There is an episode in Black Mirror, the popular Netflix series, in which the scariness of today’s social media comes to life. We are used to hearing slogans from tech companies such as: “Facebook helps you connect and share with the people in your life.” Sounds innocuous enough, right? But as the main character discovers firsthand in the Nosedive episode, platforms designed to enhance social affiliation can be perverted to exaggerate our worst human impulses.
To understand how social media could be used in such a diabolical way, it’s helpful to understand the concept of utilitarianism developed in the 1700s by philosopher Jeremy Bentham. Similar to today’s social media sphere, utilitarianism seems to be an inoffensive way to organize people for their higher good. After all, Bentham held that “The sad truth is that it is the greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right and wrong.”
Put simply, Bentham meant the more people you can make happy, the more “ethical” your action. Superficially, this seems good. For instance, saving 100 people from drowning is better than helping 50 as it leads to greater happiness for more individuals. However, the theory breaks down when we recognize one could generate a significant amount of happiness for many by doing something abhorrent, for instance, perpetrating genocide. While this heinous act could bring pleasure to say, the devotees of a sociopathic tyrant, it would be an unconscionable violation of human rights and decency.
When it comes to the practice of social media as it exists today, many are of the mind that this seemingly banal technology poses comparable utilitarian risks. Returning to Nosedive, the characters inhabit a frightening world not too far removed from our own in which everyone is continually rated and judged based on how much “happiness” they bring to others. Though the episode is shot in pastel colors meant to complement the cheerful masks the characters wear to navigate their brave new world, life is anything but joyful. Producing happiness for others in the form of likes becomes a necessity to keep from being ostracized — and in effect, de-platformed by society.
No less a satirical punch to the stomach than Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal, Nosedive presents the dark side of social media jockeying in which participants are coerced to behave according to acceptable norms or risk rejection. After all, how free are we to actualize our human potential if going along to get along means pretending to like others’ pictures of their kids or pets just to win public approval?
The above question is no mere hypothetical. It may surprise some people to know China recently introduced its own version of a social credit system in which citizens may be rewarded or penalized according to their scores. Meant to demonstrate in practice how “keeping trust is glorious and breaking trust is disgraceful,” according to a government document, the system is set to go into effect nationwide by 2020. Under the soon-to-be mandatory arrangement, individuals may be banned from flying, boarding trains, and receiving loans based on infractions, such as spending too much time playing video games or disseminating so-called fake news. Likewise, Chinese citizens can be prevented from obtaining a job, receiving an education, or obtaining a high-speed internet connection based on a Panopticon-style social control apparatus.
Whether or not China succeeds in its efforts to create this system, we in the West are already experiencing our own difficulties with this fledgling technology. Since my upcoming book, co-written with Michael Ashley, entitled Own the A.I. Revolution: Unlock Your Artificial Intelligence Strategy to Disrupt Your Competition, is meant to inspire readers as to A.I.’s potential for good (and not just utilitarian happiness), we will first explore social media’s existing challenges and how the mindful use of AI could usher in a new era of peaceful coexistence more befitting Facebook’s promise to better connect us.
But first, the problem. When Facebook came to public attention in 2004, the conversation surrounding the new platform largely centered on the ways in which users could meet new people, reconnect with old friends, and post the goings-on in one’s life. Though Mark Zuckerberg’s startup also employed another famous slogan, “Facebook is free and always will be,” savvy observers soon came to recognize the company deployed a business model more akin to Google’s (parent company: Alphabet).
Instead of charging subscribers to share posts and upload pictures, Facebook made a killing marketing to a captive audience through its ability to mine our personal data. Or as Craig Charles explains on That’sNonsense.com, “Facebook doesn’t charge their users because their users are not their customers. Their users are the product. Basically, you — the user — are how Facebook makes money.”
Especially for those who grew up with Facebook and/or cannot remember a time before it was around, it is fascinating to recognize how social media companies have transformed commerce. Just two decades ago, the most lucrative corporations made profits from physical commodities. In 1998, General Motors and Ford Motor topped the No. 1 and 2 spots respectively on the Fortune 500 list for producing cars. Kmart and Sears made it into the top 25 by offering consumer wares.
Flash forward to today. Sears is in bankruptcy. And according to Fortune,“[In 2018] the four most valuable companies on the list are all technology firms — Apple, Alphabet (Google), Microsoft, and Amazon. Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway was fifth. Facebook was sixth.” In scholar Shoshana Zuboff’s book The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, published this year, she states many of today’s social media platforms make their money snooping on us. “I define surveillance capitalism as the unilateral claiming of private human experience as free raw material for translation into behavioral data,” Zuboff explains in an interview with The Harvard Gazette. “These data are then computed and packaged as prediction products and sold into behavioral futures markets — business customers with a commercial interest in knowing what we will do now, soon, and later.”
Though social media’s revenue model has been largely predicated on spying on consumers and developing platforms to keep our attention by leveraging negative emotions, such as anger, the fact is commerce can’t remain stagnant. Especially not for tech companies that must innovate to stay relevant. Yes, surveillance capitalism, augmented by Big Data, can be harnessed to thwart our privacy, as well as generate a social credit dystopia — however, market forces, combined with good old-fashioned human agency, can also upend this trend.
Don’t believe me? Already, we are witnessing cracks to the top-down social media model in the form of blockchain, a distributed, immutable database shared by all parties. For those unfamiliar with this emerging technology, data scientist Francesco Corea breaks it down like this: “Blockchain is ‘a technology that allows people who don’t know each other to trust a shared record of events.’” The reason this is so important is that, via blockchain technology, it is possible to offer the value of a social media platform without a centralized intermediary. Instead, users can directly connect peer-to-peer. Or to put it differently: What if there were a Facebook without Facebook? A Snapchat without Snapchat?
Of course, AI can help bring such potential to even greater fruition. According to Paul Lee, co-founder of Mind AI, the harvesting of personal information has been the most widely used way to make money for many tech companies at the dawn of the 4th Industrial Revolution. However, this needn’t continue to be the status quo. “We don’t see AI and blockchain as two separate, incompatible technologies,” says Lee. “But rather as two technologies that can complement each other very nicely. The world of AI is an arms race, with large internet giants leading the progress with their seemingly unlimited resources, specifically data. These corporations collect data from their users in a centralized database. The data is owned and utilized by these companies for their own self-interests, while the users who provided the data are left empty-handed.”
Pondering a future in which A.I. works side by side with blockchain to disrupt the current (sometimes oppressive) economic top-down model and move it toward a more bottom-up, egalitarian structure in which users are free to connect directly with each other — and own their data — feels inspiring and empowering. And though it may be hard to imagine a disruption of such magnitude, it isn’t far-fetched.
It has been exactly two decades since Web 2.0 began, yet the pace of technological change is ever increasing. Though creepy sci-fi scenarios and geopolitical events show us how we might use our new tools for greater oppression, we would do well to remember the plasticity of human innovation. As soon as one course of events feels inevitable, something else can occur, overturning conventional thinking. For instance, was it at all certain that same-sex unions would be legalized a few decades ago? Not according to the cultural zeitgeist at the time.
Might we be observing something similar today? The rise of social media is a phenomenon — and a phenomenon can change with the times, especially as we awaken to our power to own our future. And though there are many challenges with social media, we would do well to recognize the good it also has wrought. To this end, Brendan Kane, author of the One Million Followers, and a growth hacker who has built applications and platforms for many high-profile clients, including Taylor Swift, Rihanna, Xzibit, and Charles Barkley, can speak to social media’s ability to positively influence others, one click at a time. “For me, personally, I just get excited by the opportunity that as an individual sitting behind a computer, I can reach millions of people around the world. Whereas in the past you had to be a big TV entity or a news publisher to get your message out there, now the power is in the hands of everyone.”
The potential to connect and communicate with so many people worldwide — easily and instantaneously — is an unprecedented feat for the human race and should not overshadow privacy challenges, but rather put this incredible technology into richer context. Nonetheless, years from now, a new generation may look back at this time in wonder, amazed at how long it took for people to push back on what was once a disenfranchising economic model. If and when they do, they may point to AI and blockchain as the twin tools that empowered people to reclaim both their data — and personal sovereignty.