The ultimate weapon of mass distraction
I taught guitar lessons 10-15 years ago. It was during the apex of the guitar hero video game craze for those of you who remember. Students were signing up like crazy for lessons, often egged on by parents who were ecstatic that their kid might be showing some musical promise. There’s just one problem. Guitar Hero games were (like most video games) designed to be mastered in about two weeks time with a little focused effort. Learning to play an actual guitar is a slow, methodical, awkward, painful, years-long process. Once students realized playing an actual musical instrument was going to be much harder than mastering the video game version, they usually came to a rapid conclusion along the lines of, “this just isn’t my talent.” Students quit in droves as even more hopefuls were signing up. I did end up with a handful of long-term quality students from the guitar hero batch, but the attrition rate must have been over 90%.
This was the thing that got me thinking about the effect of digital media on the human brain. Well-meaning parents who just wanted their kids to be happy were paying game companies to reprogram their kids’ cognitive development for the worse. The discipline needed to develop actual skills, to learn, to exercise, to mature is at best the collateral damage of reckless digital media consumption. Tik Tok and services like it make the consumption even more mindless and broadly addictive than digital games. It’s very interesting to ponder how this dynamic might be weaponized, and how else it might fit into the geopolitics of our age.
Jonathon Haidt's twitter sent me here.
EXCELLENT article, Gurwinder!!!
Echoing others, this was brilliant. Thanks so much for the painstaking time to write it. You are right that the gut reflex to ban is not going to work. Shifting cultural norms, through the slow work of persuasion, is the only solution. I sometimes worry my kids are going to be weird or socially inept because we strongly resist screens, instant gratification (my 4yo complained the other day that she's the only kid that doesn't have a tablet!), but this re-upped my resolve that we're doing the right thing.
This was a solid analysis. What makes it rather more terrifying is the context in which it takes place. The assault on Western civilization arises not just from TikTok, but at every level: hormonal, pharmaceutical, sociological, economic. Worse, these assaults are not simply being launched from hostile foreign actors and passively enabled by our own feckless leadership class, but in many cases originate domestically. Cognitive conquest is a form of total warfare that is unprecedented in scope and sneakiness.
I agree that the most robust long term solution is cultural. Threat vectors such as TikTok, opioids, Tinder, endocrine disruptors, HFCS, and so on need to be identified, awareness propagated, and their use and abuse shamed and made low status. Unfortunately along the way many will be lost, but with our elite class being as cowardly, corrupt, and deceitful as it is, even if authoritarian solutions were optimal they are simply not open to us.
I'm a parent of two kids, and protecting them from insta-dope addiction is as much a priority for me as keeping them alive. We bought an iPad for our 4 year old to teach him how to read. He gets 30 minutes a day with an educational app, and he LOVES that 30 minutes, but we're ruthless about the boundary. We only watch movies on weekends. My wife and I are in constant battle with our own phones, yanking out compulsive tendencies like weeds in the gardens of our behavioral patterns. It's incredibly hard work. But the stakes are existential.
This is a fascinating, wonderfully written piece! I’m interested to see if the shares from the likes of Haidt and Rogan will bring more attention to your work. If so, I hope you won’t feel too overwhelmed, as that would be understandable. Best wishes, and thank you for doing what you do.
Great Article. Ironically my attention was all on it. Thank you. A Thought: I live in Colombia, we have a popular social experiment called the "car-free day" in the capital city, despite the initial resistance from citizens, (more than 15 years ago when it first took place), the event was a success! Citizens institutionalized the event through a public referendum in October 2000. So we do the event once every year. I feel the social experiment of cell phone-free day should be considered for testing and since we already have results of how people respond to a supposed "necessity" I feel it would be interesting to perceive what happens to our beautiful civilization when we have a "free" day or a even month of no cell phones!. it is indeed a very doable idea. Not easy to push because of obvious interest but "still" doable.
Brilliant. And self-evident. It’s the ultimate form of consumer culture. It’s quite literally consuming itself.
Absolutely brilliant piece. Congrats on the virality (haidt, rogan, Red Scare reddit, et al).
Excellent read, Gurwinder! Also a bit scary on how this is all panning out
All I can say is... Wow, that was powerful and eye-opening. Thank you for your work Gurwinder
Incredible piece man
In 1989, Neil Postman wrote about the prophecy of Aldous Huxley's "Brave New World," in "Amusing Ourselves to Death" which long before this article and the creation of TikTok talked about the lure of distraction on any society. Chris Hedges wrote about this not too long ago in his book "Empire of Illusion." Kathryn Lofton as well in "Oprah, The Gospel of an Icon."
All that is to say, none of this is new or unique to TikTok, and TikTok is not the only culprit. Consider the billion dollar industry of the NFL, or the porn industry, etc. Too much of anything can be addictive or dissociative. Distraction may be repackaged, but it is not new. Greeks and Romans had "bread and circuses" yet Plato even put commodity on the soul, saying there was gold silver and bronze! Americans love a new thing, but to say it is a threat any more than any other example is challengeable.
The danger of TikTok is that it could hack cell phones on a mass scale, which is why the U.S. military banned it. FBI director Chris Wray says influence is worth a look, but I have more faith in humanity that is, at the very least, if we learned anything from 2016, and the midterms suggest a portion of the population did.
Extremely thought provoking article, well done to the author.
I was having a conversation with family about this very subject only yesterday evening and I will be sharing this with them today as it makes many of the important points far better than I was able to, particularly the aspect of attention span reduction due to the extreme passivity induced in the viewer of these unrelated short form clips on tictok and YT.
Excellent article, very well balanced and I can definitely see where you're coming from. I've been settling on the sofa most evenings being passive watching TV whilst my kids are on social media. I now have a better feel for what should be happening instead.
Beautiful and educative article.