Technology’s Social Dilemma

By Domenico Cirielli
Technology and Innovation Writer

As social media algorithms improve, so does their ability to change and alter human perspectives. (Photos Courtesy of Netflix Documentary “The Social Dilemma”)

Since the 20th Century, computer processing power has increased astronomically, the staggering majority of that increase being seen in the last two decades. On the forefront of technology’s impact, we begin to see how social media and other platforms that seemingly exist to connect people, influence individuals on levels they are not even aware of. The common notion is “we’ll adapt to it,” but in reality, this societal change is driven by technology that is both above our understanding and advancing at an ever-rapid pace.

When Steve Jobs created the first Apple computer, he noted how it would be one of the most powerful tools at humankind’s disposal. A tool is something we choose to use, to help save time and streamline the completion of tasks. While technology can definitely be used as a tool, it exists more often than not to draw us in, to capture our attention. Think of social media companies and other user-based platforms. Think of what their business models are like and how they are able to continue growing. The answer is pretty simple – making sure that individuals are drawn to the screens on their devices. I am sure there are some one of you that are thinking “So what? There’s no harm in spending time on a device…. watching that extra video…. catching up on the news.” However, what this creates, and what we are seeing more of each day, is a disjointed understanding of reality in our societies. These social media platforms understand, most importantly, what draws our attention to our screens – and that differs on a person to person basis. Thus, the issue posed is that everyone’s feed, the information they’re exposed to, is entirely different. If that is not alarming enough, consider a study from MIT that found fake news on Twitter spread six times faster than real news. Not only are individuals exposed to entirely different perspectives than their neighbors, but also there is a great likelihood that what they are being exposed to is painting an untrue narrative.

It is important to be exposed to different perspectives; that is how individuals come to form their identities and learn what it is they value. However, the algorithms that determine what you see do not care about objectivity; what they care about is maximizing your screen time. Over time, these algorithms become so accurate that everything you are exposed to fits with what you value and what you believe, making individuals unwilling, or even unable, to listen to or accept anything that contradicts that. This is what has caused the mass polarization in society that we see today. While technology has enabled unimaginable progress and innovation, individuals must understand that technology has also caused a divide in the way each and every one of us perceives reality.

“It’s not about the technology being the existential threat. It’s the technology’s ability to bring out the worst in society. And the worst in society being the existential threat.” Tristan Harris, The Social Dilemma, 2020


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