You probably had this experience at least once: bringing up a topic that has the potential to either jumpstart a debate or turn everyone silent and eager to move on to the next thing without as much as a word to acknowledge yours. This happens more when the said topic pertains to one of the societal taboos, the most recent of which is, without a doubt, social media.
Since the beginning of time, humans have had a hard time and displayed adequate resistance when it came to objectively assess their idols, or, God forbid, downright ousting them. The golden calf of those early days has seen a lot of shapes throughout the years, the latest to date being social media platforms. Particularly Facebook, which billions of people have a special attachment to.
Disclaimer: I am a much restrained and selective user of social media (Twitter only, even that with limitations.) While I recognize its value and merits, I am deeply concerned about how is transforming our values, as well as personal and societal well-being.
A few weeks ago, I wrote a column about the nefarious activities that take place on Facebook (tacitly approved by Facebook that is,) in conjunction with many other good things happening on the same platform. While my focus was on Facebook, I mentioned other social media platforms; how they harvest our data, how they shape our behaviour and how that is the farthest from a healthy approach to simply being and to democracy. I pointed out the bystander dilemma, the effect on our children and the fact that there are better ways. You can have a read here.
I was puzzled to see people’s reaction to it all. Actually, there was barely any. That’s right, nothing stirred. It was eerie, to say the least. My post was not blasting social media platforms or indiscriminately demonizing them but drawing attention to the negative side of the exchange most of us happily engage in daily or at least weekly. That people chose silence over conversation on a topic that should concern us all was troubling in more than one way.
Facebook now has 2.2 billion users. That’s 2.2 billion sets of data that is available to be used for various purposes and 2.2 billion minds to influence in various ways, depending on their geographical location and political situation where they are. Far from any conspiracy theories, the reality of it can be summoned via some questions: would you allow anyone to snoop around until they learn almost everything about you, including how and where you spend your money, who are your preferred politicians and what you do for entertainment for example? Would you allow anyone to dictate what you buy, how soon and from which company? Would you allow anyone to rummage through your personal photos and take any ones they please with the indicative that they will become theirs forever?
These are unsettling questions that many choose not to think about. Social media platforms have set their eyes into our lives and minds too close for comfort, and they have gained too much of our trust even though they prove time and time again their very disregard for it.
Having just finished the book Zucked by Roger McNamee I invite you to give it a read. It’s thought-provoking and if nothing else, you’ll get some ideas about what’s behind the ‘creating a global community’ slogan that Facebook has been promoting for many years. If time is short, go to the second half of the book or at least read from chapter 11 to the end, epilogue included.
There are many questions and issues McNamee is raising in building a solid case around personal data that should not be harvested and used for controlling people and their actions, sold or traded. All of that is happening, not just with Facebook, but with other social media platforms and digital tech giants too. For many people (too many, I would argue,) Facebook has become the main source of information. Between creating filter bubbles and delivering tailored messages and advertisements, human weakness is exploited massively and that should be everyone’s concern.
There has never been a case throughout history where humans agreed with each other on a certain issue. For good reasons: we ought to think, debate and find the truth. In the case of preserving our personal data and keeping our digital presence private, I strongly believe there should be a unanimous yes vote.
Social media platforms can and do allow for good deeds to happen, but the dark side is worrisome and we should look into it sooner than later, for our own sake, for our children’s and for the sake of societal values we hold dear. Succumbing to the convenience and pleasure they offer (the latter is debatable since research has proven that lengthy time spent on social media leads to unhappiness and overall decreased quality of life rather than the expected and much-touted joy that online connection is supposed to create) ultimately becomes an unfair trade when what we offer in exchange is ourselves and our freedom to think. Anything that obliterates that should make us reconsider the way we do things. When enough people call for it, changes do happen.
A few things I have learned since I started diving deeper into this issue:
- That there are search engines that will not harvest and sell your data, such as Duckduckgo.
- That humane technology is possible and there are many concerned individuals that are working to making it a reality at a large scale; most if not all of them are choosing to do so after working in the tech industry and seeing the dark sides. Tristan Harris is one of them.
- That freedom to think is mostly preserved by reading books and relying on a properly curated set of news that are not coming our way via filter bubbles or targeted media which AI bots deliver because they have ‘read’ us and know what makes us tick.
- That there are ways to make our phones and screens in general serve us, rather than allowing them to tether out attention and in doing so pushing us closer to stepping into the wicked, invisible but nonetheless real trap of giving away our attention, personal information and the God-given right to think freely. Here’s a place to learn more about it.
P.S. As I am wrapping up the writing, Google had just announced that they are launching a video game streaming service. I strongly believe that is one of the last things we need. If you believe otherwise, please feel free to share your thoughts. Also, please consider reading Glow Kids: How Screen Addition is Hijacking Our Kids and How To Break the Trance by Nicholas Kardaras, MD (St. Martin Press, 2016), and Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and The Business of Keeping Us Hooked by Adam Alter, PHD (Penguin Press, 2017). I am engrossed in the latter, details to follow.