Something is rotten in the state of technology.
Amid all the hand-wringing over fake news, the cries of election deforming Kremlin disinformation plots, the calls from political podia for tech giants to locate a social conscience, a knottier realization is taking shape.
Fake news and disinformation are just a few of the symptoms of what’s wrong and what’s rotten. The problem with platform giants is something far more fundamental.
The problem is these vastly powerful algorithmic engines are blackboxes. And, at the business end of the operation, each individual user only sees what each individual user sees.
The great lie of social media has been to claim it shows us the world. And their follow-on deception: That their technology products bring us closer together.
In truth, social media is not a telescopic lens — as the telephone actually was — but an opinion-fracturing prism that shatters social cohesion by replacing a shared public sphere and its dynamically overlapping discourse with a wall of increasingly concentrated filter bubbles.
Social media is not connective tissue but engineered segmentation that treats each pair of human eyeballs as a discrete unit to be plucked out and separated off from its fellows.
Think about it, it’s a trypophobic’s nightmare.
Or the panopticon in reverse — each user bricked into an individual cell that’s surveilled from the platform controller’s tinted glass tower.
Little wonder lies spread and inflate so quickly via products that are not only hyper-accelerating the rate at which information can travel but deliberately pickling people inside a stew of their own prejudices.
First it panders then it polarizes then it pushes us apart.
We aren’t so much seeing through a lens darkly when we log onto Facebook or peer at personalized search results on Google, we’re being individually strapped into a custom-moulded headset that’s continuously screening a bespoke movie — in the dark, in a single-seater theatre, without any windows or doors.
Are you feeling claustrophobic yet?
It’s a movie that the algorithmic engine believes you’ll like. Because it’s figured out your favorite actors. It knows what genre you skew to. The nightmares that keep you up at night. The first thing you think about in the morning.
It knows your politics, who your friends are, where you go. It watches you ceaselessly and packages this intelligence into a bespoke, tailor-made, ever-iterating, emotion-tugging product just for you.