On average, most people spend more time on social networking platforms that they do washing, eating and socialising in real life. While we half-joke about being “addicted”, make scenes about going cold turkey, and call out friends who have fallen under the spell of their screens, is there a dark truth to the way online culture is affecting the way we live?
How Algorithms Rule the World
Jaron Lanier is a man who stood at the centre of the digital revolution that shook the world in the early ‘80’s. Nicknamed the , ‘father of virtual reality’ and ‘alternative Steve Jobs’, the Silicon Valley visionary has penned a manifesto for taking ourselves offline. Titled Ten Arguments for Deleting your Social Media Accounts Right Now, the 160 page dossier against digital media, makes a strong case against the toxic effects of social media and why deleting our accounts could be essential for our survival.
Jason Lanier, Ten Arguements for Deleting Your Social Media Right Now
We’re all lab animals now.
A GAME OF NUMBERS
In a TED talk that ruffled the feathers of the tech world, Lanier labelled social giants like Facebook and Google “behaviour modification empires”. You’ll notice if you do a Google search for something peculiar, countless advertisements for similar products will follow you around the web. Similarly, the Instagram ‘explore’ feed is curated by algorithms that track the kinds of posts you have double-tapped. Rather than the jumbled feed of memes, selfies and dog pics, it looks more like a lifestyle ad tailored specifically for you, and your wallet.
As advertising gets smarter, algorithms filtering our data dictate what we see online and keep us coming back for more. These echo chambers also serve to bolster our beliefs by directing us to those who share similar opinions to our own. This point was proven in perhaps one of the Cambridge Analytica scandal that revealed how the company had illegally harvested the data of millions of Facebook profiles to predict and influence choices at the US presidential election ballot box.
Pervasive surveillance and constant, subtle manipulation is unethical, cruel, dangerous and inhumane.
MAD, SAD & ANGRY
Changing Behaviour & Curating Identity
Algorithms are engineered to exploit vulnerability in human psychology. They tap into our very basic human need for attention, validation and love. When our phone lights up with stream of “likes” and comments on our latest selfie, we get a high that keeps us coming back for another hit.
The selfie in itself is a curious modern phenomenon; it is a highly manipulated version of ourselves, primed for digital consumption that demands feedback. Whilst we all have the power to opt out of the loops of incentive and reward that surround us, it’s far easier to log in and ‘feel’ connected. Chamath Palihapitiya, the former VP for user growth at Facebook is quoted as saying, “The short term, dopamine driven feedback loops we’ve created are destroying how society works… No civil discourse, no cooperation; misinformation and mistruth…I feel tremendous guilt.”
Many of the founders of these social media empires confess to not letting their own children anywhere near them for fear of how they will alter their brain development. The way these tools are designed serves to radically alter our behaviour, playing up to to our tribalism and stirring our inner demons. Using the leader of the free-world’s often erratic social behavior as an example, Lanier writes “Even reality TV didn’t really make him lose it. As a Twitter addict, Trump has changed. He displays the snowflake pattern and sometimes loses control. He is not acting like the most powerful person in the world, because his addiction is more powerful.”
The Future Isn’t Real
In recent months, we have not only had to think about how social media is affecting our behaviour but, whether or not the people we are interacting with are actually real. An innocent-looking teen with Princess Leia buns and perfect freckles, Lil Miquela is a computer generated avatar, Instagram model and singer who has made the headlines in the past few months. As a robot struggling with self-realisation, Miquela has triggered a rethink of what constitutes reality on Social Media. After unveiling herself as an avatar, her follower count skyrocketed.
Through trickery and careful manipulation, Miquela has become the ultimate influencer; she makes no claims to authenticity, laying out her life for all to see. In that way, perhaps she is more real that the versions of ourselves that we create online. Avatars like Lil Miquela and Bermuda are paving the way for the future of the Social Media landscape, where “real” people are no longer needed to sell products or fashion anymore. She represents a unique opportunity for advertisers as she can be more easily controlled, manipulated and has none of the ego or needs of a sponsored human.
For us, our identity is always ‘in beta’ mode; an incomplete and an ever evolving construct. The reality is that the world of digital technology is filled with darkness and light, what we have to figure out next is how to live intelligently with it. Before you can do this, it’s necessary to understand how it mechanisms work, question its motives and be awake to its positive potential to change you.