The avalanche of criticism about the corrosive impact of social media has tended to focus on the viral spread of lies. But social media—indeed technological progress as a whole—may be harming us no less by revealing the unvarnished truth about ourselves.
To truly understand the contours of the problem, consult a 2011 episode of the brilliant TV series Black Mirror, called „The Entire History of You.” It depicts a near future when brain implants can replay our memories for us as if they were videos. That sounds useful—until you realize that the device would naturally also be able to display them to others. Thus does our suspicious hero discover his wife’s infidelity when he insists that she replay certain memories for him.
The realization dawns upon us—and the now regretful hero—that this is a world in which lies and deception are no longer possible. And that is a world in which no one wants to live.
Black Mirror is not alone. Indeed, our mythology and philosophy have long wrestled with the theme that some knowledge is too much.
Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden of Eden for eating from the Tree of Knowledge (of good and evil). The German legend of Faust involves the exchange of the protagonist’s soul (rarely a good idea) for unlimited knowledge (and pleasure). Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus is a cautionary tale of the unbridled pursuit of knowledge: it leads to the creation of a monster who brings calamity and ruin.
Shelley’s idea of the monster that is our creation is carried through modern culture. In the 1984 classic film The Terminator humankind’s pursuit of technological advancements creates artificial intelligence so advanced that it takes over the world and endangers the survival of the species.
Anyone questioning technology has long invited unflattering comparison to the Luddites—British textile workers who fought in vain the mechanization of their industry, correctly fearing that machines would displace them.
In the economy, the widely accepted theory says that enough new jobs will magically materialize in place of the ones that disappear. And until recently, this has been true. But the pace and extent at which artificial intelligence is making jobs redundant may exceed our ability to retrain—or even the ability of the workforce to adapt. Not everyone can be a computer engineer. Let this just play out and you can expect mass unemployment, social malaise and an unhelpful epidemic of both anger and idiocy.
Just as we no longer have a consensus that Adam Smith’s „the invisible hand” will ensure the interests of society—that a rising tide will lift all ships—so will we witness revisionist thinking on the value of technological advancement being totally unchained.
- Robert Oppenheimer famously regretted his role in leading the Manhattan Project that created the atomic bomb. Nuclear research brought us nuclear energy and myriad scientific applications, but also the power to destroy civilization—perhaps life. Does one balance the other out? Which way does it net?
The question becomes acute with the current democratization of knowledge. Nuclear (and other) weapons, and destructive knowledge in general, seem likely to eventually reach not just rogue regimes but terrorists.
Much of that angst is directed toward „Big Tech.” One poll found 70 percent of Americans want the government to regulate the industry over privacy fears. There is serious antipathy toward the metaverse project, or even facial recognition.
The most acute issue is currently with social media. As ever, it has a good side: everyone can be a publisher, archivist and autobiographer, and we all can stay in touch with our friends from the past. The early signs of a problem had mostly to do with disruption of other industries, in particular journalism.
About 15 years into the social media age, we know much more about how nefarious the platforms are. Most of them are algorithmically designed to addict and to appeal to our basest instincts of vanity and jealousy. They promote competition over collaboration. We tend to seek titillation more than information.
It turns out humans are on average poor judges of what is truth—and that favors lies, which are almost always more interesting because they are unshackled from the burden of fact. The spread of heinous nonsense via social media has thus become a genuine political emergency.
Many of us are zombified, spending long hours scrolling in search of petty satisfactions, and young people especially are traumatized about body image. An immense proportion of social media activity has taken on aspects of pornography—if not of the human body, then of houses or food.
And then there is the problem of too much truth, where we began.
Because of the allure of no barrier to entry and zero cost for distribution to every person in every corner of the globe, people can’t shut up. And even when they try to lie, the lies are revealing of the essence of their character.
And so, we learn what people really think. We know now with a clarity that eluded us not so long ago exactly what the intellectual and moral level of our compatriots is.
We know who people hate, what nonsense they believe, what base concerns drive them, what cruelty they’re capable of and what vanity has gripped their spirit. We see clearly who has deep thoughts and who is inclined to trade on looks and provocations (see this survey of what crazy things people do for online fame). We see how social media makes us nasty, brutish, and infantile.
There is something about civilization that gets forgotten in this environment, in which lies are attached to fake news and populist lunacies: Lies of the white variety have value. Viewed through a certain prism they are decency, decorum, and diplomacy, if you will.
It seems technologies that give the lie to our lies may be the most dangerous technologies of all.
This article was published in Newsweek.
Dan Perry is managing partner of the New York-based communications firm Thunder11. He is the former Cairo-based Middle East editor and London-based Europe/Africa editor of the Associated Press. Follow him at twitter.com/perry_dan
‘Troll factory’ spreading Russian pro-war lies on social media, UK says