No one who has been following the Cambridge Analytica story or reading about Facebook’s recent troubles concerning privacy will doubt the foresight of the subheading of my 2012 book The Social Media Mind that stated: “How Social Media Is Changing Business, Politics and Science and Helps Create a New World Order.”
Social media profiles are used to screen job applicants and those seeking a loan for a mortgage and we all know that dating has changed. The use of social media to create transparency, even when that transparency is not welcome is perhaps never shown in a more exemplary fashion that in the case of the Melissa Stetten and Brian Presley story.
I wrote about the Arab Spring in The Social Media Mind and one of its very early social media architects, Wael Ghonim speaks about its use before, during and after that time and what it portends for the future. It is tempting to get on the bandwagon of those who argue that social media should be banned. Shocking as this may sound, there is an online debate about it where a third of those who attend argue that it should.
Now, I won’t go into the Luddite nature of any attempt to roll back technology. Nor will I cite at length the similarities in authoritarianism in those in power who ask for its ban. I will instead show how Feudal Japan, united under the wily and resourceful Hidéyoshi, temporarily rolled back technological progress, abandoning even its own remarkable innovations through a policy of isolation that eventually cost it heavily.
The lesson here is about embracing rather than decrying and finding ways to amplify the positives of social media usage while controlling the negatives. Social media can certainly bring about positive change.
Our use of social media, ultimately, is about connection. It’s about reaching out to learn, understand, connect and belong. These are primary drives we experience without analyzing them much. When technology empowers us to indulge them we again do so without much analysis. In that first impetus of adoption that’s normal. But as we move further into the future we need to rethink our approach and examine our intent, actions and impact more critically.
A side-effect of social media is transparency. Information, connected, crisscrossed and indexed delivers higher levels of understanding of the world. The Golden State Killer, for example, was caught because of that. That’s a boon. Its flipside are questions about privacy and the future use of data that ethically have not yet been addressed. And, as the Palantir story bears out unless we do address them, we will find ourselves dealing with Orwellian situations that will exact a much higher cost to fix, later on.
On the whole we are a very young world and while we’re oscillating from the frivolity of Iggy Azalea’s social media sharing and the facepalm that best expresses the US Congress’ social media hearing there is no denying that we are facing some pretty deep existential issues. Nature is challenging us and large scale immigration is a multiphasic issue we have yet to formulate a coherent, socially acceptable strategy for. Our technologies that can provide answers come with built-in challenges of their own. We may feel besieged from all sides, struggling to just keep our head above water.
Where do we begin? How do we start to deal with all this? Surprisingly the answer to our future lies in our past. Traditionally we have thrived in communities that amplified our strength, bolstered our identity, reduced our stress levels and enabled us to achieve more than we ever could alone. Privacy was minimal and transparency and with it, accountability, were the norm.
That’s the place to start. While we try to define what technology should be best used for, what social media can and cannot do for us, what surveillance is good and what is bad, we should start by demanding, in the first instance radical transparency. The Panopticon effect is a game changer because it produces a much more level playing field to start off from.
Accountability and critical thinking are skillsets that need to be consciously developed. We are way past the point where life and the world just happened to us. We are way past the moment when we could sit back and let “someone else” take care of the problem because it wasn’t our job. Everything we do, absolutely everything, has an impact and an effect. Just because we don’t immediately see them is no reason to ignore them.
I hope you did the right thing today and are fully equipped with donuts, cookies, croissants and chocolate cake washed down, of course, by endless streams of delicious coffee. Have an awesome Sunday, wherever you are.