Look around you. Does the world seem normal? Or is it kind of crazy? Is this the natural state of affairs and how human societies were supposed to look like? Or, has something fundamentally gone wrong in our pursuit of profit?
From its inception to the current times when it has reached its soaring heights, social media has gripped the world with its wonders. The internet turned into this beautiful space where meaningful interactions became possible as more and more people got connected. With some clicks on your phone, you can book a ticket to take you miles away, get your favorite food delivered, or you can pay your bill or shop for the latest designs from the comfort of your home- it was magic. All was well- or at least it was supposed to. You now look around, and almost everyone is depressed, teens and preteens are committing suicides, there is frustration, violence, hatred, intolerance, slander and just utter chaos. The very fabric of our society has been tarnished. How did this happen? Who is to blame?
If asked what is wrong with our tech companies today, then the answers revolve around fake news, polarization, election hacking and data being stolen. Is that all there is or is there a problem beneath all of this?
Summing it all up in one sentence would be not only extraordinarily arduous but also a crass oversimplification of a very complex problem. It starts with all of us looking hungrily at our screens all-day every-day. What keeps us engaged there is the problem. Addiction is not a consequence of a bug in the system; instead, it is a crucial feature. The business model of attention for profit is flawed. To somehow expect a positive outcome when each corporation is looking out for their interest is naïve at best and foolish at worst. And it is time to wake up.
While we understand that we are being watched and our activities online are being monitored, what we don’t understand is why are these large tech companies like Facebook, Google, Twitter and YouTube interested in our data. Selling all this data is not in the economic interest of these corporations. Instead, the determinant of success in this marketplace for human attention is who has the perfect model that will not only predict but eventually alter your behavior.
The products and services that we use are free for us. The advertisers pay for these products, making them the customers, not us. And when you are not paying for something, you are the product. In the words of Jaron Lanier, author of ‘Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now, “It is the gradual, slight, imperceptible change in your own behavior and perception that is the product.”
Manipulation is at the very center of all that takes place here. Every time you interact with someone, there is an entity that is spending money to influence you. This is giving shape to a culture where the very meaning and setting of communication is shrouded with an invisible manipulation cloak.
In order to understand how this manipulation takes place, it is imperative that we have a little understanding of how algorithms work. They do more than show you the relevant content on your feed. By collecting data like what image you look at, how long you look at it and the kind of content that you engage with, these AI-powered algorithms not only predict your next move but also alter it. The thought you have is not yours instead has been planted by the content you view on your screen first thing after waking up. These algorithms have crafted a culture, not as an after effect but an intended consequence, where keeping you hooked on your phone is the epicenter of their business model. It is in their business interest that you stare at a screen rather than spend quality time with your loved ones.
Therefore, they have expended their resources and human assets to develop supercomputers that run millions of operations and process your data. The simpler ones could be called algorithms, but the complex ones are nothing less than intelligence. These algorithms then show you the content that you are most likely to engage with and run ads there that alter your behavior and thought-process through constant conditioning. For example, if you have shown a tendency to indulge in conspiracy theories, then these algorithms will take you down a rabbit hole and offer you content that you have never even searched for. The more you entertain this rabbit hole, the better the AI will become at predicting your next move. Gradually, by exposing you to a particular niche of content, your behavior and thought pattern will start to get influenced, and you won’t even realize it. This is a very sophisticated manipulation mechanism: you are the one who decides to click on a video or look at an ad or buy something, but on a deeper level your free will is being curtailed as your mind is continuously a target of experiments and conditioning. The ground of human behavior has been tilted. It is not like you can’t make another decision; it has only been made harder.
We often discuss that technology will bring about the end of human civilization. However, conceptualizing it is a little tricky. It is essential to understand that it might not be an AI robot in the shape of terminator or drones that will carry out this catastrophe. Instead, it will be this same gradual change in behavior that will prove responsible for tearing apart the societal fabric.
Technology can expose us to specific content that leads to radicalization, polarization and mass violence. This constant exposure and competition for our attention will bring out the absolute worst in humans, and that will give birth to evils at a previously unimagined scale. Instances of this can already be seen as people grow more and more intolerant and bigoted.
To say that a change is needed is easy. However, an in-depth analysis of the problem shows to us that the very design and business model is intrinsically flawed. Any attempt to solve this problem will have to bring about a change in that. This is the only option we have. To trust that the system will provide us with a solution is to think that the human brain and will would be successful in countering AI that is advancing exponentially.
These companies have no financial incentive to change the way they operate. They will not grow a conscience when the current system is earning them billions of dollars. The society as a whole needs to wake up from this drug-induced state. We have to demand a change from our lawmakers for the futures of our children and the survival of our society. Circulation of information needs to be regulated, and data storage needs to be taxed so that these tech giants have reason to look in the other direction. The task lying ahead is in no way easy, but if we fail at this, then we are heading into towards an impending doom unprepared.
The inspiration for this article came from the docudrama ‘The Social Dilemma’ on Netflix. Readers are urged to watch it as former employees from companies like Facebook, YouTube, Google and Twitter attempt to educate the larger public about the perils of social media in a manner and language that is understandable for all.