Is there such a thing as mental capitalism where the digital transformation of information and entertainment tends to make them worthless? Is mindful consciousness the new sought-after resource, and is there an area where this focused attention can become a currency that can be actively cultivated? If so, what challenges do we face and how can digitisation increase our intellectual autonomy?
In the latest of her Duet interviews, Dr Caldarola, author of Big Data and Law, and Prof. Dr Thomas Metzinger, the well-known philosopher and academic, discuss whether digital sovereignty and mental autonomy are related.
You have mentioned several times that the most limited resource today is not water or food, but human mindful consciousness. Can you explain that idea to our readers?
Prof. Dr Thomas Metzinger: Of course, there are many people in poor countries for whom water and food are the most limited resources and it is equally obvious that these people would much rather have water that doesn’t cause disease. Those of us who live in richer countries are often not that aware of this type of situation. We only become conscious of this fact when we travel to countries where we cannot safely drink tap water, for instance. Safe and clean water is not something to be taken for granted by many people on this planet.
For those of us living in more prosperous countries as we do, where we have enough water and food, I think the most limited resource is conscious mindfulness. We are overwhelmed by stimuli and information. As a result of digitisation, we now have an industry in rich countries that develops its business models using these stimuli and information, which has started to systematically monetise this attention. We call this an extractive economy because this very consciousness is being extracted from the human brain and then processed for their respective business models, e.g., for personalised advertising.
The problem is that within each individual human being and brain, the ability to be awake, focussed, and pay attention is a limited resource. Babies hardly have this capacity at all. Older people or people with dementia also lose this ability with the passage of time.
By alertness, concentration, and attention I mean the ability to focus one’s attention on an object on purpose and to keep it there. For example, drawing attention to the book in my hand or to what my interlocutor is saying and keeping this attention focused in the face of all kinds of distracting stimuli. We need this ability or resource. It is only available to us humans for a certain amount of time during the day. Then we become tired and are easily distracted.
There are two types of consciousness: automatic consciousness and voluntary consciousness. And it’s the latter that I’m concerned about. We have these neither in deep sleep nor in dreams (the exception being the very rare lucid dreams).
During the day our minds wander, and we spend 30 – 50% of our time away from what we are actually doing. So, if we actually intended to prepare a meal and to cook and enjoy it with guided awareness, then our thoughts would wander again and again while we were doing it, e.g., thinking about the next task, mentally planning our vacation etc. This means we are constantly being distracted and do not remain in focus – here in our example cooking and eating. The keywords here are “spontaneous task-unrelated thought” and “mind wandering”. It’s the seemingly aimless mind, the daydreaming, the unbidden memories, and the automatic planning. It’s about what I call “mental sleepwalking”, that is, the permanent occurrence of seemingly spontaneous, task-independent thoughts, the loss of attention control and distractions repeated hundreds of times a day. Much like dolphins breaching the surface of the water, thoughts often cross the line between conscious and unconscious information processing, in both directions.
This resource of consciousness is critical for our quality of life. It is not only significant during working hours so that we can do our work. This resource is also important outside of working hours – to be able to listen to friends, family and acquaintances, to be able to empathise, to be able to really experience nature on a walk in the forest and not to constantly wander off in your mind or to be able to really enjoy and perceive the food you are consuming. This applies to many other areas of life as well. Today there is stiff competition for our consciousness: an employer and friends, family, acquaintances and so on; they all want or need our attention and concentration. The ability to pay attention and concentrate are clear predictors for school, university and professional success, as has been seen in numerous studies.
My opinion is:Prof. Dr Thomas Metzinger
The digital transformation tends to make information and entertainment worthless.
We are facing a system of mental capitalism because mindful consciousness has become a
Mindful consciousness has become a currency that can and will be actively collected.
If there is an industry for extracting consciousness, a process which is now being done better and more effectively with digital tools, then we are talking about the exploitation of this scarce resource of mindful consciousness. We can’t see this battle for our mindfulness very clearly. We only notice the dwindling of our quality of life, without knowing what is actually causing it. The consequences are depression, burnouts, emotional exhaustion… This phenomenon could be compared to a legally regulated or even imposed blood donation. If a little bit of blood is drawn from us again and again and systematically, then that also has serious consequences for our health.
This continuous, systematic, and industrial draining of our consciousness has never before existed in the history of our evolution. And that is a key problem today because the price of information is falling, consciousness is being systematically monetised and the psychological costs are externalised.
We collect information and knowledge and this can be digitally retrieved and received worldwide at any time. We have digital tools and therefore no longer need skills such as mental arithmetic because the digital tools do it for us at the push of a button. Do we still need memory, consciousness, autonomous thinking these days and, if so, why?
In theory, there is nothing wrong with machines taking over many functions. Just like our muscles, our brain works according to the principle “use it or lose it”. Abilities and resources are depleted when they are no longer being used.
Have you ever asked students in your hometown for directions? They can usually no longer tell you how to get to the town hall because they no longer need the ability to navigate spatially due to the existance of programmes or apps on smartphones. That’s all fine as long as we have good apps, the satellites aren’t broken… We can’t do something on our own anymore if these apps no longer work.
On the one hand, technology relieves us of a lot of work and creates space for something new. On the other hand, it also creates dependency. What’s bad about the second fact is that when we become dependent, we lose self-control and mental autonomy. When we are dependent on digital tools and media, they also “tell” us where to focus our attention. And that becomes dangerous because then we are no longer independent people who are able to decide and act freely.
Particularly dangerous is the loss of responsible citizens, meaning critical social subjects who form their own opinions in a political community and can thus recognise grievances, address them and work out proposals for solutions.
Of course, as AI takes over human work, employers need fewer and fewer skilled workers. But even if AI increases productivity with less manpower, we still need people to buy and consume these products designed, engineered, and manufactured by AI. Therefore, given the current economic model, we definitely need well-informed consumer groups.
And even if there was an unconditional basic income for “superfluous” employees because of the scarcity of work done by people which is still being needed, companies will naturally also want to skim off the unconditional money through their business models and turn it into corporate profit.
And it is precisely at this point that we can see that companies would prefer to have those customers they can control with their digital tools – the consumer becomes a product via the extractive attention economy. Critical rational thinking and moral subjectivity have not yet become the object of technological processes, but they would be extremely relevant for the resilience of our democracy.
It is of course not the goal of companies to work towards a common good. That is the task of the state and politics. It only becomes problematic when companies undermine those very tasks of the state because they are more sophisticated and faster and exploit the state’s lack of knowledge regarding the business model used and the technology for extracting attention. Most of the time, the state notices the changes only gradually, for bureaucracy and the necessary democratic debates and votes are usually stumbling blocks until “corrective” and delayed legislation comes into force.
There is also something like legal positivism, where, for example, highly paid representatives of the defence industry – also called lobbyists – emphasise that they would abide by the laws if they were changed and that they also want new laws to be enacted. They demand legal certainty from the state because for them there is only the law. This is very clever but also disingenuous because, in reality, they have a deeply unethical agenda and so they can completely sidestep the ethical debate. Regulation and legal compliance are therefore basically part of the product or marketing strategy.
The respective business models are part of an evolutionary process. They take part in an economic competition, are constantly being tested and used for legal loopholes or an ethical vacuum. Perhaps there will soon be a type of AI that can find these gaps.
Companies which actually have idealism as part of their corporate policy- such as the GLS Bank – try to organise “clean” capital flows and use their profits towards the common good – i.e., to offer an alternative financial industry. However, compared to the volume of conventional banks, they are a very small industry indeed. There are many individuals or sole proprietorships trying to act in a way that is oriented towards the common good. But in the age of globalised predatory capitalism, this is becoming more and more difficult because there is also the matter of efficiency – one has to admit this quite freely – for example with a view to China.
I suppose the big tech giants (Facebook, Amazon…) have realised that they require the mindfulness of their users and are targeting human consciousness on their platforms by using algorithms that are improving every day. How do the tech giants attract consciousness to their companies and how successful are they at keeping it?
It is the algorithms that continually improve and learn from experience. These algorithms take advantage of the weaknesses of the human mind. These are, for example, our evolutionary characteristics, such as attracting attention through outrage or releasing energy through creating and insulting tribal identities (in-group / out-group behaviour). For instance, if a group is offered an identification which means they are true patriots and another group is created to oppose that identification – even if it is only a simulated group – then a struggle ensues between the groups and energy is released. Tribalism is the feeling of belonging to a certain group, the phenomenology of identification can be technically stimulated or attacked. The trick to attracting attention is to create a platform for people to fight, swear, and insult one another. Another way is to offer the possibility of not having to use real names on these platforms, but rather pseudonyms. This lowers the inhibition threshold to take part and even a “loser” can finally unabashedly insult celebrities and enjoy an illusion of publicity and agency. Insult orgies can take place from morning to night- meanwhile our focus on those things can be continuously extracted and monetised.
Of course, there are also disoriented people, who no longer understand digitisation, globalisation, the complexity of the world and are looking for “affinity groups”. Most of the time, these groups are closed to those who think differently to ensure stability and support from disorientation and fear. This is called siloing. Siloing can also be organised and relies on tribal affiliation. We do know this: Faced with an external threat, cohesion and solidarity in the respective group increases. If these threats disappear, social behaviour and altruism in the respective group also disappear. This is really bad news because it means that especially in times of peace, fragmentation into subgroups increases.
Another phenomenon is “virtue signalling”. This means that people want to show off on social media — they want to show how virtuous they are, displaying moral values coupled with hoped-for approval. That includes how much they donate, that they’re vegan… – which is basically all about moral self-marketing. People use all levels of social media to advertise themselves as a product: statements of solidarity and self-portrayal (e.g., nude photos and apparent professional success). An illusion of self-agency is created because people get the feeling of being seen and having an impact – which is exactly the feeling that is created by business models of reaching and being noticed by many people. In reality, we are all overwhelmed by stimuli and information and cannot digest that much information. Hardly anyone is looking. The device used here is that people are given the feeling of communicating and networking, which as a matter of fact only rarely exists. This also explains the effect of very active radicals seeming to be particularly visible to us, but who, in reality, only represent a small minority because the many silent or inactive people are more or less invisible on social media.
Continuing with this aspect, let us consider the evolution of primates and their grooming. Animals get together and pick the lice out of their friend’s fur in places that they cannot reach with their arms or mouth. This is how these animals form relationships. This is exactly what is happening now on social media. The likes are nothing more than caresses at a distance and give the illusion of real delousing or a declaration of friendship. It’s also no coincidence that this culture of likes comes from America because most Americans don’t really know what friendship is – at least by European standards. In the USA “everybody is your friend” and of course this is also constantly being reinforced. The virtual simulation of friendship and genuine social relationships is a social institution there. The “friends” and “likes”, the “hearts” and the “followers” are a huge illusion, a form of social hallucination that many people fall for because their need for friendship and social connection is so great, and that need is thus being satisfied in this way. Social media are hallucination machines where pleasant stories are told, where people no longer know whether the stories are by real people or avatars, and whether these tales are real or fabricated. The offers we get are deceptively real and are getting better and better, the users are simultaneously product and content in one. This is also shown by the recent message about Google employee Blake Lemoine. He was suspended because he believed the chatbot LaMDA had developed its own consciousness. Mr Lemoine demanded that LaMDA first “agree” to be subjected to further experiments. He had imagined a social relationship – and that will happen more often in the future.
We can hallucinate friendship or insult online; the computational goal of the algorithms is “maximum commitment”. The economy of mindfulness is unfolding on social media, a form of mental capitalism is taking place where our concentration is systematically being extracted and monetised with self-optimising algorithms. What we are dealing with is AI-based surveillance capitalism.
Why are the tech giants so successful? Is it because we no longer understand the complexity of digitisation and globalisation? Or because we are afraid of uncertainty? Are we consequently heading towards radicalism and creating breeding grounds for tech giants to achieve their goals? If so, what are their objectives exactly?
There are many different aspects to this issue. One aspect is that our environment is becoming too complex for many who then long for simple models and explanations. This promotes conspiracy theories and populism on a political level.
Another aspect is that the new digital environments are stressful for us without understanding why we find them stressful. An example is that most people have had the feeling of constant acceleration for several years. Everyone longs for deceleration and even talks about it, but only very few manage it. And even fewer understand the reason for the stress and the acceleration.
Many notice that they are exhausted in some way without being able to identify the countless different factors causing it, this emotional exhaustion. People no longer want to hear about the pandemic, Brexit or the war in the Ukraine. Many just want these unpleasant events to “disappear”. Recently I heard someone saying: “I would like to lie down and go to sleep in the evening and wake up the next day to find everything solved”. Political commitment does not go any further than having this wish fulfilled. We are experiencing an emotional overload that makes us susceptible to simple, beautiful emotional experiences and addictive forms of distraction. The beautiful experiences are offered by the hallucination machines and the simple explanations by the populists, the religious and the radicals. Among other things, this also leads to the creation of clear images which are meant to represent the enemy.
We need a certain level of trust for social interaction. If deep fakes and fake news, internet fraud, phishing emails, bots etc. become so good that trust is systematically undermined and too many doubts are spread, then a basic mistrust arises and with it an epistemic crisis. An epistemic crisis is caused by a large number of people who no longer believe many things on principle and believe that there are not anymore credible news sources or “real” experts at all. Just look at the training of our journalists, who nowadays are taught they have to show at least one opposing opinion in every story – which erodes into a sort of “sham balance”. In the end, this crisis goes to the very foundations of our social cohesion and erodes our basic democratic accord.
You ask about goals? As already mentioned, it is about extracting the most limited resource, namely mindful attention. This has become a business model.
The tech giants have succeeded in their aims because the state has failed to regulate or enact laws to deal with their actions. There was and is a vacuum or legal vacuum for this new business model and its associated technology. The tech giants also have a powerful business lobby that represents their concerns and helps to continue to render our living environment more technological.
What will result from the extraction of human mindfulness as a new business model? Will we all think in the same way? Or expressed differently, are we experiencing a “dispossession of thinking”? Or to put it yet another way, is our mindful consciousness being drawn to the goals of the tech giants in such a way that we lose the ability to think for ourselves? Are people becoming a product of the tech giants?
In fact, people always become products if they do not pay for the digital service or digital product they are using. In this scenario, data becomes a cryptocurrency or a medium of exchange for the digital goods and services offered by the company. In addition, people are being systematically made more and more predictable in their role as consumers
The big tech giants come mainly from the US and China. When they capture the attention of their users, they inevitably tap into the brain structures of our children growing up with social media. What do they want to achieve and what can Europe do about it with its lack of digital sovereignty?
That’s right, digital sovereignty – especially for our critical infrastructures – is actually in the US and China because the big tech giants have their headquarters there. Since AI is also from these countries, we will see a “de-democratisation of AI” on social media. There is an asymmetric structural dependency that is already expressed, for example, in the dominance of American secret services (an example being the NSA scandal).
In theory, what we can do about the exploitation of our mindful awareness based on foreign business models is to create alternative infrastructures geared towards the common good.
As we learn more about how our consciousness works in neurobiological terms, our ability to influence it in a targeted manner also increases. It is very important for us to understand that there is this very complex asymmetrical structural dependency because digital sovereignty and mental autonomy are related to one another.
We should be asking ourselves a deeper and more general question: namely, what type of consciousness we want to promote socially and which one we should shun? The problem of the correct “culture of consciousness” is already affecting children. For example, children could learn meditation techniques in order to be able to control the level of their mindful consciousness themselves – so that they can better resist manipulation in media environments.
It is important to start a social debate on our – at least European – consciousness ethics. We need to think about questions such as which types of consciousness should be illegal in our society? Which ones do we want to promote, cultivate and integrate into our society? What states of consciousness would we be allowed to impose on animals or machines? What types of consciousness do we want to show our children? In what state of consciousness do we want to die?
A completely new and very significant question in this context is: How can digitisation increase our intellectual autonomy?
Lack of or reduced human consciousness lowers our quality of life and increases addictions. Where are we headed?
Yes, the extraction of mindful consciousness lowers quality of life, increases addictions, and has health consequences. Here are a few examples of mental health in the digital age:
One example is the increase in media addiction among young people during the pandemic. The number of pathological computer gamers rose by 52 percent. Children and young people (particularly girls between the ages of 10 and 14) are particularly susceptible to ridicule, malice and bullying. The Internet offers new forms and ways of bullying because ridicule, ill-will and harassment are omnipresent and reach a large audience through social media, so that children and young people simply feel powerless when it comes to bullying in a digital environment. As a result, suicidal thoughts are three times more common among victims of cyberbullying.
Another example is digital pornographic use, which begins as early as age 14, with first exposures happening at the age of 8. The psychological development and sexual socialisation of young people have shifted to the online world. Some of the consequences might include: early sexual initiation, dealing with multiple and/or casual partners, mimicking risky sexual behaviours, online sexual victimisation, assimilation of distorted gender roles, body image dysfunctions, aggressiveness, anxious or depressive symptoms, hypersexualised behaviour – to name but a few.
Screen-based media use has structural effects on brain development, including where linguistic abilities take place. Preschool children with more than an hour of daily screen time show significant developmental delays in the brain regions responsible for language acquisition and language comprehension.
This series of initial empirical results could be easily extrapolated: The use of electronic media in the evening and at night correlates with sleep disorders and depressive symptoms. Long-term studies show that social media use is a significant predictor of depression.
Studies also show that more than 50% of American high school students cannot distinguish commercials from real news. They go by the rule: “If it’s viral, it must be true”. Fake news spreads 6 times faster online than real news. Anger is the emotion that spreads the fastest on social media. People don’t share information primarily based on truth or accuracy. Today the core motivation is to increase status and popularity and to build and stabilise an apparent “circle of friends”.
It is interesting to note that the mere physical presence of a switched-off smartphone reduces cognitive capacity. Working memory and problem-solving capacities are reduced when the phone is in the same room. The sheer physical presence of digital technology reduces emotional closeness, feelings of connectedness and promotes shallow and meaningless conversation. Therefore, social media use favours neurotic behaviour while reducing honesty and humility. According to studies, Facebook addiction reduces brain volume – similar to some forms of substance addiction.
In an earlier interview, you said that human mindfulness is a crucial prerequisite for the common good, especially in times of social and political crisis – such as we are currently experiencing with the pandemic or the Ukraine war – and also in the context of accelerating global transformation processes which are being driven by digitisation. Indeed, this conscious awareness increases democratic resilience and internal cohesion of society as a whole. What could digital empathy, digital solidarity and cohesion look like in order to keep democracy alive in this digital age (home office, web shops…)? Where are we heading since studies have shown that democracy has been in decline since 2009 and digital tools are characterised by standardisation, automation, probability, and patterns but few emotions?
That’s exactly the question I have been asking myself! Perhaps I should start by saying something about autonomy.
The term “autonomy” goes back to the time of the Greek city-states, i.e., individual cities had the right to impose laws on themselves. A similar figure of thought is also found later in Kant, where intellectual autonomy does not consist in doing what we want, but in being able to impose reasonable rules on ourselves, according to which we think and act.
The nomoi are the laws and mental autonomy is the ability for mental self-control. The latter has two components. One is the one I mentioned earlier, being able to control the focus of one’s attention, i.e., directing attention to a focal point and keeping that attention there. There is research that shows that just one glass of wine significantly increases daydreaming or mental drifting. It’s the same with many other drugs. Of course, there are also drugs (such as modafinil) that help increase focus.
The second component consists of what we are thinking in the first place. This is about cognitive self-control, controlling your own thoughts. For example, if we want to calculate what 2 plus 2 is, then we must arrive at the result 4 and properly go through a series of mental models. Cats, for example, have a high level of visual and auditory awareness when listening and watching, but they are unlikely to be able to think as we do or have more complex symbolic chains of thought.
Both abilities – i.e., controlling attention and thoughts – are ethically and legally important and worthy of protection and should be available to most citizens ‑in the best-case scenario- in the interest of democratic institutions and the common good and should be systematically promoted. We need them not only for our quality of life, but also for the gross national product (i.e., an efficient workforce). If we burn ourselves out through excessive use of social media in our free time, then our performance at work is also reduced. Then workers start to cheat their employers out of working hours by quickly booking private flights at work, tweeting again and again, checking the news compulsively over and over again, or doing other activities. That is a loss of manpower in the working world. However, the ability for mental self-control is also important for a successful life, for maintaining mental health. The state, a resilient democracy, needs people who can think clearly and stay consciously in the moment.
By extracting mindful consciousness with the help of new digital business models, there is, so to speak, a competition between democracy and the tech companies. Democracy needs responsible citizens with all the intellectual qualities I have mentioned. The tech companies also want to access these qualities and to monetise them. There is, therefore, a kind of tug of war going on for the intellectual resources of the citizens. A well-fortified and resilient democracy must defend the intellectual autonomy of its citizens against companies that want to monetise them.
Of course, the actions of the tech companies could be legally restricted by simply banning certain practices by companies or entire platforms. But there are always new loopholes and the business lobby has long since infiltrated political institutions
An economy based on conscious awareness is monetising AI-based mental autonomy. The business models behind this system cannot be controlled by ethical guidelines or ineffective European regulations. Open-source digital tools such as Mastodon or Linux, which are organised in a delocalised fashion and are no longer tied to an extractive business model, would be better. But that’s easier said than done since as we know all too well it’s not a simple matter to expropriate or effectively regulate the tech companies.
We are witnessing a power shift from the world’s governments to the CEOs of the tech giants. The question here is whether the accumulation of power is already so enormous that it can no longer be reversed. Perhaps we have already passed the point of no return and towards the end of the century nation states will no longer be the decisive factors in deciding global order.
Tapping into and taking possession of our very minds is certainly much more drastic than how Russian gas has encroached upon society. The business lobby with its short-term profit interests and the government’s unsuitable and ineffective design of the market has made us tremendously dependent on Russian gas- as we are now beginning to realise. Perhaps by using this comparison I have been able to make clear that other technologies – like the new extraction economy for mindful awareness – are placing us in a dangerous situation – and especially under American and Chinese control- because these countries currently have the technological upper hand as far as digital tools are concerned. Digital sovereignty and democratic resilience are also related to mental autonomy, and we therefore need more than mere technological sovereignty.
Prof. Dr Metzinger, thank you for sharing your insights on the relationship between digital sovereignty and mental autonomy.
Thank you, Dr Caldarola, and I look forward to reading your upcoming interviews with recognised experts, delving even deeper into this fascinating topic.