May 11, 2018
How do you engage with social media, with the internet, and with technology as a whole? Are you in control of your emotions, your content, your data? Do you know why these things are important? Or are you being swept away, morphed into a reactive, maybe even primitive dopamine-seeking animal by one of the most powerful, transformative forces ever to shape and challenge our civilization?
What on earth is going on with fake news, post-truth, and a new relativism in data, information, journalism, opinion and fact? How on earth did we get so polarized in our societies and in our politics? Is it getting worse, or are we, by virtue of being in the midst of it, just incapable of seeing this transformation for what it really is? Are these anxieties merely the growing pains of a metamorphosis that will take us far beyond what we can currently conceive, or are they the signals of something truly dangerous, something that threatens the deep underpinnings of our civilization?
What on earth is going on with extremism sharing space with mainstream thought? The kind of extremism that was given no oxygen just a few years ago. First uncomfortable dinner conversations, then Twitter trolls, then online news outlets, and then US presidents who equivocate on white supremacy. How did we get here? Is this a blip that we’ll one day shake off, or are we reverting wholesale to an earlier version of ourselves?
What on earth is going on when most people get their news from Facebook, which can often feel like nothing better than an echo chamber for your own biases? What about these platforms being compromised, whether by data pirates or political operatives or Russian state hackers – and how might they be compromised going forward? Have we already let the big corporations (Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon, Uber) get away with too much real-world power, too much data, too much influence on our minds and habits? The sheer strength of these companies and their algorithms mean that they can know us better than we know ourselves. They can influence our thinking through addictive apps and indispensable mobile phones, through nudges in advertising or tweaks to the secret sauce. Our own free will may be at stake. Is it too late to turn back? Are we already too addicted to the technology we have birthed? A technology which has reordered the world in less than a generation? What on earth is going on here?
Technological change has been part of the human story since the very beginning. Even before our species had the power to record our history, we learned to make fire, craft tools, and manipulate our environment to improve our chances of survival and reproduction. It could even be argued that technology is our ecological niche. We aren’t terribly strong or large or fast. Instead, we have these brains, and cognition to go with it, and so have evolved to become masters of technology – tireless innovators by genetic inheritance. Even language, which forms the basis of everything we are as a civilization, is technological as soon as it is taught, or written, or recorded.
Thus, it wasn’t long before we cultivated crops and domesticated animals, built rafts then boats then ships for the sea, moved from stone tools and weapons to bronze ones and then to iron. We built the rock circle of Stonehenge and the Pyramids of Giza. With improved sanitation, increasing food supplies due to agricultural technology and medicine to ward off death a little longer, our population grew at first comfortably and then exponentially. Our species went from hunter-gatherer to world conquerer in a few tens of thousands of years.
But like the expansion of the universe, human technology has not just grown, it has grown at an accelerating rate. The agricultural revolution took millennia. The Iron Age transition took centuries. The Industrial Revolution? Within a few decades of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, Britain was transformed. The same throttling wave of change swept over Europe and North America and eventually the world. Some argue that this revolution is ongoing, especially in places like China, where the migration of people from the countryside to the cities is recognized as the largest short-term movement of humans. Ever. Yet, here’s what’s important about the Industrial Revolution: the change occurred and was noticeable in a single generation. Someone in early 19th century England could be born in one world and die in a whole new one.
Today, over two centuries since the start of the Industrial Revolution, we now seem to be in the middle of a new one: the Digital Revolution. And the rate of change has accelerated dramatically, not in decades but in years, maybe even in months. Someone born in a western nation in 1984, when rotary phones and were common and colour television not universal, turned 18 in a world where basic cell phones were typical and phone books vanishing. Today she raises a family in a world where the internet and social media is the dominant shaper of social and cultural spheres, where she doesn’t remember phone numbers, and where the power of massive corporations and government to see, track and know her is on par with Big Brother, from the book with the same title as the year she was born: 1984. How many more times will her paradigm shift, and what will it all look like when she dies? Or, will we have beaten death by then, whether by enhancing her body with biotech or uploading her consciousness to the Cloud?
This is all a little cliché and overly generalized. But the change in which we process information, develop and share opinions and arguments, and connect to each other socially is undeniable, and this shift has occurred in just a few years. Remember the Arab Spring of 2011? It seems like ages ago. Here’s what esteemed American broadcaster Dan Rather said not long after: “From the streets of Cairo and the Arab Spring, to Occupy Wall Street, from the busy political calendar to the aftermath of the tsunami in Japan, social media was not only sharing the news but driving it.”
What on earth is going on? It’s hard to describe the shape of the bubble when you’re inside of it. But here’s something to chew on: in China, the government is imposing a new system of social credit, which is tied to every individual and linked to their social media presence. They’ve been working on it for years. Are you getting enough exercise? Doing well at your job? Paying your bills on time? You’ll get points for that. Are you critical of the government? Anti-social? Free-thinking? Docked points for that. This whole thing might sound harmless to you – as in, who cares about these social media points?
If you think that, I’d encourage you to watch just one episode of the show Black Mirror. It's called "Nosedive". We already rate businesses and Uber drivers, and accept being rated as consumers on these services as well. An expansion wouldn’t be too difficult or uncomfortable. In fact, if it’s all designed like a game, we might think it’s more fun. Do you think they’ll do it in China but never here? I say, people might want such a system, even if only for the dopamine fix for when they score well. After all, we’ve given everything else away with our phones and tablets, and we’ve made seemingly bigger tradeoffs in our collective past. Why not just go full Orwell?