Like the sparrows of the Galapagos, we are inadvertently evolving away from our neighbors on our own secluded thinking islands.
In the past, we have differed over who to elect the president. These days, we can’t even agree on who we chose. A year ago, a third of Americans believed the real winner of the 2020 presidential election was the incumbent, and a few stormed the Capitol to protest widespread fraud.
Although the majority of Americans on both the left and the right believe that our democracy is “in crisis and in danger of failing,” we can’t agree on why.
But there is a logical, non-political explanation for the current discord in our society: Personal machine learning algorithms push us into our digital ecosystems so isolated that our view of the world has become fundamentally incompatible, and so are we. See: Darwin.
When Charles Darwin visited the Galapagos in 1835, he encountered small brown sparrows with exquisite dodgers that varied from island to island. Some had long, pointed beaks for eating the seeds; others have short strong beaks for snacking on insects; Others still have beaks that can produce certain sounds. Sparrows, according to Darwin’s theory, evolved into separate species from a common ancestor in response to their unique island environments.
In a sense, diversity also happens on social media, but it’s a kind of thinking. Whether it’s on Facebook, Twitter, TikTok, YouTube, or any other major platform, our personal feeds separate us on our individual islands of thoughts, dividing us and jeopardizing our democracy.
Speciation occurs in three basic stages: separation, adaptation, and mitosis.
First, the barrier separates groups of organisms—such as the Pacific Ocean for some finches, the Grand Canyon for some squirrels, or the land bridge between North and South America for shrimp species. Likewise, social media and highly personal search algorithms isolate our opinions from the world by monitoring our every online movement and presenting us with content that is completely unique and they predict will keep us browsing. This tends to be something that elicits fear, anger, and loyalty to your own group. These algorithms surround us all – all countries, parties, classes, identities – all the time, separating what we ultimately see and believe.
Second, separate groups adapt to their distinct environments. Darwin’s finches developed unique traits that allowed them to thrive on their own islands. In the case of social media, algorithms adapt to us first, learning what we like and what works to keep us engaged. This is how machine learning works: With every post, emoji, and moment you stare at a certain piece of content, the algorithm learns more about us and then refines its recommendations to ensure greater engagement. Our thoughts, in turn, adapt to the increasingly individual and extreme landscape of information, and move in the direction we push them. As Kathy O’Neill, author of Weapons of Mathematical Destruction says, “Algorithms don’t predict the future, they cause the future.”
Finally, groups stop breeding together, rather than interbreeding. Darwin’s finches reinforced their differences by sexual selection. Likewise, people who are radicalized through personal algorithms become less interested in, tolerant of, or even aware of other people’s opinions. As we delve deeper into our islands of information, alternative perspectives become unrealistic and uncomfortable for us. A recent Pew Research Center survey found that six out of ten Americans find it difficult to talk about politics with people they disagree with. Our reluctance to engage in talks that could bridge and perpetuate our divisions. Thus our views of the world are incompatible with incompatibility.
Through this process, Galapagos finches have evolved into multiple species uniquely suited to their environments and can live peacefully apart. However, on social media humans are turning into infinite “species” that are cut off from other people’s opinions and unable to coexist in the society we must all share. Because we only see the narrow perspective that our algorithms show us, we often don’t realize how far away we are from our neighbours.
January 6, 2021 was the inevitable result of our divergent views of the world. That week, Trump and Biden voters saw only 5 percent of the same information on their Facebook feeds. Not surprisingly, 60 percent of Americans feel pessimistic about whether America can overcome its divisions to solve its biggest problems. Our personal conclusions have separated and developed us to the point that we can’t even agree on what those problems are: Was January 6th an illegal and reckless attack on democracy, or was it the last stand of our proudest patriots protesting stolen elections? Is climate change the most serious threat facing humanity – a culprit rushing toward mass destruction – or a relatively minor concern that can be dismissed from the priority? Are the mask and vaccine imposing basic public health measures, or a paranoid and tyrannical violation of our personal liberties? We are divided on our cores.
We are only a decade into this technological experience. What will our world look like in another 10 years? If these forms of personal algorithms persist, the emergence of ideas will only get worse. Machine learning algorithms are getting better and better every day, and islands of online information will continue to drift more and more. This technology is accelerating our differences, fundamentally at odds with a healthy or sustainable democracy, and undermining our ability to come together to understand and solve our world’s other great problems.
Darwin would never have defined his theory of evolution without careful research and the ability to observe conditions affecting these species in the wild. But when it comes to the mysterious technologies that govern our thoughts, behaviors, and speech, we are still in the dark. If social media platforms believe in their mission to connect the world, it’s time to open up these black box algorithms so that our lawmakers and researchers can hold them accountable. Just as we protect our ecosystems through measures that enhance biodiversity and reduce pollution, we need to regulate our ecosystem before it tears us apart from reform.
Jeff Orlovsky is director of The Social Dilemma and founder of Exposure Labs, a film and effects production studio. Newsweek and The Social Dilemma have partnered to create The Social Dilemma Debate Project, an initiative that works to combat the polarization, hate, and inertia that defines today’s culture and politics with a new generation of powerful debaters. Join us.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.