Algorithms and social networks in the times of the liquid society

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What are social networks?

An ally in communication between people and cultures, or rather a trap, as the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman called them? Perhaps they are a bit of both.

Bauman saw social networks as a trap, the trap of the times of liquid culture. A culture in which links are diluted. News and digitized ideas last as long as a fingerprint on a screen. And the emotions unleashed by these stimuli - often contradictory - are more and more fleeting. A bipolar roller coaster of ephemeral ups and downs, whose consequences on the mental health of the first generations who have grown up with social networks we are beginning to see. Since their appearance, the rates The number of adolescents with depression and a tendency to self-harm has only increased.

In a phenomenon that has already been widely documented, it has been shown that they undoubtedly serve to reinforce positions and comfort zones. serve to reinforce positions and comfort zones -the famous echo chambers-where the predominant sound is one's own. A sound that tends to seek to reaffirm its confirmation biases and reacts by pushing aside and scorning all dissent. These echo chambers polarize and end up hindering communication itself. We've all said at one time or another, "Let's not talk about this on Whatsapp, or Facebook". Although it would be absolute cynicism not to recognize that they also have obvious advantages, such as facilitating communications not long ago impossible, we would not do well if we did not watch out for their dangers, while they, in a way, watch out for us..

In this debate, without a doubt, we are playing a lot. For communication (or the non-existence of communication) is the most crucial evolutionary factor, the one that has allowed human beings to advance in their eternal battle against oblivion. The first inscriptions on stone or metal were the beginnings of the attempt to endure that ended up fructifying in papyrus, books and now the internet. Without the printing press the Enlightenment would not have happened so soon. With the Internet one could therefore think of the possibility of a new revolution that would be starting to happen.

However, the current situation is far from that. The walls - how rightly named - of each individual are sometimes defended like trenches, in which the slightest dissidence cannot be accepted for fear of being ridiculed in front of "the world". Moreover, this causes a series of inertias to be generated that manifest themselves in the behaviour of the offline. When we are in a physical chat with friends or strangers we can see how some patterns of behavior that have been fed by the harmful effects that social networks are having are reproduced. The need to be permanently listened to, which makes active listening impossible. More immovable positions. Echo chambers end up provoking a false sensation that other opinions are strange, more of a minority than they are. They also have a very harmful effect on the tolerance of these different opinions and on the ability to empathize or forgive: in networks it is easy to add friends or delete them. Social skills are, paradoxically, becoming less and less necessary thanks to social networks.

Another even worse consequence: they can reinforce the power of a domination system, media-political-economic (or a mixture of all of them), which allows or praises only the reproduction of those contents that interest it. Conforming a generation of people that remains entertained, while the economic power, each time controls them more and better. As demonstrated in the the scandalous election of Trump with Cambridge Analyticaor with Bolsonaro and the support networks via Whatsapp, the electoral processes of a country can be decided by the use of a network manipulated by the economic power that has the least scruples. It also happened with the Brexit.

At this point, perhaps some of you are reflecting and thinking that it is no big deal, that you have met wonderful people thanks to social networks, that they have helped you in this or that project, and that depending on the use we make of them, they are positive or negative. And I would agree. Totally. That's my case. I have raised projects, published in the media, and collaborated with social initiatives thousands of miles away, thanks to social networks. However, I can't deny that reality is starting to be more dystopian than I would like to admit.

The generation of posturing, of virtual narcissism, of the I-am-my-own-brand, has a series of corpses in the closet whose putrefaction is beginning to smell. As if we were a kind of Dorian Grey 2.0, we can already be suffering or depressed that most likely we will not show it in our virtual avatars. In reality it is the reverse of Dorian Grey, in our case it is the portrait - the avatar - that remains young and incorruptible, our profiles can be brimming with popularity and joviality while the real person is the one who ages and suffers the effects of the passage of time and the excess of screens.

When touching on this topic, a must-see is Jeff Orlowski's documentary, The Social Media Dilemmaone of the most watched contents in the history of Netflix. In it, some of the brains behind the phenomenon atone for their guilt by gutting the ins and outs of the Frankenstein they helped to create: as Tim Kendall, former Facebook executive, states, the aim of these platforms is "to snatch as much time as possible from our lives". To generate an addiction like any other drug. The addiction, the insecurity, the hoaxes or the polarization that the networks generate are not failures in the Matrix of these designs. They are perfectly logical pieces that are part of the only real plan. Maximize the time you spend on them. The product is free, yes, because the product is you. Your attention.

Algorithms are usually designed in an "intelligent" way with the premise of increasing, let's say, in power, in radicality, a content that is detected as a favorite by the user. This is key to explain polarization.

Bo Burnham, the comedian, actor, musician and director of the magnificent Inside, explains very well in his musical and satirical piece "Welcome to the Internet" how schizophrenic the algorithm and the escalation in radicality can be. If, let's assume a journalist investigates white supremacism and watches a few videos on the subject, the algorithm will send him more and more radical recommendations, as it is programmed so that your mind, as with any other drug, does not generate a certain tolerance and change device or platform.

Traps for mice addicted to dopamine. Rabbit holes with algorithmic shapes and polarizing effect. The problem is that under this system you can't slow down, or the next app will take the prize. This is what happens in almost every other economic sector under capitalism. The excuse for not slowing down, for being brutal to people and ecosystems is that someone will end up being brutal to people and ecosystems anyway if it's not you and maximize their profit. Someone will pollute. Someone will end up filling the vacuum I leave by withdrawing from a particular market. How am I going to stop emitting greenhouse gases if X (another country) continues to emit? And there is something to this argument. As long as we follow the stupid law of the market there is no other option. As long as we are ruled by the invisible hand - which leaves a more and more visible trail of consequences - there is not much we can do except for a little make-up.

A network can both support you and trap you in a kind of trap. And that is the dilemma we are in when we value what social networks offer us today.

Networks could be much more useful in a system whose only goal was not short-term profit for a few. Our economic system is based on an unnatural and unsustainable premise (the need for perpetual growth) and another premise that delays evolution by benefiting only a minority. Evolution, as the microbiologist Lynn Margulis demonstrated, is based more on cooperation than on competition. In symbiogenesis. In bringing together two separate forms of life in which the synthesis is the best of both. However, the current socioeconomic system does the opposite. It is based more on competition and on benefiting a minority. We cannot seriously think that a system that is based on precepts so far removed from how the very life that sustains it works is going to work in the medium term. Nor will it sustain itself. It is not by chance that this system, so far removed from the way life functions, is succeeding in destroying it.

What future can we expect if technology remains in the hands of capital instead of the commons?

About the Author

Juan Bordera

Journalist and content creator.

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