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The Digital Damage
Wisdom Letter 25 | The one about our Dystopian Present
What is the first thing you do after waking up every morning?
Think about it, take your time.
Okay, got it.
What is the last thing you do before going to sleep every night?
Yeah, thought so. Me Too.
We are all in this together. We are all addicted to the cold rectangular slabs of glass in our pockets that we like to call our ‘smart’-phones.
We love the apps installed on our phones. Apps with their endless feeds and ever popping notification messages. The dopamine high we get from them is no less than crack cocaine. No wonder we find ourselves reaching out to unlock our phones at every waking moment throughout the day, many a times more than 100 times a day. And its often without any preconceived intent, so we act almost like zoned out zombies who suddenly gain consciousness in the middle of a 10 minute scrolling session that we never remember starting.
It’s our reptilian brain controlling our hands, and eyes and thumbs. Our prefrontal cortex is often not even aware of these actions. As digital marketing genius Nir Eyal would like to say, we are ‘Hooked’.
Its cliche to attribute our reducing attention spans to the advent of technology and social media. It’s common knowledge now, and we even have plenty of awareness being spread about the problem, as well as work being done to remedy the effects.
But the problem is deeper than just the falling attention span, and there are more sinister powers at play here than just the smart silicon valley kids in hoodies wanting to “change the world”.
Our minds are malleable entities, run by deep seated emotions of fear and anger. They are prone to the simplest of persuasion tactics. Our mind can believe anything that appeals to our tribal instincts, even if its something absurd or irrational.
Marketers have always known this and have utilized this to their agenda. And historically that agenda has been to sell us something harmless like Febreze. Or sometimes, something harmful like Cigarettes.
But with the advent of technology and the ability to gather large amounts of data about our daily mundane interactions on the internet, the malleability of our minds is being used to control what we think and how we think, who we hate, love, and most of all, who we vote for.
The very flexibility and adaptability of mind that helped us in our evolutionary journey and made us into the most dominant species on the planet, is now being used to turn us against each other and break the very fabric of unity and collaboration that defines us as human beings.
We live in a post-truth world where facts don’t matter. We believe what we want to believe, we are truth agnostic in that sense. We accept ideas and opinions which already conform to our own preconceived notions, and we reject ideas that don’t.
And the echo chambers that our favorite apps create for us only harden our belief systems. We are essentially rewiring our brains to forego the most important skill we have learned over 5000 years - Adaptability.
The dystopian future we were scared of a couple of generations ago has arrived. It’s here now and has become our lived present and past. Another instance of the boiling frog syndrome we keep harping on about here every other week.
Today, we talk about the dystopian realities that engulf us, and what we can do to keep our sanity amidst the chaos.
In our hunter-gatherer days, information, like any other resource was scarce but vital for our survival. Knowing which wild herb was poisonous, or which animal was friendly, or which tribe member was plotting against you was a matter of life and death.
Our brain evolved to treat information like our body evolved to treat sugar, a precious resource to be hoarded for future use. The original FOMO we can say.
No wonder then, that today since our basic survival is taken care of, we are struggling with the overload of both sugar as well information. We don’t need to process every piece of data that we receive, and we certainly don’t need to crave for more and more new information on a daily basis.
Yet we do.
This piece from the ‘Digital Culturist’ argues that today there is more information on the internet than our brains can every process and make sense of, and yet we just can’t seem to stop ourselves from craving more and more new information.
He argues that we are addicted to the internet. An interesting passage that stood out for me —
…technology and the internet are instruments of intentional distraction. As they speed up the flow of information, the mind adapts to keep up by hastening the cognition, which in turn shortens the attention span. This leaves no time for the mind to meaningfully absorb the information and leads to a frayed cognitive state…
Check out the article—
The netizen of today lives for the ‘Likes’. The ‘Retweets’ and the ‘Reshares’ and the ‘hearts’ and the ‘views’.
You post anything online and start anticipating people’s reactions to it. You crave the likes, and hate the negative comments. We can get way more aggressive online responding to negative comments than we can ever get in person. The internet does that to us somehow, it’s the impersonal nature maybe.
What we seek the most is external validation, it’s a basic human need. We want to be liked, to be loved. We want to be the rockstars, we want to be accepted by everyone that matters, and even by those who don’t really matter.
And that’s what we do online most of the time.
It’s hard to say where this culture will lead us, but it’s not a pretty place. We already see social media ‘influencers’ going great lengths just to get more and more likes on their posts. Some ‘digital nomads’ travel to places just for clicking pictures or even fake the locations just so they can do justice to the ‘wanderlust’ their profile boasts of.
The Netflix anthology series ‘Black Mirror’ captures such negative trends in technology brilliantly in the stories it tries to tell. One of the episodes tries to imagine a world where all of us are judged by a star rating system on a scale of 5.
Your every real life interaction is rated just like your online interactions. And your overall score has real world consequences. People with higher scores get more privileges in society. Sort of like a dystopian caste system backed by technology.
It’s really scary to think about, but it’s a fascinating episode, check it out on Netflix—
Watch this 1 min featurette on Youtube to get the gist
( 63 mins)
Find the episode on Netflix.
Perhaps 10 years ago the world of news-media was struggling with the problem of paid news. Readers couldn’t decipher fact from opinion, and people with power could essentially ‘buy’ editorials in newspapers and channels to say what they wanted to be said.
5 years ago, this spiraled into fake news. With most of people’s news consumption happening online, social media platforms made it very easy to publish made up news stories designed to influence people’s opinions.
Today, and in the very near future, this problem will morph into the dangerous issue of Deepfakes - Videos or voice messages that are entirely fake and can be spreading ideas that the speaker never actually uttered.
This podcast from Radiolab looks at how this technology evolved into what it is, and what dangerous consequences it can have.
How it started with editing photos on photoshop, to editing audio and then to video, and then synthesizing words and expressions out of thin air.
Add to that, the fact that the tech to identify Deepfakes is still very slow and in its nascent stage, and we have very little regulation to deal with problems that it can cause. Its enough to send shivers down one’s spine.
Scientists build technologies to solve a problem, but there are always two sides to a coin, and soon enough nefarious forces rise up to exploit the other side.
We have seen it since the dawn of time, right from the invention of fire, to the proliferation of nuclear energy. And we will see that with Deepfake technology as well. Now its up to us how we learn to deal with it.
Checkout the podcast—
Read notes and transcripts here
Also checkout this deepfake video of ex US president Barack Obama, made by comedian Jordan Peele.
And this video of BJP leader Manoj Tiwari. Spreading his propaganda in multiple languages with the help of deepfake video generated by his own marketing team. This was used in the recently concluded Delhi elections.
That’s dystopia of another level.
You can’t speak of dystopia and not talk about 1984.
It’s a classic dystopian novel by George Orwell. It was published in 1949 and predicted a world in 1984 where the government and ‘the party’ will control every action and even thoughts of the citizens.
It was then a commentary on authoritarianism and communism being practiced in Soviet Russia and what their future could look like. But the concepts and ideas discussed in the book stand relevant more today than ever before in history.
Ideas such as a ‘Big Brother’ watching our every move, or a government agency set up just to modify past news reports according to the convenience of the current leaders, or the planned degradation of language to limit an individual’s thoughts, are just creepily contemporary issues that our society grapples with everyday.
The more technology advances and the more regimes become authoritarian, the more relevant 1984 becomes. Its a book that must be read every few years just to remind ourselves where we may end up going and where we have already come.
Check it out—
Black Mirror or 1984 may seem like far fetched fictional stories to some, and deep-fake technology may seem too fantastical to have any real impact in the near future, but we can’t look away from the manipulation of popular opinion that we witnessed in the year 2016.
First with the historic ‘Brexit’ vote in the UK, and then with the election of president Donald Trump in the US.
People’s social media interactions were used to profile them and their opinions were manipulated through targeted advertising and fake news articles in their feeds.
Former Cambridge Analytica employee Brittany Kaiser calls it weapons grade communications strategies.
Cambridge Analytica is the firm that planned and executed massive disinformation campaigns in the US and the UK based on data it collected on people without their consent, via Facebook.
The firm doesn’t exist anymore.
The Netflix documentary, ‘The Great Hack’ is the story of the rise and fall of Cambridge Analytica. Its shady practices of manipulation and illegal collection of data. The tactics it used and the kind of data our social media platforms are ready to share with anyone with deep enough pockets, means we may never see a free and fair election anymore, anywhere in the world.
It’s a scary reality we live in, and it should force us to question everything we see online in our feeds. It’s also high time we put a high value on our personal data and viewed our data rights as human rights.
The Great Hack - Netflix
(1 hr 54 mins)
Checkout the documentary on Netflix—
The documentary features a British investigative journalist Carole Cadwalladr. Check out the Ted Talk she gave about her investigations into Cambridge Analytica and her appeal to the ‘Gods of Silicon Valley’.
Signing off for the weekend, here’s a quote worth pondering:
“Humanity today is like a waking dreamer, caught between the fantasies of sleep and the chaos of the real world. The mind seeks but cannot find the precise place and hour. We have created a Star Wars civilization, with Stone Age emotions, medieval institutions, and godlike technology. We thrash about. We are terribly confused by the mere fact of our existence, and a danger to ourselves and to the rest of life.”
— Edward O. Wilson
Read that again.
We have created a Star Wars civilization, with Stone Age emotions, medieval institutions, and godlike technology.
Our brain is a prehistoric tool dealing with modern challenges, it hasn’t evolved with the pace at which the technologies it has created have evolved.
Our endeavor at The Wisdom Project is to upgrade this tool bit by bit. To broaden its capabilities with new knowledge and old wisdom. And the first step in the process is to acknowledge that it needs upgradation, to acknowledge our own flaws and learn to deal with them.
Time has come to be super-vigilant with whatever content we see online, be careful of how we react to something and most of all be empathetic to any opposing opinions we might find online. Someone with an opposing view may have a point that we might have missed, or they may have been misled by something they read or watched online via targeted advertising.
Just as no two people are same, these days, no two feeds are same, and that only magnifies our differences.
Think about it.
This was Wisdom Letter #25. In case you want to revisit any of the previous 24 letters, checkout our entire archive.
And if you’re wondering why we are doing this project, what is the point of it? checkout the intro post, it might make some sense!
If this post peeked your interest, you might like Wisdom Letter #4 which touches upon similar themes. Check it out - Stay Still & Go Deep.
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