Ordinary people, or more precisely people with only ordinary computers, are the sole providers of the information that makes the big computers so powerful and valuable. And ordinary people do get a certain flavor of benefit for providing that value. They get the benefits of an informal economy usually associated with the developing world. The formal benefits concentrate around the biggest computers.
More and more ordinary people are thrust into a winner-take-all economy. It is a 21st century reprise of the Horatio Alger stories from the 19th century. A token few will find success on Kickstarter or YouTube, while overall wealth is ever more concentrated and social mobility rots. Social media sharers can make all the noise they want, but they forfeit the real wealth and clout needed to be politically powerful. Real wealth and clout instead concentrate ever more on the shrinking island occupied by elites who run the most powerful computers.
Once the data is gathered, statistical analysis is performed to create behavioral models. The consumer-facing giant computers like social media, search, or big online stores use models of people to optimize the options put in front of them to generate desired behaviors. The term “advertising” once meant an act of communication, the romanticizing of a product, but no more. Similarly, investing used to mean evaluating risk and reward, but now it has come to mean getting people locked into massive too-big-to-fail schemes in which only the little people absorb the risks and the best computer gathers the rewards."
One of the characteristics of online activities that transcend simple markets is that they are analogous to behaviors that seem to be hardwired into humans. People have always had the desire to create, share what we’ve created and see what others have created. The emergence of the Web democratized access to content created by others in a way not seen since the invention of the printing press. And the explosion of sites that democratized our ability to share content gave us the second phase of the Web with the birth of wikis, blogs, video sharing sites and Twitter. I think of these services as the digital analog of primitive man sitting around the fire and telling stories.
Humans also love to collect things — from tiny stamps to shiny cars. And what do we do with these things once we have them? We play with our collections. We organize, shape and prune them, and we display our collections for the benefit of others and the occasional bragging right. “Curation” is simply a stiff sounding word for an innate human activity — collecting, organizing and sharing — that people are now engaging in online."
The new studies on loneliness are beginning to yield some surprising preliminary findings about its mechanisms. Almost every factor that one might assume affects loneliness does so only some of the time, and only under certain circumstances. People who are married are less lonely than single people, one journal article suggests, but only if their spouses are confidants. If one’s spouse is not a confidant, marriage may not decrease loneliness. A belief in God might help, or it might not, as a 1990 German study comparing levels of religious feeling and levels of loneliness discovered. Active believers who saw God as abstract and helpful rather than as a wrathful, immediate presence were less lonely. “The mere belief in God,” the researchers concluded, “was relatively independent of loneliness.”
But it is clear that social interaction matters. Loneliness and being alone are not the same thing, but both are on the rise. We meet fewer people. We gather less. And when we gather, our bonds are less meaningful and less easy. The decrease in confidants—that is, in quality social connections—has been dramatic over the past 25 years. In one survey, the mean size of networks of personal confidants decreased from 2.94 people in 1985 to 2.08 in 2004. Similarly, in 1985, only 10 percent of Americans said they had no one with whom to discuss important matters, and 15 percent said they had only one such good friend. By 2004, 25 percent had nobody to talk to, and 20 percent had only one confidant.
In the face of this social disintegration, we have essentially hired an army of replacement confidants, an entire class of professional carers. As Ronald Dworkin pointed out in a 2010 paper for the Hoover Institution, in the late ’40s, the United States was home to 2,500 clinical psychologists, 30,000 social workers, and fewer than 500 marriage and family therapists. As of 2010, the country had 77,000 clinical psychologists, 192,000 clinical social workers, 400,000 nonclinical social workers, 50,000 marriage and family therapists, 105,000 mental-health counselors, 220,000 substance-abuse counselors, 17,000 nurse psychotherapists, and 30,000 life coaches. The majority of patients in therapy do not warrant a psychiatric diagnosis. This raft of psychic servants is helping us through what used to be called regular problems. We have outsourced the work of everyday caring."