Op/Ed

Ways of Seeing: Technology has certain pitfalls

The other night I was doing my evening Facebook scroll. I noticed that a friend had posted an announcement that she’d be deleting her social media account. She described how she’s watched a new documentary called The Social Dilemma on Netflix, which pointed to the degrading impact of social media, in particular, on our culture and society. And as a result, she was leaving.
I was intrigued. We’ve refused to get an Alexa (Amazon’s voice-activated “helper”) in our house, and I don’t use Siri or Google Assistant. Those seemed clearly too Big Brother to me. But I wondered if this film, coupled with my urge to disconnect from my technology proclivity, might just nudge me to choices that feel more aligned with my values. So I watched The Social Dilemma last night. It was chilling. And it made so much sense.
Here’s what I learned: We’ve all heard about the potential threat of Artificial Intelligence. If you’re like me, that might make you think of a dystopian world where armed military cyborg robots take over the world, along the lines of The Terminator. The tech industry insiders featured in this docudrama argued that in fact AI is already here and taking over — in the form the algorithms that track and predict individuals’ behaviors — and then use that data to provide an endless stream of customized content, creating the echo chambers we know. 
So what? Who doesn’t love something that’s special, just for them? I mean, I’ve been vaguely aware of this for some time, but I figured it was pretty harmless, and why wouldn’t I prefer seeing what I don’t even know I’m looking for?
My mom always told me that “if something’s too good to be true, then it’s probably not true,” and, “you don’t get something for nothing.’ Both of those tried-and-true adages hold up here as well. Why are Google, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc free? Because we are the product. 
Have you ever wondered how lately we seem so far apart? How the divide in our country seems to be growing wider by the day? Have you noticed how your social media feed seems to show the same folks, despite your vast friend list? Why the ad for the product you were just talking about seems to magically pop up on your feed? Turns out none of it is a coincidence.
For most of us, our every move is tracked online. And that data is a commodity. It’s what Harvard Business School Professor Shoshana Zuboff calls surveillance capitalism, and it’s eating at the fabric of our society. Our minds are being colonized by machines, algorithms, that are becoming stronger and more successful every day. They are creating alternative realities, spewing conspiracy theories, and spawning unrest and division.
Because these algorithms can’t decipher truth from fiction. They can only respond to clicks and likes. And they’re built to generate as many clicks as possible: if you liked … you may like… And so they send, among other things, conspiracy theories spiraling out. 
Yet even knowing this, it can be hard to break away. And that’s also by design. Technology engineers exploit human psychology to tap into our weaknesses, in the same way that a slot machine delivers a pulse of dopamine to keep us happy and endlessly pulling the lever. We love technology because it’s been custom-designed for us to love —to not be able to walk away from.
After gleaning all this from the cheesy-yet-informative docudrama, it does leave me with a social dilemma. We’re in the middle of a pandemic, most of my social connections are through social media. But am I willing to pay the price? Am I willing to participate in and comply with the decline of civility (and perhaps civilization)? I don’t think so. For now, I’ve suspended my Facebook account and stopped using Twitter and Instagram. I’m making a slow but thoughtful exit.
Am I overreacting? Maybe. Maybe not. Say I am overblowing the severity of this, what then? I ditch social media and spend a lot less time with my phone. Maybe I read more, connect with my family and the people I care about via email, or even, gasp, the phone (until we can be in person again). I spend a little more time being present, rather than endlessly scrolling and refreshing.  And if this isn’t overblown? Maybe, just maybe, I free my mind from the Matrix.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not ditching technology altogether. In this world apart these days, Zoom is a lifeline. I find having the day’s headlines or the weather at my fingertips extremely convenient. But I don’t want to be the product anymore.
Don’t just take my word for it. Do your own research. Consider multiple, credible sources. And then decide for yourself if the benefits outweigh the costs. It may be an easy equation to solve.
Emily Hoyler lives in the woods of Ripton with her husband, three children, a dog, a cat, 19 chickens, and assorted other wild things. She works as an educator, facilitator, and climate activist.

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