Ayad Akhtar: AI Ad Tech Is Warping Our Minds

Ayad Akhtar: AI Ad Tech Is Warping Our Minds
illustration of a page of book text covered with pop-up windows saying "subscribe," "learn more," "buy now" and pixellated arrows
Paul Spella / The Atlantic

This essay has been adapted from a lecture delivered at the Newark Public Library in honor of Philip Roth.

Something unnatural is afoot. Our affinities are increasingly no longer our own, but rather are selected for us for the purpose of automated economic gain. The automation of our cognition and the predictive power of technology to monetize our behavior, indeed our very thinking, is transforming not only our societies and discourse with one another, but also our very neurochemistry. It is a late chapter of a larger story, about the deepening incursion of mercantile thinking into the groundwater of our philosophical ideals. This technology is no longer just shaping the world around us, but actively remaking us from within.

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That we are subject to the dominion of endless digital surveillance is not news. And yet, the sheer scale of the domination continues to defy our imaginative embrace. Virtually everything we do, everything we are, is transmuted now into digital information. Our movements in space, our breathing at night, our expenditures and viewing habits, our internet searches, our conversations in the kitchen and in the bedroom—all of it observed by no one in particular, all of it reduced to data parsed for the patterns that will predict our purchases.

But the model isn’t simply predictive. It influences us. Daniel Kahneman’s seminal work in behavioral psychology has demonstrated the effectiveness of unconscious priming. Whether or not you are aware that you’ve seen a word, that word affects your decision making. This is the reason the technology works so well. The regime of screens that now comprises much of the surface area of our daily cognition operates as a delivery system for unconscious priming. Otherwise known as advertising technology, this is the system behind the website banners, the promotions tab in your Gmail, the Instagram Story you swipe through, the brand names glanced at in email headings, the words and images insinuated between posts in feeds of various sorts. The ads we don’t particularly pay attention to shape us more than we know, part of the array of the platforms’ sensory stimuli, all working in concert to adhere us more completely.

Adhesiveness. That’s what the technology aspires to achieve, the metric by which it self-regulates and optimizes. The longer we stick around—on YouTube or Facebook, on Amazon, on the New York Times app—the deeper we scroll, the greater the yield of information, the more effective the influence. We are only starting to understand just how intentional all of this is, just how engineered for maximum engagement the platforms are. In fact, the platforms have been built, and are still being optimized, to keep us glued, to keep us engaged.

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