It Exists Because You're Like That

It Exists Because You're Like That

I was talking to a friend about how annoying it was to have a brain that is so easily hijacked by phones and twitters. "Ah, but that's not it," he said, "whatever your brain was like, there would be some way to hijack it. And the rewards would be really high for whoever developed it, so it would get developed."

This seems like a deep and important phenomenon that I don't know any name for.

The first part is: if an attack exists which seems specifically targetted for your situation, it's not a coincidence – if you were different, a different attack would exist to match.

The second part is: whenever you're (pretty) similar to those around you, and whenever the total value of attacking your group as a whole is large, someone will figure out a way to attack it.

["Attack" here means exploit or manipulate – in the case of facebook feeds, it means distract you from other things you should be doing for hours at a time].

The most obvious example is viruses. It's not a coincidence that a virus exists that can get around your antibodies; that's just a flexible fact about the system as a whole. If you had a different set of antibodies, different viruses would get through.

Viruses point at two important reasons why being around a group of people who are similar to you (in the relevant way) makes you likely to get attacked:

1) the virus has mutated and honed itself on other hosts similar to yourself, and the most successful versions have outcompeted the others. Similarly, infinite-scroll social media feeds have emerged to waste my time because they worked effectively on many other people with similar minds to mine. And there are many potential attention-viruses I'm not even aware of because they weren't very successful – we're not here talking about how Friendster is too addictive and eats your brain.

2) you are likely to catch the virus from people around you. So, if I live by myself in a secluded monastery, I won't catch a cold even if I'm biologically susceptible to the common cold; if I hang out all day with other humans, I will be exposed to both colds and whatever dumb app is successfully eating my friends' brains right now.

How can you protect yourself from such viruses? Basically, you can't. If you happen to be different from the general population in a relevant way, you might not be susceptible to the same kind of "attack" – for example, if you're blind, you can avoid getting addicted to infinite scroll feeds which rely on visual perception. But otherwise, it's not clear what you can possbily do to outwit an entity that is heavily invested in outsmarting you.

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