“Imagine a society entirely absorbed in its own historicity. It would be incapable of producing historians. Living entirely under the sign of the future, it would satisfy itself with automatic self-recording processes and auto-inventory machines, postponing indefinitely the task of understanding itself”
― Pierre Nora, Les Lieux De Mémoire
It was winter 2011. Inspired by the movement that ousted President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia, thousands took to the streets of major cities in Egypt, Libya, Syria, Yemen, and Bahrain. The news cycle was spinning the protests as a pivotal moment in the Middle East and northern Africa, a wave of democratic energy that, scholars and pundits claimed, marked the beginning of a democratic revolution throughout the region. The movement, they said, was made possible largely due to the availability and efficiency of social media and the internet for activists to motivate and organize the masses. These new technologies were quickly hailed as catalysts of a new era of positive social change and progress.
It is winter 2017.The aforementioned countries are being roiled by violence, civil war, famine, and repression. Facebook, Twitter, and Google have acknowledged on trial before Congress their role in empowering a Russian campaign to disrupt the 2016 U.S. Presidential elections. Former President Obama, the first president to harness the power of social media for his campaign, is warning against the dangers of social media and its corrosive impact on civil discourse in one of the few interviews he’s given since leaving the White House. Current President Trump has adopted Twitter as his primary means of communicating domestic and foreign policy decisions to the public and, oftentimes, to his own advisors. Many of the same scholars and pundits who once espoused the role of social media and the internet during the Arab Spring are now wondering if social media and the internet pose the most viable threat to democracy as we know it.
It’s too easy (and too early yet) to point the finger and blame social media for what many perceive as a rapid erosion in the foundations of democratic societies across the western hemisphere. This kind of scapegoating oversimplifies the issue and doesn’t account for the social, historical, economic, cultural, sexual, and religious dynamics influencing a revived tribalism in countries whose social and political institutions seemed to most, at least at the surface, structurally sound and promising for the future. Nevertheless, the impact of the tech industry and the products and services it delivers on the integrity and durability of the psychological, social, and political fibers of the human experience has to be seriously considered and addressed.
But by whom and how?
While that question hangs in the air, the tech industry relentlessly plows forward. The market value of crypto-assets are reaching record highs as Wall Street scrambles to keep up, virtual reality headsets are now as ubiquitous as iPads, virtual assistants were among the highest grossing gift purchases this holiday season, tech experts are warning against the militarization of artificial intelligence, and Spacex plans to fly astronauts in their rocket tests next year, promising to usher in an era of outer space tourism. Our government institutions, to whom some look to hold the industry accountable, is completely dependent on the tools and services the industry provides and is, at best, ill-equipped to effectively utilize, much less regulate, them (as evidenced by the negligence by which classified information is handled via email.) We have been caught in a current of innovation that has been moving at an unprecedented pace without a chance to stop, catch our breath, and ask ourselves where this is all going and why. We have more access to more information now than any other point in human history, but we have the least amount of time to process a single piece of it. The technology we use everyday has dramatically heightened our awareness of the problems facing our environment, our society, and our world while at the same time making it that much easier to post our thoughts and prayers and move on, plug in and ignore it, or simply dismiss it all by swiping it away.
Sharing information for the sake of sharing information has eclipsed our human responsibility to pause, think, reflect, and process it. Information technology today is fueled by its ability to influence what we think and what we do without allowing us the necessary space and time to understand how and why. But this is not the technology’s fault just as it’s not the hammer’s fault when it misses the nail for which it is designed and hits your finger. We’ve voluntarily dumped our subconscious thoughts, pictures of our kids, our finances, our current locations, our hopes, fears, prejudices, and what we’re eating for breakfast, all of which were once part of what we considered secure as personal privacy, into the public sphere. We’ve erased the line between the private and public sector and agreed to the Terms and Conditions without bothering to even read them.
So again, the question, by whom and how?
In his interview with Prince Harry, Obama noted that “social media is a really powerful tool for people of common interests to convene and get to know each other and connect. But then it’s important to get offline, meet in a pub, meet at a place of worship, meet in a neighborhood and get to know each other.” He continued, “Because the truth is that on the internet, everything is simplified and when you meet people face-to-face it turns out they’re complicated.”
For all the promise technology holds to make us more “connected”, we seem less and less willing to engage with each other in person, especially when our efforts to engage involve those who are or think differently from us. It’s so much easier to hit the home button and disappear into a safe place where our experiences are intuitive, customized, and more “personal”. Our ability to compromise, to adapt, to listen, comprehend, and respond is being supplanted by smarter algorithms that are more effective at channeling the flow information to our individual interests, biases, and behaviors rather than challenging our assumptions or expanding our worldviews. Herein lies the danger. The survival of democracy depends as much on our ability to listen, understand, and sympathize with other voices as it does on our ability to express ourselves using our own.
Now more than ever, it is each of our individual responsibilities – not any technology’s, not any corporation’s, not the government’s – to create real experiences instead of digital interactions; to tell and listen to stories that last longer than a few seconds and commit them to memory; to have the courage to comment in conversation, face-to-face, rather than post it on a feed; to reclaim the true meaning of what it means to be a friend; and to remember that our history is something we share, a space in which we have lived, are living in, and from which we must continue learning how to live on.