Disclaimer #1: I hate Facebook. I think the vast majority of its content perpetuates some of society’s most disturbing inclinations: narcissism, falsehoods, echo chambers and targeted advertisements.
Disclaimer #2: I hate Google for the ads, too. Also, I think its algorithms are ridiculously indiscriminate, typically displaying one page of relevant results followed by millions of worthless and redundant results (i.e. a search for “Google sucks now” produced 167,000,000 results). Google too often becomes a brainless crutch to use in place of exercising our natural curiosity, critical thinking and memory.
That said, I will admit these marginally redeeming qualities: Facebook can be convenient for sending out information; and Google for receiving information.
MIND THESE FULL-ON THREATS
While the above rant expresses my personal opinions, In World Without Mind: The Existential Threat of Big Tech author Franklin Foer explains objectively why we should all take personal offense to the goals and actions of Facebook, Google and other tech behemoths.
Foer (@FranklinFoer) establishes his case against the most ambitious tech companies simply by stating the obvious: “They aspire to become a repository for precious and private items, our calendars and contacts, our photos and documents.” He then adds this subtle, but equally alarming concern: “They intend for us to unthinkingly turn to them for information and entertainment, while they build unabridged catalogs of our intentions and aversions.”
Yet it the warning Foer directs to us on a personal level that should cause us to hit the “pause” button on social media. “The tech companies are destroying something precious, which is the possibility of contemplation. They have created a world in which we’re constantly watched and always distracted. Through their accumulation of data, they have constructed a portrait of our minds, which they use to invisibly guide mass behavior (and increasingly individual behavior) to further their financial interests.”
Next, Foer confronts the extreme reality that should scare some social media users from pausing to stopping altogether. “The companies have already succeeded in their goal of altering human evolution. We’ve all become a bit cyborg. Our phone is an extension of our memory; we’ve outsourced basic mental functions to algorithms; we’ve handed over our secrets to be stored on servers and mined by our computers.”
So what if we waste hours upon hours on sharing and voyeurism, and binge clicking and watching? This is our new form of socialization and entertainment. So what if we’re buying too much of stuff we don’t need? Let the buyer beware, caveat emptor.
Don’t be deceived. The problem with such transformation extends far beyond commercialization. It adversely impacts our democracy. Ironically, it has taken Russia’s manipulation of our internet dependence for us to become skeptical of the dominance of big tech, which nearly two-thirds of us rely on for all “news.” Our ability to tell fact from fiction is diminishing, Foer warns. “So, instead of shaping public opinion, [tech giants] exploit the public’s worst tendencies, its tribalism and paranoia.”
WHO’S PLAYING WITH WHO?
Think the tech industry will eventually fix this stuff? Think Foer and the like are crying wolf? You should know what’s happening within Stanford’s impressive brick walls. Where there’s something called the Persuasive Tech Lab, run by psychologist and innovator B.J Fogg, author of the book Persuasive Technology: Using Computers to Change What We Think and Do. He proudly refers to his work on mass interpersonal persuasion as “the most significant advance in persuasion since radio was invented in the 1890s.”
As if to alleviate future concerns, Fogg concludes one of his papers, “If human nature were fundamentally bad, I would be worried about MIP. Certainly, this new power could have a dark side. But I believe we humans are fundamentally good.”
Not only do I question Fogg’s Pollyannaish premise about human nature, I believe big tech is playing us for fools and robbing us blind in the process.
Illustration credit: Robert Neubecker, Wall Street Journal, 7-14-17