It’s been almost a year since we started writing this three-part essay. It started last August (2018 for the record), right after David went away for two weeks to Vermont and stumbled on the small news item in Vermont Life announcing impending billboard legislation.
Meanwhile, of course, things have changed. For one, Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes published an op-ed in the New York Times calling for the break up of the company he co-founded with his roommate Mark Zuckerberg in their Harvard dorm room 12 years before. With over 2.5 billion active monthly users, Facebook is now larger than most countries. (That number is courtesy Facebook and reported by Google, so it’s worth maintaining a healthy skepticism.) It was nothing less than remarkable to read Hughes’ plea to break up Facebook given everything he has personally and professionally invested in the company. It seems that Hughes had second thoughts about the net social effect of so much social media.
After he left Silicon Valley in 2007, Hughes bought a magazine — east coast stalwart The New Republic — in 2012 and completely overhauled its editorial and design approach. Following an internal revolt to so many immediate changes, he quickly sold the magazine and moved on to advocating for a universal basic income. The policy proposal would provide a base-level government subsidy to all citizens, and it’s largely viewed as a buffer against the increasing presence of artificial intelligence and machine learning in the labor market. Most recently he’s been fully occupied with the public call to dismantle Facebook.
And he’s not the only one. In the run-up to the United States presidential race in November 2020, Democratic candidates seem to be stumbling over each other to advocate for and articulate a plan that would regulate large American tech companies on the grounds of monopoly and Federal Trade Commission laws. Most directly, Elizabeth Warren has a plan. She has proposed federal regulations that would break up many of the largest tech companies, including Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google, into several smaller companies focused on discrete businesses. It follows in the spirit of the Bell Telephone System breakup in into so many “Baby Bells” as of January 1, 1984.
Reporting around Cambridge Analytica and Facebook broke in 2018. In a series of stories in the New York Times and The Observer (London), Facebook was revealed as playing fast and loose with its user data, allowing advertisers to access private information that users had not consented to. These included complete access to a user’s “friend graph,” and therefore all of their “friends’” personal data, through a simple API, perversely named Open Graph. The case was settled out of court and news reports seemed to suggest that Facebook got off easier than expected.
All of this is decidedly distressing. Prevailing software business models rely on large user bases whose personal data, engagement, and performance can be captured and monetized by selling a perfectly segmented audience to advertisers. This is what’s known as the “attention economy,” and within it, we know that if the product is free then you’re not a user, you are the product. And still we use. (Right now I am writing this in Google Docs, which means every word I type is also constructing my future advertising profile — perhaps I will soon see ads for the Federal Trade Commission.)
The problem is structural, foundational even: The biggest technology companies today are fundamentally reliant on profit-making models that need the attention and data of individual users in order to grow and make money. Software makes the aggregation and segmentation of that user data trivial, and it is these processed “consumer insights” that are technology companies’ flagship products. Their customers are other businesses and individuals who use the data metrics to target online advertising with unprecedented precision. Social networks that rely on the network effects of a larger and larger user base only have incentives to grow that user base. As a result, design decisions promote addictive behavior, euphemistically called out as “positive user engagement.”
At this point it’s no surprise that software patterns that are addictive by design have devastating social consequences. These technologies were ostensibly meant to make our lives better, easier, and more connected, but those intentions were usurped by how technology companies make their money. It is not simply the pervasiveness of so many digital billboards that clutter our online environment. Rather, it is the weaponization of user data collection that introduces the wrong incentives. The business model is rotten at its core.
The solution to this is not as simple as Riehle’s billboard law. You can't just pass a law to pull all digital ads—and even if you could, that would be treating the symptom, not the disease. But we could learn something from such a bold and simple measure, which didn't take money-making at the expense of people’s wellbeing as an inevitability. How can we reconsider the design of the software we now live with, in, and through?
One possibility might be software that doesn’t rely on individual performance, harnessing its users’ competitive instincts and exploiting their insecurities so that everyone tries to outperform everyone else. What if software offered an out from this endless feedback loop? What if software wasn’t designed to capture attention, but instead to promote presence? Rather than disappearing into the K-hole of an infinitely-scrolling feed, a user might become more attuned to their environment, more sensitive, more aware, and more in the moment. To reach this elevated state, software might be redesigned to replace *performance* with *ambience.*
Maybe you know the origin story of ambient music as recounted by Brian Eno. He recalls being laid up in bed with a broken leg and receiving a visit from a friend, who arrived with a new record of harp music. After the visit, Eno’s friend left the record playing on the stereo. The volume was very low, so low that he could barely hear it, and he also couldn’t get up to change it. Outside, it was raining, and the sounds of the raindrops mixed with the plucks of the harp strings. The music was indistinguishable from its environment. For Eno, this sprouted a new thought: music could be intentionally designed for the background. It would still be serious, as carefully constructed as a symphony and as cleverly crafted as a good pop song, but it would also be designed to be ignored. This was a radical idea, if not entirely original, and Eno called it Ambient Music. His initial experiments used studio outtakes from David Bowie’s Low, which Eno produced in 1977, to create tape loops that he sequenced and collaged in overlapping and repeating configurations. His first proper ambient record, Music for Airports, was released in 1978.
In the liner notes, Eno makes his intention explicit:
The concept of music designed specifically as a background feature in the environment was pioneered by Muzak Inc. in the fifties, and has since come to be known generically by the term Muzak. The connotations that this term carries are those particularly associated with the kind of material that Muzak Inc. produces - familiar tunes arranged and orchestrated in a lightweight and derivative manner. Understandably, this has led most discerning listeners (and most composers) to dismiss entirely the concept of environmental music as an idea worthy of attention.
Over the past three years, I have become interested in the use of music as ambience, and have come to believe that it is possible to produce material that can be used thus without being in any way compromised. To create a distinction between my own experiments in this area and the products of the various purveyors of canned music, I have begun using the term Ambient Music.
An ambience is defined as an atmosphere, or a surrounding influence: a tint. My intention is to produce original pieces ostensibly (but not exclusively) for particular times and situations with a view to building up a small but versatile catalogue of environmental music suited to a wide variety of moods and atmospheres.
Whereas the extant canned music companies proceed from the basis of regularizing environments by blanketing their acoustic and atmospheric idiosyncracies, Ambient Music is intended to enhance these. Whereas conventional background music is produced by stripping away all sense of doubt and uncertainty (and thus all genuine interest) from the music, Ambient Music retains these qualities. And whereas their intention is to `brighten' the environment by adding stimulus to it (thus supposedly alleviating the tedium of routine tasks and levelling out the natural ups and downs of the body rhythms) Ambient Music is intended to induce calm and a space to think.
Ambient Music must be able to accommodate many levels of listening attention without enforcing one in particular; it must be as ignorable as it is interesting.
What if you took these ideas and applied them to software? Software might create a social network that exists quietly in the background, rather than commanding your attention via shrill notifications or gamifying the experience with rewards such as likes. This software might not ask you to perform as much as it would facilitate awareness. It might reveal affinities and foster concentration. (After all, it’s easier to concentrate in a library than in a shopping mall.) This might be a place for collective research, a place to think in public.
In fact, ambient software like this already exists to some extent: Consider the screensaver, a useless software that Apple will surely render redundant in some future software upgrade. The first screensaver, SCRNSAVE published in Apple enthusiast Softtalk magazine in 1983, was rendered obsolete quickly after it appeared: Technological advances soon solved the screen burn-in that SCRNSAVE was created to prevent. Nevertheless, screensavers are still around decades later, and have filled countless screens with ambient graphics that come to life only when the computer is doing nothing. Screensavers exemplify a pretty pure, if limited, example of ambient software. They exist as background to everything else that is happening, and much like quiet sentinels, mark continuous change.
This series began on an optimistic note: one simple piece of legislation can massively change social behavior. In Vermont of 2019, billboards remain legislated out of existence. Something similar could yet happen online — legislation and regulation might save ourselves from ourselves. It could reclaim the Internet for the people who use it, rather than for the people who profit off the people use it. It’s possible. Maybe I can even see a glimmer of light. This could be the moment when it changed.