Nothing vast enters the life of mortals without a curse – Sophocles 406 BC

J. Robert Oppenheimer headed up The Manhattan Project, responsible for the research and design of the atomic bomb during WWII.  A major concern of his prior to the Trinity Test was whether this bomb would set the atmosphere alight.  Some may still had no idea, when the bombs were dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima, if this would be the consequence.. It wasn’t, however, it became evident that it did have the potential for limitless destruction throughout time.

The evolution of social media is less obvious but just as dark.

In 2020 Netflix explored this impact, interviewing tech experts from major companies including Facebook, Nvidia, Twitter, Google, Instagram, and Twitter. In their opinion, at the outset, the impact was positive (reuniting family and friends, finding organ donors and so on), but, as time went by, it became obvious that this was changing.  Many of these experts have resigned for ethical reasons.

In an interview with Whoopy Goldberg, Janor Lanier, well known American computer scientist,  spoke about his book “Ten reasons why you should delete your social media accounts right now” and why he is concerned about how tech is “ruining our lives”.

And then there is the Barbie effect.  As these companies have continued to grow aggressively, they have come under scrutiny.  Concerns have arisen around mental health and its link to social media.  Young people are becoming isolated and live in a world of their own. They have changed the way they communicate.

Young women, and increasingly men, are being brought up in a world where they seek to look like their edited online pictures.  This, in turn they believe, will lead to status, friendship, prospects and self-worth.  Now they can be edited by cosmetic surgery – this market has grown exponentially. 

In the US, a sense of fake, short term, perceived perfection has resulted in teen suicide rising by 70% in the age band 15 – 19 since 1999 and 151% in 10 to 14 year-olds.  Hospital admissions for non-fatal self-harm has increased by over 60%.

Algorithms and superintelligence. Cathy O’Neil, data scientist and author of “Weapons of Mass destruction” refers to algorithms being opinions that are imbedded in code, they are not objective, they are optimised by companies for e.g., to achieve some level of success and usually for profit.

They are advancing exponentially. Machine learning is a reality, and the creators are powerless.  They don’t know nor fully understand what the outcome will be.

Shoshana Zuboff PhD and author of “The age of surveillance capitalism” opines that as advertisers are the method of payment – what they want is data, your data and plenty of it.  How much of your life can you give to them?  She believes that this is a totally new market which trades on human futures, rather like pork belly futures or financial futures. They produce trillions of dollars for tech companies to fund their rooms full of powerful computers.

Given the major negative societal consequences one can argue that it makes sense to shut these companies down.

How do you close-down a $20b company and destroy shareholder value when revenue growth is required quarter after quarter. How do you put the genie back into the bottle?

 “If you are not paying for a product, then you are the product, it’s the gradual, slight, imperceptible change in your own behaviour and perception that is the product”.

These systems are controlling 2 billion users worldwide.

Social Media can lead to civil unrest.  For example, Facebook Myanmar Weaponising social media is a new way of manipulating public opinion and inciting.  In Myanmar this erupted into violent mass killings, destruction of villages and mass rape.  In the US, there was the Capitol Hill protest following Trumps election loss.

Imagine a time when no-one believes that anything is true, believes that the govt is lying to them, everything is conspiracy theory and there is no-one to trust. We outlaw human trafficking, paedophilia, and human organs because they have destructive consequences.

In closing, it is interesting to see how many of the tech executives working for these companies do not permit their children to have unlimited access to SM.

Key takeaways: 

  • law of unintended consequences – the dark side of social media/ Oppenheimer dilemma.
  • loss of time – spending 6 plus hours on social media, leaves little time to think.
  • fake news – inability to discern between that which is real and that which is not.
  • violent outcomes
  • poor self-image: which could lead to cosmetic surgery and mental health issues.

Fintax is an authorized FSP642

Author: Anabel Mackie

23 November 2023