Social Media, and Technology in the Modern Context

One would be hard pressed to not have heard at least one story about big tech throughout the course of last year. We’re constantly wrestling as a society about the role tech occupies in our daily lives. Not just as instigators of public discourse we thought maybe even ten years ago wouldn’t have been of much importance in our current climate, but also; gadgets and devices that take up that much more of our increasingly shrinking time, we’ve come to reckon with the consequences of the type of dialogue, and conversation tech engages around its usability, versus companies harnessing it to increase engagement regardless of cost.

When I first created my Facebook account, I was 13 — right over the edge of legality. I was still going to middle-school at the time and didn’t think much of the platform when it first started gaining traction within my entourage. What it was always painted as in the media, and through politicians, is that it was the natural evolution of telecom technology following the period of relative public unrest that has come to dominate the entire globe during the Cold War. No longer were the United States and its allies interested in curbing their foreign policy around the inconveniences of bracing for the threat of Communism. It was more about finding an individual voice each of us could identify with in the absence of a common enemy. The Soviet Union was it for most people, the United States to some. But we’ve all unceremoniously come to an agreement that wagging our nuclear-sized dicks about wasn’t going to bring the enlightenment Atomic America has long-promised us.

The trajectory of technological growth has seen a sharp spike since the end of World War II. The spirit of the late Gordon Moore was crystallized in the public discourse. The common expectation was that technology was only going to get better and open our minds up to stark realizations about our role in modern society. This box you plugged into your wall outlet and displayed images beamed from a station far away was just an indication of things to come. That whatever change would then ensue is only to enrich our experiences. But did it really? Was the promise of exponential growth in the sector of technology a fluke, or are we merely engaging in a never-ending phase of transition, where the next technology prematurely precedes over its ancestor without much regard for digital literacy or proficiency?

We can’t just opt out of using technology. It has become so fundamentally essential to everything we do — from vices to profession; owning a phone, a computer or the most safety features-ridden car hasn’t just become a matter of personal preference, we’re almost coerced to partake in a culture of technology regardless if we approve of its effects. From kids taking command of a slab-shaped ship to adults mashing away at plastic shrouds with Latin lettering on top, we human beings will shape the entirety of technology’s legacy whether we like it or not; and it’s perhaps time to have these conversations, instead of shunning them aside and writing off their initiators as luddites.

Try to ask someone the simple question of whether technology has been beneficiary to their lives. They’ll probably answer on principle more than on actual input — it fundamentally proves that we as a culture still don’t know how to deal with these issues without masquerading the most vocal as a pack of lunatics whose only goal is to stir unnecessary clash. When in reality, they’re most definitely of utmost importance in our current context.

The simple act of engaging in a discussion of technology requires a level of literacy very few individuals possess.

I spent a good bit of last week listening to Anil Dash’s rigorous thoughts on the role technology plays in our culture. One thing I always came away with is how deeply one-sided the perspective we get from media is, and how utterly slow the shift from a congratulatory narrative of big tech to a skeptical one is. These projects started as the whimsical thoughts of a young group of people. They were not concerned about genocide, weaponizing hate speech, or campaigns of harassment in the slightest. They legitimately were trapped in a bubble of middle-class white oblivion that completely shielded them from seeing the potentially harmful consequences.

Lisa Phillips articulated this perfectly in the episode talking about the state of social media 20 years ago:

“Why am even doing this? What is this even worth? Does it even matter to people? I mean it’s just a website, it’s just tech, it doesn’t have meaning in the real world.” Because at that point it wasn’t totally, you know, a given that the Internet would become as ubiquitous as it is. It still seemed like frivolous.

It’s not an isolated thought. What Lisa expressed was a shared sentiment amongst Silicon Valley adventurers. The internet has become merely a new avenue of business to explore, and its ramifications were most definitely not that well considered at the time.

The internet was just a fun experiment. A passive jostle we indulged in because it seemed like the cool thing no one took well-versed tech nerds seriously on. While -the incredible-Kara Swisher was sounding the alarms years and years back, everyone was just busy figuring out how to make their newly found strife a viable business venture. Not at all concerned with the cost, or the consequences.

Never would I have thought when we first got our computer, with an antiquated pin-based Intel Pentium 4 and an add-in SiS graphics card, later to be equipped with a dial-up modem, that it would have this election-meddling, social fabric disrupting, discrimination amplifying effect. Why would I? It seemed like an innocent attempt at traversing a world I hadn’t thought of crossing before. And it didn’t look like radio or television was any more than a pastime whose only crime was reshaping our get-togethers. So if anything, it seemed more at the time that anyone who’d get in the way of the internet having it as it wishes, was poised to get stomped; furthermore, turned into fossil fuel as their ideas are slowly being absorbed into the highly volatile crust of unconditional Silicon Valley appraisal.

Even in my wildest imagination, I don’t think it was possible to foresee a future where Facebook would play an instrumental role in the displacement of the Rohingya, spreading right-wing rhetoric to Jair Bolsonaro’s benefit or helped elect to the most powerful position it's least qualified.

But you don’t have to take it from me, let Mark Zuckerberg further expound on the issue of Myanmar in an interview with aforementioned Recode’s Kara Swisher. Here’s what he had to say:

I want make sure that our products are used for good. At the end of the day, other people blaming us or not is actually not the thing that matters to me. It’s not that every single thing that happens on Facebook is gonna be good. This is humanity. People use tools for good and bad, but I think that we have a clear responsibility to make sure that the good is amplified and to do everything we can to mitigate the bad.

That is not what you want to hear from someone in charge of the most deciding factor in an international conflict. Mark couldn't have been more coy or negligent about the impact the platform he helped create, is having on real people, leading real lives.

Executives of tech companies clearly want to absolve themselves of all responsibility. That much we know from congressional hearings where members of the 115th Congress handled questions with impotence. There was simply no sign of lawmakers having a remote grasp on what the core issue is. When the very people tasked with providing a consistent policy stance on big corporations’ influence on technology lack the fundamental understanding of their subjects -so much so they need a hearing- it showcases a true failure on part of the American government — that they couldn’t provide the solutions their constituents would so desire even on the back of explanations executives would provide, for which there is no other resort but downgrading the rhetoric to a first grader’s.

Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah famously made the egregiously misguided assumption that Facebook couldn’t possibly sustain its business without selling its service to end users, to which Mark Zuckerberg infamously replied: “We run ads”.

It’s impossible to overstate how much of a bad look this is for both lawmakers, and tech executives alike. People get to rag on Republicans for not having the slightest idea of how an important sector of the economy functions, and tech executives could constantly make the mildly defendable case that congressional hearings are mere wastes of time and would not yield the long-desired results of tightening the government’s grip on the progressively unpredictable realm of mainstream consumer technology.

As concerning as Mark’s lax attitude towards extremism and misinformation is, it isn’t perhaps as equally obvious to pinpoint the problem with Google and promoting search results which could lead to religious fanaticism and political extremism. Sure enough, Sundar Pichai’s congressional hearing was unfruitful all the same.

Rep. Steve King of Iowa was not going to pass up the opportunity of making himself look like a fool on national television. When Google CEO Sundar Pichai was puzzlingly inquired about a news alert on his granddaughter’s iPhone, he simply had to politely remind that Apple and Google are two different companies. The fact it was needed at all is chilling.

Rep. Ro Khanna of California seems to show off more optimism after Democrats have taken back the house. In his own words, when asked by Nilay Patel, The Verge’s Editor-in-Chief, he had this to say:

Well, [the people] should expect action. There was no action taken in the last Congress after massive breaches of people’s data, whether that was Equifax or Facebook or, more recently, Google. People want to have some assurance that their privacy, their data is going to be protected. This stuff isn’t rocket science. We know what we need. We need a basic protection for people having access to their data and knowing where their data is.

It would’ve been quite a useful predicament if big tech invested more heavily in inquiring about the societal impact their prized possessions have on the daily lives of human beings. But as history has shown us, business lacks that power of self-regulation in almost every single case imaginable. If their mission statement doesn’t specifically mention being beholden to a standard of moral appendance like a UN-recognized charity as say Human Rights Watch would, it is very unlikely that their strategy involves any focus on self-betterment, much less, self-awareness.

The research on the topic exists, but none really conclusive. The availability of data is such a hard balance to strike when your entire business model depends on a semblance of secrecy. If Google were to disclose how its search engine manages to beat out Bing for instance, then every single competitor would be on their way to make a competitive product with next to no R&D involved. The incentive to innovate is simply gone at that point, and in any attempt to rekindle it, entire industries could soon see to their end, and if we’re really unlucky, dissenters will use that information to promote hateful rhetoric, and we’re all worse off.

Nesting grounds for extremist behavior have been of interest to me for a long time. For as long as I’ve used the internet, I’ve always in some way shape or form interacted with social media — whether it was phishing on Yahoo! Mail, random people soliciting sex on Facebook, being called a terrorist for revealing I’m a Muslim, or ostracized for the fact I held more progressive views than your average layman — there was always a bone to pick with someone, and I hadn’t always had the tools to properly articulate it, if mostly for the fact I’ve never been educated on it; after all, no one saw any use in doing so.

Therein lies the most interesting story: How people on the fringes of society, financially or socially, use social media and modern consumer technology to elevate their status, and how people on the opposite end of the spectrum plot to do the opposite.

Caroline Sanders was one of the very first researchers I ever heard talk about online harassment campaigns in the broader context of digital literacy, in relation with political polarization. She breaks it down as follows in a brilliant Medium piece titled “An Incomplete (but growing) History of Harassment Campaigns since 2003”. There exists a branching tree of resources on the origins of online harassment, Gamergate and a bunch of other notable online, taken-to-real-life movements of social retaliation:

The rise of misinformation, disinformation, and digital violence coming from organized spaces of the alt-right and far-right, I argue, do come from the same and similar spaces that launched online harassment campaigns.

Just like where it was least obvious, it’s important to remember currents online cannot only exert felt impact on real life, but they can also morph into becoming a real movement. That’s the power of something previously dubbed as “just pixels on a screen”. The emotional weight we project onto it gives it real power. And the American government, is nowhere close to realizing just how absolutely crucial it is to at least come up with a comprehensive plan of attack for what has almost made itself a new form of imperialism. Not the kind where the United States engages in foreign conflict, but rather the kind where American companies operate on a multinational level with next to no oversight on just how much influence they’re allowed to have.

Scott Galloway, professor of New York University Stern School of Business made the bold prediction that Big Tech is due for a major reckoning in 2019. Whether the course of past altercations with executives of major tech companies is anything to judge by is a story we won’t really know the rear end of until the year has gone past, but needless to say, with a new Congress in session, things are due for a change. The extent of it, however, is still an unknown variable, given Democrats still haven’t clearly defined their strategy on regulating big tech while they still hold the political capital.

It’s important to realize that the solutions on offer are nowhere near efficient to combat this unprecedented surge in verbal online violence. While some might point to rigorous moderation as a quick resort, almost all but a few will cite platforms’ reluctance to claim themselves as such, and rather sticking to a classification of “publishers” even when actual evidence to their involvement in moderating user-created content points to the contrary. If social media platforms were simply “publishers”, they wouldn’t nearly wield the same power they do now even more recklessly than media companies as say CNN would, for the simple fact they’re beholden to higher standards.

Whether regulation shivs the deepest wound in big tech’s cockiness remains to be seen, but it can be unequivocally agreed upon that their impact is as wildly unpredictable as the very field they so wish to curtail. What we can reliably depend upon however, is people’s technological literacy. How to use technology in a way that isn’t predicated on rushes of dopamine, or the immediate sigh of relief after a post has hit a certain reward system threshold — but rather, completely founded on the mutual understanding and belief that using technology to further the human race isn’t an imperative, or something we can expect to happen regardless of outcome, it’s something each and every single one of us has to individually cultivate, to make a reality.

It isn’t ultimately the question of whether 4chan exists that begs a most urgent resolution for example. 4chan and its ideological siblings were born to satisfy a need that always lingered in the back of the human consciousness. That will to relentlessly antagonize without carefully calculating the consequences isn’t something we’re born with — it’s learned behavior. And what we can best do in averting an even greater crisis of political polarization is properly educating the upcoming generation on the pivotal role it played on sinking entire societies with low-scoring sociopolitical stability metrics, to chaos.

Being an “expert” in utilizing technology and social media, is a narrowly defined concept within the very constraints of Instagram, Facebook, Google, or whomever have set for themselves. It’s not of uncontested veracity that anyone knows how to use Twitter because they get the most likes, or the most retweets. That simply signals people’s willingness to interact with the level of literacy on display — as is aptly matching theirs. If you’re a right-winger with very low regard for immigrants seeking asylum, you’re more likely to have hit like on a tweet of Donald Trump’s; it’s as easy to conceive if you’re a tech nerd, you might’ve thought favorably of a tweet coming from Elon Musk; and if you’re somehow at all involved with #BlackLivesMatter, you’ll most certainly have come across a tweet from notorious social justice activist Shaun King. These aren’t circumstances born out of thin air — they’re products of the way we congregate, and the way we meet, and the less information we have on the environment we engage in, the more likely we’re to agree or endorse a view of uttermost harm to groups of people on any given platform.

Associate professor of computer science at Georgetown University and digital minimalist, Cal Newport. Courtesy of Business Insider.

This is not an issue one single person can solve. What this Medium story seeks to achieve at the end of the day, is ignite a discussion around the role of technology in modern society. It is a conversation we desperately need to have, but very few people are willing to. With ideologues like Cal Newport, Jonathan Haidt, and many more cautioning against the negative effects of adopting new technology with the foremost presence of lackluster consideration for what it can do, it looks like awareness is growing — but it’s far from becoming commonplace. Anil Dash spells it out best in his interview with Ezra Klein:

There is a weakness, in a lot of the criticism -this is true of the 80s and it’s true now- where [luddites] are not fluent enough in the technology to have a nuanced criticism […] They’re not wrong about identifying the threat but they’re not fluent enough to articulate it in a way that’s effective […] Because of that sort of lack of fluency, the technologists still defined the framing of the entire conversation.

It is as such, why I advise anyone who doesn’t have a vested interest in seeing tech preside over every single aspect of their lives, to reserve judgment. Its wrinkles are far too many to be swiftly ironed out.