychological growth of all citizens.”
This is the essence of shifting the culture towards an operating system that truly supports the sensemaking, ethics-feeling, and flourishing of each individual. We need to support the psychological development of each individual rather than the mere acquisition of profit and material wealth. We can’t continue to push the idea en masse that the way to achieve security and safety is to acquire material wealth. In other words, we need to shift from the glorification of money and wealth to the glorification of connection, good relationships, and psychological health.
“It is based explicitly upon the idea of harnessing the collective intelligence of citizens and using their inspiration and creative ideas to achieve a transition to a sustainable society—ecologically, socially and economically.”
“the collective structures are largely defined and determined by such deep, psychological processes within each one of us.”
“The inner life of the singular citizen is married to the collective structures of society, and vice versa.”
Hanzi adds such an essential insight to Hall’s position. That the systems and collective structures that are creating this harmful tech are a result of deep, psychological processes at the heart of every one of us. To shift culture, we need to shift our internal lives. If that’s isn’t an empowering approach I don’t know what is.
Cultural shifts require that we begin engaging in higher degrees of collective intelligence and not investing our attention into the systems that are perpetuating culture pollution, polarization, and all the other dark triad traits that run rampant in culture.
Another form of passivity training (if you click, you will see, for a few seconds, an animated icon, before you see the page I'm directing you to.
BTW Ethan, Congrats on the new job
Love the ideas here—this adds much-needed nuance to the traditional libertarian position. It’s giving me great food for thought, thanks for sharing!