Algorithms and social networks in the times of the liquid society

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An ally in communication between people and cultures, or rather a trap, as sociologist Zygmunt Bauman calls 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 connections are diluted. News and digitalised 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 its emergence, the rates of adolescents with depression and a tendency to self-harm have 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 -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 polarise and end up hindering communication itself. We've all said, "Let's not talk about this on Whatsapp, or Facebook". Although it would be utter cynicism not to recognise that they also have obvious advantages, such as facilitating communications that were not so long ago impossible, we would be remiss if we did not watch out for their dangers, just as they, in a way, watch out for us.

In this debate, we are undoubtedly at stake. 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 eventually bore fruit in papyrus, books and now the internet. Without the printing press, the Enlightenment would not have happened so soon. With the Internet, therefore, one might think that a new revolution is beginning to take place.

However, the current situation is far from that. The walls - how aptly named - of the individual are sometimes defended like trenches, in which the slightest dissent cannot be accepted for fear of being made a fool of in front of "the world". This also leads to a series of inertias that manifest themselves in offline behaviour. When we are in a physical chat with friends or strangers we can see how some behavioural patterns are reproduced that have been fed by the harmful effects that social networks are having. 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 damaging effect on tolerance of these different opinions and on the ability to empathise 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 content that interests it. This creates a generation of people who remain entertained, while the economic power controls them more and more. As was demonstrated in the scandalous election of Trump with Cambridge Analytica, or 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 Brexit.

At this point, some of you may be 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 how we use them, they are positive or negative. And I would agree. Totally. This is my case. I have raised projects, published in the media, and collaborated with social initiatives thousands of kilometres away, thanks to social networks. However, I cannot deny that reality is beginning 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 wardrobe whose putrefaction is beginning to smell.

As if we were a kind of Dorian Grey 2.0, we can already be suffering or depressed and we will most probably not show it in our virtual avatars. It is actually the reverse of Dorian Grey, in our case it is the portrait - the avatar - that remains young and incorruptible, our profiles may 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.

In touching on this topic, a must-see is Jeff Orlowski's documentary, The Social Media Dilemma, one of the most watched pieces of content in Netflix history. 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 take as much time out of our lives as possible". To generate an addiction like any other drug. The addiction, insecurity, hoaxes and polarisation generated by the networks are not flaws in the Matrix of these designs. They are perfectly logical parts of the only real plan. Maximise 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 piece of content that is detected as a favourite by the user. This is key to explaining polarisation.

Bo Burnham, the comedian, actor, musician and director of the magnificent Inside, explains very well in his satirical musical piece "Welcome to the Internet" how schizophrenic the algorithm and the escalation of radicalism can be. If, let's assume a journalist researches 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.

Dopamine-addicted mouse traps. Rabbit holes with algorithmic shapes and polarising 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 if it's not you and maximise their profit. Someone will pollute. Someone will end up filling the gap 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 catch you in a kind of trap. And that is the dilemma we are in when we assess 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 on cooperation rather than competition. On symbiogenesis. In bringing together two separate forms of life in which the synthesis is the best of both. However, the current socio-economic 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 rather than the commons?

About the Author

Juan Bordera

Journalist and content creator.

September 24, 2021 — Juan Bordera

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