The Internet – weapon of mass distraction

I’m going to talk about the most unfulfilled promise in activism: the thought that the internet would streamline and thus mobilize political activity. After all, such participation used to entail finding addresses, licking envelopes, traipsing to the post office… when suddenly it could all be done with a click of a mouse.

More news and information has been put at our fingertips than was available to even the best connected scholar or activist prior to the internet. With so much knowledge and cheap ways of communicating it, we should be far less tolerant of our ignorance and inaction. But no. Time-saving digital technologies have drained the activist spirit; ‘clicktivism’ is as far most protests go.

Political disengagement is most notable among the 20-40 year olds. Is it due to the distractions of social media? After all, the average 18- to 34-year-old spends 30 hours per month on social networking services.  Or is disengagement a lack of faith in politics or something else entirely? Surely, this group have more to complain about than older generations, they don’t have free universities, plentiful work and affordable first homes.

Wikipedia proved that people willingly devote time to anonymously donating useful information, providing a continuously updated, working draft of history. Yet it’s not compiled by corporations, gov­ernments, or universities but from well informed and passionate volunteers.

As we heard from Tony Abbot with “death cults” and “stop the boats”, it is easy to state populist nonsense in one-liners. But more worrying is how fictions can perpetuate with slogans: “Global warming is a myth,” “Vaccinations cause autism.” Ideas so easily become ideologies, whilst it requires long essays to explain the complexities of real science and the meaning of real life.

When political debate no longer resonates, people become responsive to symbols and sensation. So to the admirers of Trump, facts and arguments appear irrelevant. And what is disturbing to this old timer raised on hard-copy informa­tion and in depth journalism is how fast the Internet is eroding what’s left of it – a pale shadow of its former self.

This democratic decay is fertile soil for populist politics. Hence we have inaction among a gulf of economic realities: persistent unemployment, stagnant growth and austerity for some – amid record corporate profits and growing concentrations of wealth for others. But no political response, just noisy promises from political extremes. Meanwhile the internet is great for surveillance and business models and hence government and the corporate world love it.

Like any new technology, the internet can relieve us of burdens and add comfort and convenience, but leave entrenched social problems untouched. It supercharges our needs and desires and enables cheaper, more potent tools with which to further our quest for more stuff, leading to waste of time and resources. It’s like fast food for the mind: too much of it is bad for our health. Nowhere is this better appreciated than Silicone Valley, where parents insist on sending their kids to schools where IT is banned.

Our machines are getting more like people, but are we thinking and behaving more like them? Human capability can be enlarged by technology, but what it enlarges and how is not down to rational thought; the science tells us that such choices are an unconscious expression of inherent human desires. Biological science Professor, David Sloan Wilson says, we are not party to the environmental cues, both social and material, that are good for us. “… the mechanisms of assessment often take place beneath conscious awareness.”

This fact was well understood by Steve Jobs, the late co-founder of Apple. When asked how much Apple enquires into customer’s needs and desires, he chuckled: “None. It’s not the customers’ job to know what they want…” We’re allowing switched on technology entrepreneurs to declare open season on our future. Are we to be empowered by technology or becoming enslaved by it?

Gadgets and services are rarely developed in response to need but to novelty. Fulfilling wants we didn’t know we had and then finding we can’t do without them. Necessity is no longer the mother of invention while branding and profit become dysfunctional step-parents. We conform to everything the latest marketing ploy expects from us. Commerce has never had such a compliant clientele – while profiting from our inclinations and impulses. Hence four of the top ten corporates in the world are IT companies.

Neuroscientists are concerned that social media is the cause of increasing narcissism and even our sense of identity is suffering. Psychologists argue that technology is undermining human competence and aspiration, making us dependent and vulnerable to its constant demands. Victimized by weapons of mass distraction, we fall for the immediate, which is good at masquerading at what is relevant.

With our technological wizardry, we can go on tweaking the design of human experience as long as we like but the design of human nature will remain unchanged and it’s showing signs of being unable to cope.

“The intrinsic challenge”, says computer scientist and philosopher, Jaron Lanier, “ finding a way not to be overly drawn into dazzlingly designed forms of cognitive waste. The naïve experience of simulation is the opposite of delayed gratification. Competence depends on delayed gratification”. 

Can social media be a powerful tool for the common good? Digital statesmanship has challenged state power, as in the Arab Spring. But while it was easy to motivate a coalition initially, in the long term it hasn’t been easy to sustain it. Myanmar achieved as much as the so called Twitter Revolution, at about the same time, but without the Internet. The Arab spring turned to a winter of discontent. What was missing was the institutions to endorse their democratic dreams.

In the developed world, the excess of information causes audience fragmentation. There is so much of it that it can be tailored to special interests and prejudices – supercharging ideological polarization. And the less informed you are, the more likely you are to use narrowly targeted sources.

On the day after the EU referendum, in a Facebook post, the British internet activist and mySociety founder, Tom Steinberg, provided a vivid illustration of the power of the filter bubble – and the serious civic consequences for a world where information flows largely through social networks:

I am actively searching through Facebook for people celebrating the Brexit leave victory, but the filter bubble is SO strong, and extends SO far into things like Facebook’s custom search that I can’t find anyone who is happy *despite the fact that over half the country is clearly jubilant today* and despite the fact that I’m *actively* looking to hear what they are saying.

This echo-chamber problem is now SO severe and SO chronic that I can only beg any friends I have who actually work for Facebook and other major social media and technology to urgently tell their leaders that to not act on this problem now is tantamount to actively supporting and funding the tearing apart of the fabric of our societies … We’re getting countries where one half just doesn’t know anything at all about the other.

The key factor in dispute resolution is getting to understand the other sides’ point of view. Yet folk gravitate to sites where preconceptions are reinforced – ignoring alternative views. It’s no coincidence that the U.S – which has advanced furthest down this road, has the most inept political discourse.

If this is the ‘information age,’ what exactly are we informed about? The answer is trivia, video-gaming, self-absorption, porn, gossip and celebrity. These short-term and shallow habits are making us skim over life’s essentials, alienating us from a meaningful and productive existence, desensitizing us from injustice and distracting us from recognizing opportunities for progress.

Problems like cyber bullying shows that the internet only brings out the worst in us. Where will we gain the wisdom to stem this torrent of distraction? Where are we heading if are unable to control our tools but instead be controlled by them?

The Internet is simultaneously the world’s greatest time saver and the greatest time waster in history. Yahoo! once boasted that, “We developed this thing so that you don’t have to waste time to start wasting time. Now you can start wasting time right away.”

A belief held by many is that all this is just part of something profoundly wrong with society today and it results from governments that have lost control and a public that have lost interest. You don’t need reminding that quality at every level of government is at an all-time low. But you do need to ask who is to blame. If we only ever do what is expected of us, and if we only ever do what authority and business wishes, we will only ever get the government we deserve.

The biggest danger of all is thinking that whatever we do will make no difference.

Graham Carter