I see more clearly than ever that the algorithms that run our social media platforms are sick – they are anxious, depressed, and mentally unstable. More importantly, just as we created them and imbued them with our own immature consciousness, they are now returning the favour, creating us at scale in their own damaged self-image.
Perhaps we need a Tech-Vet to treat our ailing algorithms and teach them how to play nicely with humanity? Certainly, if they were human, we would be prescribing a mix of therapy, mindfulness, and pharmaceuticals. In the more severe cases, a residential stay might be in order.
Most at risk in this digital dystopia are youngsters – growing up in a sea of influencers, filters, and distortions. Fledgling democracies too find themselves at risk of their whole experience of the internet being owned by commercial corporations with high-dollar agendas that may not align with their human interests.
The unbridled success of big tech revenues has come at a high cost to the world. The relationship between social media algorithms and humanity is now toxic. Increasing mental and societal dysfunction turns out to be, not just unwanted by-products of their productivity, but the end game.
Facebook began with the motto: Move Fast And Break Things and if measured by this yard-stick they have been enormously successful. Democracy is broken. Mental Health is broken. The Algorithm is broken too.
Perhaps you have seen The Social Dilemma, or read some of the latest whistle-blower testimony? Or, perhaps the terrifying array of new cyber-lingo has left you cold and the thought of actually Googling ‘what are trades in human futures?’ gives you the chills. We are certainly in strange territory.
I suppose if we zoom out for a moment, the path to technological maturity (let alone mastery) for any civilisation, was never going to be easy. This moment may not be the worst of what comes before we discover a kinder way to expand technologically. To me, it feels a bit like that moment when a group of friends decide to stage an intervention for their bestie – letting them know honestly and directly that their drinking is out of hand and that it is time to own up and get help. Just like our friend, Facebook will need to acknowledge that it has a problem before it can begin to fix it.
To paraphrase former Facebook employee, Frances Haugen’s words:
It is time for Facebook to declare moral bankruptcy, to say that they are in over their heads, and to ask for help. If they can do that there is a path available to healing…
As we wait to see how the governments of the world grasp this sprawling nettle, I can only hope that two things happen very quickly, in order to mitigate some of the damage of polarisation and tend to the bruised mental health of humanity:
- Social Media Regulation (preferably by global agreement) must be brought in so that governments have the power to force changes to social media companies that cause harm by failing to follow ethical rules and practices.
- A new (preferably global) tech organisation needs to be established which has the capacity to track the impact of social media companies on humanity in real-time. Tech historically moves significantly quicker than government – yet that norm must now be reversed if we are serious about public safety, minimising misinformation, and cultivating harmony in place of polarisation and conflict. Move Faster And Prevent Harm could be its motto. To be successful it must attract the most conscious and brilliant tech talent in the world.
In the meantime, as we wait to see how this plays out, hoping for conscious action yet braced for delay and obfuscation, here are three ways that we can individually and collectively do our bit for digital wellbeing today:
- Bring back your tech-free zone. Covid set many of us back with our digital hygiene. Still, the most revolutionary lifestyle change is to keep part of your home (like your bedroom) tech-free. Try it for 3 days and notice the difference in sleep when your phone isn’t on your bedside table.
- Recent revelations have focused on the dangers of Instagram, particularly for young people and especially young girls. When you use the platform next, tune into the energy that arises as you scroll. Does it feel enriching or depleting to you? What changes can you make?
- Consider signing the Center For Humane Technology’s: One-Click Safer letter. It aims to make re-shares on Facebook a little bit harder. (Friction-free re-shares currently account for a significant proportion of divisive and harmful content worldwide). This is one small platform tweak that research shows would make a large difference: https://www.humanetech.com/oneclicksafer
And let’s also remember that social media can be uplifting and inspiring. We just need to create a playing field where this potential has the chance to manifest. Perhaps even the algorithms will be happier, once they return to health.
By Neil Seligman
Neil Seligman offers Digital Wellbeing talks and workshops through The Conscious Professional. Enquiries to: firstname.lastname@example.org
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