I just watched a documentary that I want to tell you about, but first, I would like to give a little history of my relationship with technology.
I LOVE technology. From the moment the 5¼” floppy disc driven Compaq allowed me to calculate compensation plans so much more easily than the old 10-key calculator, all the way to being able to pick up my TV remote and ask Siri to find what I want to watch, I’m all in.
A lot of friends are threatening to leave Facebook, but I just can’t. I can ignore the evil and negative because there is so much beauty being shared. And I keep up with friends and family I probably wouldn’t because of my introversion. Social media is an introvert’s best friend. I can moderate how much to share and read, and when.
Much of my life depends upon technology – my finances, my Ancestry.com collection, my cemajewelry.com website, and sales, meeting virtually with clients in the face of COVID.
Yet, I do worry about the “big magnet in the sky” coming down and zapping every bit and byte to wipe it all out.
If that “big magnet” hit, I couldn’t reach my son since we both only have cell service, not landlines. My connection with clients would go away – no more conference or video calls. And 10 years of building my family’s heritage in Ancestry, with all of the photos and notes left by my parents and my in-laws would evaporate. (Well, they’re actually still in a big box in the closet…)
I have also worried about data privacy, after all, you can’t read anything these days without dire warnings about cybersecurity. I work hard to protect my online privacy and identify and sense that the risk justifies the end. And hey, I don’t have anything to hide, so why should I worry, right?
And I have worried about the proliferation of artificial intelligence and machine learning. In my profession – corporate learning and human resources – we are already allowing “the machine” to select job candidates, tell us what our next career move should be, recommend online classes to get us ready for that move, and give us instantaneous feedback on our performance.
A few years ago, a software vendor came up with a way to replace the antiquated corporate performance evaluation system with “likes” – someone helped me so I gave them a “like” which determined their overall performance. Yeah, I thought that was pretty dumb, given human nature.
When I saw the trailer for Netflix’s documentary “The Social Dilemma” I just had to watch. Oh my. Apparently, I was pretty naïve. I kept thinking it was data that was threatened. I even alerted readers to a TED talk that says data has replaced land in the struggle for power.
Yes, ownership of data is an issue we, as humanity, will struggle mightily to resolve. But there is something else more personal at stake. My state of mind is at risk.
I cannot explain this in a 1,000-word essay, so if you are curious and interested, I suggest that you watch “The Social Dilemma.” But if you aren’t so inclined, here are a few tidbits. (Maybe you will be.)
Early on, technology companies realized that they had an opportunity to influence how people think and behave. This isn’t really new; the profession of Marketing has studied and implemented the art of persuasion since it’s inception. Some call it Propaganda.
Fueled by academia’s best and brightest at Stanford University, the Persuasive Technology Lab taught hundreds and Googlers and Facebookers how to use technology to influence behavior. In the documentary, the young man who invented “Likes” speaks of how quickly that proliferated. (Including corporate America’s performance evaluation systems.)
In 2013, one young Googler became concerned that technology was invading the personal space of users and shared a 141-slide-deck titled “A Call to Minimize Distraction & Respect Users’ Attention” with his colleagues at Google. He describes how the presentation caught fire and interest until it hit the desk of the CEO – then crickets. He left Google to start the Center for Humane Technology, a non-profit focused on the ethics of consumer technology.
The bottom line: we only see what our “Likes” and history show us. So, I see something different than you see and my predisposition digs in deeper and deeper because everything I thought I thought is being validated by hundreds of sources.
In the recently released book, Evil Geniuses: The Unmaking of America: A Recent History, Kurt Anderson makes a profound statement that, juxtaposed over this documentary, made me sit up and take notice. He says:
One of my subjects in Fantasyland [an earlier book] is how conspiracy-theorizing became an American bad habit, a way our chronic mixing of fiction and reality got the best of us. Of course, there are secret cabals of powerful people who work to make big bad things happen, actual conspiracies, but the proliferation of conspiracy theories since the 1960s, so many so preposterous, has the unfortunate effect of making reasonable people ignore real plots in plain sight.
Yowsers. So, I have to ask myself, what is this threat, and what do I do about it. As one of the speakers in the documentary said, technology has given us some amazing things – from recovering long-lost relationships to connecting those in need with organ donors. Throwing the baby out with the bathwater (sorry for the cliché) probably isn’t the answer.
But I wonder if the answer is far more simple. What if we all understood that our minds are being manipulated and said “No” to the manipulation. Understanding is far more than half the battle – it could be our way of escaping from this divided, angry world we seem to be living in.
I guess I could boycott Facebook, but I’m not sure what that will get me except missing the beauty I see so often. I guess I could go off the grid and leave technology behind.
My behavior change won’t make a dent in this issue. Only when those of us in the world seek to truly understand more than what we are presented online do we have a prayer of surviving what may be a “real plot in plain sight.”