Social Media: Dystopia out of Utopia

Social media addicted

A whiff of fresh air caresses my cheekbones as I see the leaves sway periodically from right to left. My eyes search in both the direction of the road to look at the cycles pass by whilst absorbing the warmth of the sun for the first time in days. The scent of wildflowers fills the air as I walk my way to the park seeing humans around me- humans with bubbles around them, with eyes stuck on their phones- in a world of their own. This little incident reminds me of the passage I read a while ago- ‘The Look’ by Jean Paul Sartre- the existential philosopher of the 20th century. Sartre very carefully describes the concept of how each human considers themselves in a bubble where they are the centre of their universe. They fall in despair when they realise that it isn’t so, they fall in anguish when they understand that there are people out there unlike him, with different opinions and virtues who are not part of their own little bubble. So aren’t we in the same bubble stuck with our phones? Seeing what we want to see? Believing that what we see is the ultimate reality?

In a recently aired documentary by Netflix- ‘The Social Dilemma’ a number of tech experts talk about the impact of technology. Needless to say, it isn’t something we already don’t know, but it is something we really need to hear. As very precisely explained in the documentary, the social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Google, and Instagram are a cause of something more than just an addiction, it is a cause of our behaviour, the cause of the people we grow into. In simple terms, each of the social site uses our data- regarding our tastes and preferences, likes and dislikes in order to analyse and predict our future choices. As per Google, Facebook generates 4 petabytes of data per day, that is a million gigabytes. This data is then used to influence our behaviour, show us targeted ads and keep us glued to the screen.

If this is not daunting enough, we should dig a little deeper. When a company treats us as the ‘commodity’ that they sell to the advertisement companies in order to generate money, it is working on more than just a business plans. With the help of Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning, the company can accurately forecast what we want to see, and they show us exactly that. It is as simple as giving candy to a child. But it gets problematic when it starts influencing our opinions- socially, politically and economically. As social media is not restricted to just advertisements, it shows the user the political views they believe, the theory they consider as certain. It will show a person who believes in the ‘Flat Earth Theory’, that there are thousands others who are talking about it, hundreds of others who believe it and considering it as the truth. This creates a picture in the mind of the individual that his theory is the ultimate truth and all other views are wrong. This creates a safe bubble around him and when someone with a different view tries to enter that bubble he is left in a hostile situation. This has precisely led to what the documentary has stated as polarisation- fights and eventually riots.

But the challenge is a little more problematic. It is not only that these huge companies are showing us what we want to see, these companies are deciding what we want to see much before we decide it ourselves. With the help of artificial intelligence, the companies feed us information, according to what goes with our personal interests. They engrave us with information which leads our behaviour to develop in a direction which these huge organisations intend. They psychologically manipulate the user by conducting experiments and seeing that if it is possible to influence real-time emotions and decisions. Let’s take a small example. This persuasive technology is used by Facebook, it keeps showing ads regarding the ‘crop top’ you searched on Google in the afternoon. It will constantly show you the ad subtly until you go and buy it. This power of manipulation and using psychological analysis against the users create a world where these illusions start seeming like reality and the users have no idea that they are being manipulated at every step. This reminds me of yet another philosopher who talked about the Theory of Forms. The Greek Philosopher Plato in the ‘Allegory of Cave’ describes the theories of forms. This talks about three men tied inside a cave facing the wall from their birth. All they can see are shadows of the people passing by and they relate their footsteps with those shadows. After several years, one of them is left out of the cave in the real world outside. For him, getting accustomed to the real world becomes a challenge as all his life, his reality has resided in those shadows that were formed against that wall. The theory continues but the point till here is simple- the cavemen consider the shadows as reality. For them, the illusion is what constitutes as real as they have been used to it since time immemorial. And now, it is happening with each one of us as we have been living in an illusioned world- where our choices have been manipulated and we have been forced to believe that they are our real choices. It has made us believe that what we see on the net- real or fake is the truth, the choices we make are the reality whereas the actual mastermind is just a computer with simple algorithms, analysing us and making us become a different person altogether.

Other than becoming a different person, it is no surprise that the companies might be out there selling our data in order to procure more ads. But what the most disturbing element about it is that we are living in a state of surveillance where all our move, every action is noticed, analysed and made profit out of. It is no less than living the life of Winston Smith of the novel ‘1984’, being looked at by the big brother at all times- without any viable option to escape. This surveillance has led to a lack of privacy, has fostered depression and addiction. It has led to the spread of uncredible news and hatred yet, even after all these negatives, we cannot neglect the good it has brought to the society. The internet has made our lives a thousand times easier, it has brought the world closer and has increased efficiency hundreds of time. It has been a boon and a bane at the same time, but now it’s high time to accept this Frankenstein’s monster and humanise their products than treating the users as pawns and rooks.

Srijoni Hore is a post graduate student in Delhi University

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