We are at the beginning of the 21st century, which means these words will be read mostly by non-people: automata or stunned crowds that no longer act as individuals, words will be chopped up, atomized and turned into search engine keywords within industrial conglomerates of cloud computing, located around the world in remote, hidden places, words will be copied millions of times by algorithms designed to send an advertisement to someone, somewhere, who accidentally identifies itself with something I say. Those words will be scanned, remixed and twisted by crowds of fast and lazy readers on wiki sites and added automatically under message chains. Reactions to my words will degenerate over and over again in absurd cables of nameless anonymous insults and unrelated polemics. The algorithms will find correlations between those who read my words and their romantic adventures, their debts and, shortly, their genes. In the long run, these words will contribute to the fortunes of those few who have been able to position themselves as lords of computer chaos. The wide range of destinations of these words will unfold almost completely in the lifeless world of pure information. Only in a small minority of cases these words will be read by real human eyes. And yet it is you, the person, and a rarity among my readers, whom I hope to reach. The words here are written for people, not computers. There's something I want to say: you have to really be someone before you can share what you are.
Less than a decade ago, the possibilities of the Web were still a promise full of hope. Its commercial power was a fact, it was no longer difficult to see that it would transform any kind of industry forever, and the newly born social networks seemed able to achieve, quite perfectly, an old enlightened dream: connect individuals and allow them exchanging affections and information, so easily, that the origin of many of the human conflicts - the lack of communication, the lack of elements of judgment, the survival of frontiers that separate and distinguish the experiences of each other - could be minimized.
In addition, there was the illusion that supposed the beginning of the end of the hierarchy and authority. In the so-called Web 2.0, we all participated in equal conditions in a global dialogue. Governments should not get into it, since one of the main purposes of the Web was to control them. It was even thought (remember the 15M, the Arab springs or Occupy Wall Street) that it would be possible to overthrow them.
But Internet not only had it not become a kind of libertarian paradise without state interference and a platform for selfless dialogue, it had fallen prey to the interests of large companies and adopted some of its worst expressions. It was not only about greed, which could be taken for granted, but something worse: an obsession, which went beyond traditional "marketing", to alter user behavior.
How can we continue to be autonomous in a world in which we are constantly being watched and where algorithms managed by some of the richest companies in history are spurred in one way or another, that have no other way of earning money than getting them pay to modify our behavior?
Addicts to attention
However, almost all of us seem to accept it for a simple reason: Internet have made us addicted to attention; what we most want is for them to pay attention to us. Again, this is not new, but its scale has taken dangerous proportions: Without anything else to aspire than the attention of others, ordinary people often become idiots, because the greatest idiots receive the maximum attention. This intrinsic bias in favor of idiocy marks the functioning of all other parts of social networks. Anyone who devotes some of their time, even a small part, to social networks has experienced it. It may not be very different from other addictions: it excites our brain, but we know it is wrong. So, what can we do? First let’s explain it a bit better, and a bit deeper. As I mentioned in a previous post, these are just few motives why it is necessary to control (or delete) your social media accounts:
1. You are losing your freedom
A vast amount of data is collected about us, moment to moment, including your facial expressions, the way your body moves, who you know, what you read, where you go, what you eat, and your likely susceptibility to assorted attempts at persuasion. This data is then used by algorithms to create feeds of stimuli, both paid ads and unpaid posts, that are designed to boost your “engagement” and increase the effectiveness of “advertisements.”
Social networks, especially Facebook, aim to keep record of all our actions as well: what we share, what we comment, what we like, where we go. "Now we are all laboratory animals," and we are part of a constant experiment for advertisers to send us their messages when we are more susceptible to them.
This has also had political consequences: the groups that distribute false news found themselves with an "interface designed to help advertisers reach their target audience with proven messages to get their attention". Facebook does not care these "advertisers" are companies that want to sell their products, political parties or distributors of false news. The system is the same for everyone and improves "when people are angry, obsessed and divided."
2. They are making you extremely unhappy
There are a vast amount of studies showing that, despite the possibilities of connection offered by social networks, we actually suffer "a growing sense of isolation", because of reasons as disparate as the irrational standards of beauty or status, for example, or vulnerability to trolls.
Algorithms, place us in categories and sort us according to our friends, followers, the number of likes or retweets, how much or little we publish. Suddenly you and other people are part of a lot of competitions where you do not you had asked to participate. These are criteria that seem insignificant to us, but that end up having an effect on real life: In the news we see, in whom it appears as a possible appointment, in which products we are offered. They can also end up influencing future jobs: many human resources managers look for their candidates on Facebook and Google.
As for the trolls, this is something completely true: We all have a troll inside. In the context of social networks, opinions are polarized and, often, discussions are not opportunities to dialogue, but to gain points at the expense of leaving others in evidence. The sour and lousy consequence, which no one foresaw, is that the negative emotions are the most often emphasized, because positive ones take too long to show up in the feedback loop that influences how paying customers and dark actors use these services to manipulate ordinary users and society.
3. They are weakening the truth
The craziest conspiracy theories often start in social networks, where their echo is amplified, often with the help of bots and "before appearing in hyper partisan media." The terraplane movement was born from few groups on Facebook, amplified by an algorithm that gave repercussion to these publications that were commented and shared more by the absurdity of its content than by its true reach.
4. They are destroying your ability to empathize
With this argument, we refer to the bubble filter, a term coined by Eli Pariser. On Facebook, for example, the news appears on the cover according to the people and media we follow and, also, depending on the content we like. The consequence is that on Internet we often access only our own bubble, that is, everything we know, with which we agree and that makes us feel comfortable.
That is, we do not see other ideas, but only their cartoons come to us. And, consequently, instead of trying to understand the reasons behind other points of view, our ideas are reinforced and dialogue is increasingly difficult.
Additionally, social media can be used to destabilize a region or a country, but it can’t at present be used to strengthen a democracy. Recent examples in my continent, such as the Mexican elections in which many hashtags were used to destabilize contenders, parties and people. The present-day online experience is biased to elevate paranoia, xenophobia, and the most irritable voices. Social media enabled the Arab Spring but was even more effective for ISIS. It propelled Black Lives Matter but was even more effective for a resurgent Klan/neofascist movement.
Some of the above elements are connected to create a measurement and feedback machine that deliberately modifies behavior. The process runs thus: customized feeds become optimized to “engage” each user, often with emotionally potent cues, leading to addiction. People don’t realize how they are being manipulated. The default purpose of manipulation is to get people more and more glued in, and to get them to spend more and more time in the system.
So, do social-media users get only garbage in return? Certainly, there are good things on social media: baby pictures, dog pictures, funny videos, goofy memes, there are vacation shots and wedding photos, which all of these are very nice. On the flipside, unfortunately social media rewards jerky behavior, encourages mass jerkdom in the larger populace, corrupts journalism (“The more successful a writer is in this system, the less he knows what he’s writing”), corrodes empathy, encourages fakery, deprives arguments of context, distorts reality, spreads unhappiness, and on and on and on as we explained.
Deep down, most of us know social media has major downsides. But hey, let’s be honest, it’s super hard to quit. Our strange situation was not conceived as an evil plot; it is a giant and tragic example of nasty unintended consequences resulting from good intentions. Originally, the idea was to reconcile the desire of digital culture to make everything free with our worship of hero entrepreneurs like Steve Jobs or Bill Gates. Facebook, Google, and other companies are many times trying to suppress foreign information warfare units, criminal gangs, hate groups, and so on, and they should be applauded for that. But overall, the effect is like what happened during alcohol prohibition. The companies are breeding ever more effective and ugly shadow organizations that casts a gray fog over the world through armies of fake people and other sneaky schemes.
We find ourselves today connected to vast repositories of knowledge and yet we have not learned to think. In fact, the opposite is true: that which was intended to enlighten the world in practice darkens it. The abundance of information and the plurality of worldviews now accessible to us through the internet are not producing a coherent consensus reality, but one riven by fundamentalist insistence on simplistic narratives, conspiracy theories, and post-factual politics. It is on this contradiction that the idea of a new dark age turns: an age in which the value we have placed upon knowledge is destroyed by the abundance of that profitable commodity, and in which we look about ourselves in search of new ways to understand the world.
People will always accept ideas presented in technological form that would be abhorrent in any other form. It is utterly ridiculous to hear my friends/colleagues claiming to be the true sons of the Digital Revolution without realizing that using computers to reduce individual expression is a primitive, retrograde activity, no matter how sophisticated your tools are.
To be alive and online in our time is to feel at once incensed and stultified by the onrush of information, helpless against the rising tide of bad news and worse opinions. Nobody understands anything: not the global economy governed by the unknowable whims of algorithms, not our increasingly volatile and fragile political systems, not the implications of the impending climate catastrophe that forms the backdrop of it all. We have created a world that defies our capacity to understand it, though not, of course, the capacity of a small number of people to profit from it. Deleting your social-media accounts might be a means of making it more bearable, and even of maintaining your sanity. But one way or another, the world being what it is, we are going to have to learn to live in it. Or to be slaves from it.