A soon-to-be launched social media app called NewNew will invite its users to control aspects of another person’s life, from something mundane like what to eat for dinner to, well, who knows what? When I read about this in a BBC article my first reaction was one of shock. What kind of culture will this create? I immediately envisaged a scenario reminiscent of almost all Black Mirror episodes, where a good-natured or useful tech idea somehow gets out of control – often through human misappropriation – and leads to some sort of Armageddon.
That pessimism on further thought gave way to a glimmer of hope. What if, went my thinking, this technology is used compassionately? It could help solve dilemmas rather than create them. There are, after all, some episodes of Black Mirror that have positive endings (well, at least one, San Junipero).
There’s certainly one scenario I can think of in life where a decision-making tool such as this could have its benefits, and that’s on the road travelling.
Let me explain a bit more about NewNew and how it can be good, and bad, for travel and society as a whole.
How NewNew works
A ‘creator’ on NewNew creates a choice, let’s say, what colour shirt shall I buy, red or white? Their ‘followers’ will then cast votes for a fee ($5US) and the creator pockets this money (minus the app’s cut) on the proviso they will action the outcome of the poll. Here I can see the benefits for the creator; they are relieved of the problem of choice and they can make some money out of it at the same time.
The follower similarly benefits by getting satisfaction in helping to make that decision. This advantage will be more easily realised if the creator is someone famous, or at least someone with a strong social-media following. The level of the follower’s satisfaction in controlling what colour shirt let’s say, Will Smith will buy (who, incidentally, is a patron of this app), is going to be higher than Billy No-Mates, ie someone with less of a following (something we’ll come back to later).
It’s also possible for followers, for $20, to suggest an action for the person being followed to carry out if they so wish, making it a two-way street.
The developers tout this share of decision-making as something that can create community. But with NewNew’s tagline describing the app as, ‘a human stock market where you buy shares in the lives of real people’, it sounds less like a democratic unison and more like a debasement of humanity.
That said, the act of willingly relinquishing decision-making, albeit in a more analogue and less social media orientated way, is something that I’ve been doing for years while travelling, and that’s through the process of dice rolling.
For me personally, it’s sometimes difficult on the road to make a choice and this is because there’s an abundance of things to decide upon: what to visit, what excursion to do, even what country to go to next on a longer backpacking trip. I might want to do everything that’s on offer but am limited by time or some other equally valid constraint.
It’s for this reason that many years ago I started to carry around dice, following in the footsteps of The Diceman.
The Diceman is a book by George Cockcroft writing as his alias Luke Rhinehart, a psychiatrist who makes decisions by obeying the roll of a die. He nominates to each face of the die a different choice, and commits himself to carrying out whatever number/choice it lands on. To give an example; choose six things off a menu in a restaurant, give each of them a number, and if it lands on 5 for instance; the number associated with chilled monkey brains, that’s what you’re obligated to eat.
Myself and many others found this a perfect decision-making tool for travel; it even led to a show called The Diceman with Russell Harris on the Discovery Channel.
Using the dice rulebook with NewNew
There are important rules that stem from dice decision making that also need to be observed on NewNew if it’s to work well, and it’ll be interesting to see, as and when the app is launched, if NewNew includes something similar in their guidelines.
Luke Rhinehart explains the two principles in the book: Firstly, never include an option that you might be unwilling to fulfil, and secondly; always begin to fulfil the option without thought and without quibble. For these reasons it would be best to avoid using the dice, or NewNew, for major life-changing concerns. There’s a difference between getting help to choose food off a menu and deciding on whether or not to have an affair. Luke Rhinehart, who commits adultery, and more, breaks his rules. His choice-making demise comes with his willingness to risk everything on the dice by using them to make almost all decisions, including some (sinister) major ones.
The main difference between the dice and the app is that with NewNew people decide, not an inanimate object, so there’s a human and therefore subjective element to it. This doesn’t matter if the creator is only inputting options that they want, or are willing (or allowed, depending on the app’s guidelines) to follow through with. But this could lead to some other issues.
Firstly, what if a creator gets addicted to the app and relinquishes too much control in the same way Luke Rhinehart did with the dice? Secondly, what if, to get more votes, creators start to offer more sinister choices to their followers? And thirdly, what if it’s the followers who are the sinister ones, caring little for the creator’s background and putting their enjoyment over compassion for their creator/victim?
Let’s look at these more carefully.
What if a creator gets addicted to the app and relinquishes control of their life?
If a creator gets addicted to using the app they will lose the ability to make decisions for themselves and will effectively be giving full control to their voters. And this would inevitably mean handing over control of big life choices. They would become something of a human siphon, sacrificing themselves for another’s enjoyment. What could make this worse is if someone desperate for money was to accept challenges they weren’t comfortable with, but commit to it anyway because they need the $20. We’re back into Black Mirror territory.
What if a vote-hungry creator offers sinister choices?
We live in a world where social media attention is currently gained from expressions of extremes. Generally, the wilder the post, be it opinion, picture, video or otherwise, the more attention it will garner. Unless the creator is Will Smith or someone with a large following, a potential voter is more likely to engage with a creator’s proposal (and part with their money) if the vote is for something more thrilling than what colour shirt to buy. This will force the creator with a smaller following to be more extreme in their proposal in order to get more of a voting interest. How long will it be before a creator like Billy No-mates – or someone like Kurt from the Netflix movie Spree – desperate for more followers, will ask people to vote on something sinister, which they will then be obliged to carry out?
What if followers have too little information or lack compassion?
Let’s go back to travel to illustrate this. A life-changing question that could well be proposed on NewNew for the voter-hungry is one that many people ask themselves at some point in their lives: should I quit my job and travel the world? As worthy an adventure as this may be, if someone asked me this question in ‘real life’, my answer would be based on their circumstances – can they afford it? Will they be disadvantaging a family member? Are they unhappy in their job? Do they really want to take the risk? And so on.
If followers on NewNew were to vote on a binary version of this proposition – Job or Travel – without knowing the individual’s full background, they would be neglecting the creator’s personal situation. More details about the person would certainly be necessary, and the creator should make sure to provide these details on the app so that followers can make an informed vote.
Even so, information supplied to, let’s suppose, a sadistic audience rather than a compassionate one, might see this type of crowd vote for the riskier option anyway, because they’ll find it more fun to see the person fail.
So big, life-changing decisions should be avoided on NewNew. Along with anything creepy. Where the app’s strength may lie is with the less serious choices that require little or no deliberation, be it in everyday life or while travelling. There’s also the hope it will attract kind-hearted and understanding followers. We’ll see about that.
As long as creators and followers act conscientiously, the app could be fun. And don’t forget the advantage that the creators are getting paid for having decisions made for them.
In this sense I find the idea of NewNew appealing. If people are paying to make this decision for me, then that could fund whatever it is that I optioned to do: museum or lake visit? Skydive or bungee jump? Train or bus? East or west? Something that the dice couldn’t do.
What’s more, when a follower, for the $20 fee, suggests an action for the person being followed, it could allow the recipient to do something positive they hadn’t even thought of. What if, say, I was in a place for the first time, and a follower, perhaps a local who knows the area better, suggests to put to the vote some activities that I never even knew about. They are in effect, adding to my experience of the place.
In a NewNew nutshell – the take away
When it comes to low-level decision making, choice often feels like a burden. Look at the amount of time we can spend looking at toothpaste on a supermarket shelf while trying to decide whether to get the cavity protection or the advanced whitening tube, in this brand or that brand, for that price or this price.
NewNew can take that burden away. But losing the ability to make personal choices by using the app for every decision has dangerous connotations, as does releasing oneself from the responsibility of making major life-changing decisions.
It’s all about balance. And common sense. The retaining of both will determine the success of the participants on NewNew. What it will come down to is the reliance on the good nature of others in helping a fellow human make the right decision under the right circumstances.
As for me, will I join NewNew or not in order to help me make travel decisions? I just can’t decide. Perhaps I can put it to the vote…