As technology shifts the human condition, what are the realities of lives lived behind screens?
Baroness Joanna Shields discusses how technology is challenging our safety, security and well-being. (Adapted from the SPA’s Distinguished Speaker Series Speech at Penn State University, Oct 2016)
I have never been one to be nostalgic or to look back. If I am honest, I have done the exact opposite. I love change which is why I think I have always been drawn to technology and the next new thing, but the exponential pace of change today has left even me feeling a bit uneasy. So much so that I’ve realized how important it is to take stock from time to time, if only to ensure that we still believe in what we’ve always taken for granted.
Documentary-maker Adam Curtis explored this uneasy feeling in his recent film “Hypernormalisation.” He called it “transparent disenchantment” - a sense that as technology accelerates at an exponential rate, there are unforeseen consequences. Things are obviously not quite right, yet we’re unsure what, if anything, we can do about it. If you are a fan of Mr. Robot or if any of you caught the Season 3 Black Mirror on Netflix, you will understand the sense I’m trying to describe.
For context, let’s go back to 1984, the year I graduated from my alma mater Penn State; a year probably more known for George Orwell’s dystopian tale than anything that actually transpired. The world then, as it is now, was in a precarious state. There was singular moment in pop culture that year became a watershed in the history of our relationship with technology. It was an Apple commercial directed by Ridley Scott, aired during the Super Bowl, that introduced the first Macintosh computer. It’s important because its message provided millions of people with a promise - that computers were not going to enslave us. In fact, computers and the companies that made them were going to set us free.
1984 was the height of the cold war and we lived in existential fear of an impending nuclear attack. The war of words that played out across Western media and Soviet propaganda was threatening and anxiety provoking. Words then were a weapon, much like they are today. The only difference is that they were used much more carefully. There was an appreciation of the power and the sanctity of their meaning, which in the age of social media has all but disappeared. Back then, every phrase was crafted carefully lest we trigger the unthinkable. Every story researched and fact checked. Journalism performed a public service of delivering the truth. It’s hard to imagine this given today’s hyper-communicative, 140 character news environment.
What’s different is that, in today’s war of words, extreme views are amplified by algorithms, spreading and legitimising xenophobia of all kinds. And many of these blame narratives are not just resonating in America but globally.
There are many factors driving this rhetoric: a decade of powerful economic headwinds leaving many disenfranchised; the recent spate of deadly terror attacks has incited fear and the desire to keep people out; tens of millions of desperate migrants on the move, fleeing war and conflict zones, are struggling to find sanctuary and a new place to belong; the frightening rebirth of far right movements in Europe; and of course, the incredibly divisive US presidential race.
During times like these of great change, the natural human instinct is to retreat into “us vs them” narratives. To act as if it’s a zero-sum game and we need to protect ourselves, even scapegoat others for our misfortunes. There is no denying that intolerance and ignorance of a dangerous kind are creeping into mainstream media and online social discourse; redefining what is acceptable in terms of the extremes. Social media has become an echo chamber of fear mongering and intolerance.
In free and democratic societies like ours, even the worst zealots and bigots are entitled to their opinions but what has changed is that the Internet gives them a platform to take their hateful messages and violent provocations to millions, with impunity.
If I had been delivering this speech in 2010, we would have been celebrating the triumph of the Arab Spring, a new middle east rising; run by young activists with visions of uniting the world. You would have thought we were on our way to an enlightened and more peaceful time. But the hyperbole was, just that. Things didn’t happen as expected. Quite the opposite in fact. Propelled by technological platforms, the movement got ahead of the region’s preparedness to transition and the realities of political reform, creating a vacuum of power.
How could this happen? We have spent the last three decades building technology that has connected the world and that was supposed to help bring us closer together. To turn us into a global village. On balance, the world is more connected and interdependent than ever. It’s shaped less by the boundaries of nation states and more by platforms and services that unite us beyond borders. But this new world is experiencing major growing pains and the fact is that today, many people are feeling anxious, disenfranchised and left behind.
All this great innovation has yet to fix the economic realities of a new world where technology and globalisation are replacing jobs with robots or shifting them to places with lower costs of production. How do we build a more inclusive and equitable society? How do we change a world that, despite all this progress, still seems unfairly tilted to benefit a few, to one that enables everyone’s dreams?
We can start by giving ourselves a break and recognising that we are, in fact, living through the biggest social experiment in human history. I realise this might sound controversial, even Orwellian, but hear me out. These changes, facilitated by technology, are not just impacting how we live our lives and interact with each other; they’re influencing our ideas, opinions and redefining who we are.
As digital life evolves and becomes more and more ubiquitous, there are unexpected consequences. Consequences that challenge our very humanity and require that we ask difficult questions such as: when it comes to people’s personal information, what is the new duty of care? What is in the public interest? What are our collective moral responsibilities? And how do we ensure human empathy, compassion and respect remain a vital part of the equation?
Today, there are over three billion people online; that’s approaching half the world’s population communicating with and learning from each other, and experiencing life in previously unimaginable ways. People, who would otherwise never have a voice, never have an opportunity. And people from whom the next great invention might come from, now that they have a chance.
Our lives are without a doubt easier, more convenient, and more efficient. Your location and the number of other people connecting from it determines how many Uber drivers will be available when you need a lift home. You scroll through your newsfeed and you click on something of interest and within hours that impulse purchase arrives at your door, and it may even be delivered by a drone. With a tap of the finger you can participate in and lend your name to support a global movement and make your voice heard on any topic or issue that you care about.
In a brilliant execution of scale and product development, a handful of great businesses, incidentally mostly American companies, have now become the dominant global social networks, commerce platforms and the communications and transportation apps we use every day. Their products are used almost universally, they connect us with billions of people around the world.
Amazing benefits for sure, but in exchange for all of this, we give up something too. When you click “agree” to online terms and conditions, you consent to give away insights into your behaviour, your lifestyle and your spending habits. You reveal your actions and wishes to virtual machines that, as a result, in some ways understands you better than you understand yourself. While the jury is out on the efficacy of these tools, their direction is clear: capture every human intention and be able to act on it.
Apple CEO Tim Cook said in a recent speech: "Some of the most prominent and successful companies have built their businesses by lulling their customers into complacency about their personal information. They're gobbling up everything they can learn about you and trying to monetize it.” Whatever you think of Apple, his quote certainly gives us pause to think.
Yet, in spite of the headline grabbing, anxiety provoking stuff that consumes much of the public debate on privacy and security, in general, if you ask most people, they really aren’t that bothered. Why?
Let’s go back to Orwell’s 1984 for a second and consider it in the context of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, which was published earlier in 1932. Orwell envisioned a society controlled by fear. Huxley foretold a society controlled by pleasure. What concerned Orwell, according to media critic Neil Postman were “those who would deprive us of information, but what Huxley feared were those who would give us so much information that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance.” Does any of this sound familiar?
Postman presented the frightful possibility that Huxley, not Orwell, was right. But might I suggest that perhaps they both were right?
So who is hijacking our virtual utopia? Extremist groups like Daesh or the so-called Islamic State have been quick to leverage the scale and reach of social networks to wage a digital insurgency and to disseminate propaganda online aimed at hijacking the minds of vulnerable young people in privacy of their homes. Whilst Daesh’s physical positions in continue to be compromised, they are shifting their strategies and tactics to fighting a second war online for the hearts and minds of the next generation. Their messages are professionally produced and delivered in over 20 languages. They produce Hollywood style recruitment films glorifying violence and using game quality CGI. They have become a powerful global brand.
Let’s talk about this in the context of the US election. Elections are the ultimate expression of our democracy but, by any measure, this one was different. It was not only characterised by pure spectacle but also by the intervention of rogue state actors hacking into private servers and leaking information to shape public opinion from outside the country. It’s unprecedented.
Let me clear, technology is by no means creating hate; it’s simply exposing and amplifying it. A fundamental asymmetry of passion exists in extremist rhetoric online which invokes a strong reaction from algorithms making divisive posts rise to the surface; and giving the appearance that they reflect widely held views when in fact they represent extreme or fringe views. With so many choices for news and information and the natural human tendency to seek out people who agree with us, extreme views are reinforced and uncontested in online echo chambers. As Emerson Brooking and P.W. Singer wrote in their recent Atlantic article, War Goes Viral: “Within a circle of friends or like-minded acquaintances, social media certainly fosters connection. But the further one zooms out—to whole societies or the course of global affairs—the more this connection is marred by tribalism and mutual mistrust.”
Moreover, what happens when social media propagates the view that you can’t trust anyone?
According to Finnish journalist Jessikka Aro, that’s exactly what some news organisations are trying to create. In her recent article she explores how Russia Today, also known as RT, is already the largest news network on YouTube: “It’s aim is not to make you love Putin. The aim is to make you disbelieve anything. A disbelieving, fragile, unconscious audience is much easier to manipulate.”
The generation most at risk to harmful content and illegal influences is the first generation to grow up more technologically literate than their parents and teachers. They have lived their lives almost constantly connected to digital devices. This leaves them open and susceptible to influences online where they are not monitored or supervised. Open to opinions in an uncontested space.
Take for example criminals with a sexual interest in children, who join forces with other offenders online to abuse children on a mass scale. They pay to watch child sexual abuse live streamed all over the world, and children are being groomed and coerced into producing sexually explicit images by people they have never met, sometimes in countries far away. Encryption provides the perfect cover and crypto-currency mechanisms obfuscate their transactions.
So what do we do? Evil isn’t going away anytime soon, and it has access to all the same technology tools. Working with tech industry leaders, we fight fire with fire. Using technology to outsmart them, thwart them and stay one step ahead. We don’t always succeed but we are taking back control and we won’t let them claim ownership of, or abuse these platforms and applications.
This has become a life mission for me. In 2014,I founded an organisation called WeProtect. What underpins the strategy behind WeProtect is that it takes us all to fight this kind of evil online. It’s not enough for the police or for government or for internet companies to each do their own thing. To eradicate online child sexual exploitation requires a multi-stakeholder approach. We leverage the power of technology to rescue victims, thwart criminals and bring perpetrators to justice. With the support of Prime Minister Theresa May and the leaders of 70 other governments, law enforcement, tech companies and NGOs, we are making great progress and we will never stop until every child can use the internet without fear.
If you’ve never been a victim of online crime or abuse, or know someone who has been, this might seem a bit foreign to you but it becomes real when you meet a mother whose son was so distraught from incessant cyberbullying that he committed suicide. It becomes real when you’re sitting with parents of a pre-schooler who was abducted and murdered by a paedophile who just hours before was looking at child sexual abuse images available freely online.
It becomes real when you meet a mother whose teenage son, the same age as your own, fell under the spell of Daesh or the so-called Islamic State online and travelled to Syria to fight and was killed. It becomes real when you meet with parents whose daughter, after being exposed to a self-harm site, is in hospital again because she can't stop hurting herself. In the physical world, people expect government to protect them. That’s how it’s always been. But who protects us online? Who is responsible for our safety there?
I was recently asked a question that make me think. That question was, is social media actually making us more lonely? In my search for the answer this questions I was inspired by Olivia Laing’s recent book, The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone. This passage wasn’t intended by Laing to be a comment on the psychological impact of social media however it struck me as being a perfect description of the uneasy state we are often in. A state in an age where we always have something to read, someone to interact with, yet, we can feel at times very much alone.
“Imagine standing by a window at night, on the sixth or seventeenth or forty-third floor of a building. The city reveals itself as a set of cells, a hundred thousand windows, some darkened and some flooded with green or white or golden light. Inside, strangers swim to and fro, attending to the business of their private hours. You can see them, but you can’t reach them, and so this common urban phenomenon, available in any city of the world on any night, conveys to even the most social a tremor of loneliness, with its uneasy combination of separation and exposure.”
Social media gives us the illusion of being connected, with “friends” at our fingertips, whereas in reality the true connection that we crave, one that resonates deeply enough to nourish and support us, is not always accessible within this virtual space. Nevertheless, we are addicted and we go back again and again, sometimes every free minute of our day. Social media is an easy-fix and as a result, true solitude is rare. We are becoming less willing, less able to spend time alone. And when we are alone, we have a fear that we are missing out.
We have gained a great deal from technology but are we compromising essential human skills in the process? Listening, for example. It requires patience, emotional intelligence, and humility. The understanding that maybe not everything someone is saying may fascinate us but if we persist and keep an open mind, we may learn something: a vivid new word, a hidden perspective or point of view.
What about that most human experience, friendship? How do you make a friend these days? It used to be by spending time together, talking and discovering shared interests. In the social media age, you make a friend in two steps: friend request, friend request accepted. That’s it. We are ascribing friendship to people we barely know or have never met in person. This commoditization of friendship encourages us to focus on the quantity rather than the quality of our relationships. If there was a scale denoting the level of emotional nourishment you gain from each type of social interaction where do you think, sharing a comment on Instagram would score versus meeting a friend for a coffee? From which experience do you gain more?
If you’re trying to build meaningful relationships from scratch, it’s difficult to cultivate connections online that give you a true sense of belonging, a true sense that you are understood. Maybe its because we’re not presenting our whole selves. I read somewhere recently that you are never as happy as you seem on Instagram, never as miserable as you seem on Twitter, and never as employable as you seem on LinkedIn. We laugh but it’s true. With so much social currency given to ‘likes’ and ‘followers’, and with the pressure to appear relevant and popular, it’s no wonder we risk losing more young people, to a solitary existence online.
So whilst my generation got to dream about a utopian digital world, this generation has to deal with its complex reality. In this interconnected world where we are connected to other people in the billions; no one person, company, or country for that matter, can solve these problems alone, it takes us all.
Although this past year has brought us great challenges, it has also offered great hope. We have been shown that when the world comes together we can also achieve unprecedented things. As President Obama said, as guest editor in this month’s Wired magazine, “We are far better equipped to take on the challenges we face than ever before. I know that might sound at odds with what we see and hear these days in the cacophony of cable news and social media. But the next time you’re bombarded with over-the-top claims about how our country is doomed or the world is coming apart at the seams, brush off the cynics and fearmongers. Because the truth is, if you had to choose any time in the course of human history to be alive, you’d choose this one. Right here in America, right now.”
Over the past 30 years, I have seen the digital world built from the ground up. From developing the silicon chips and hardware that made things digital to pioneering the birth of audio and video online. From digitizing the world’s information and making it accessible and useful to giving billions the power to broadcast themselves. And finally, creating new ways to for people to share and connect the world. There is no doubt that all of this incredible innovation has transformed our lives and will continue to do so. But in the end, the transformational moments in life have always been and will always be about people. It’s the human bonds that define us.
Today the power of the individual is amplified like never before. Each one of us has more power to do good than anyone that ever came before. This world isn’t happening to us, we are creating it and we have the power to shape its future. If we understand the profound and nuanced ways technology is impacting us, we can learn how to harness it to enhance our experience of being alive.
No matter how advanced and pragmatic technology becomes, we have to make sure we’re looking into people’s eyes not just into screens, that we are listening to the words they speak and having meaningful conversations. That we are not so desensitised by the masses of information and innovation that we stop exploring and developing our critical thinking or lose our internal sense of self, that guides us from within. We must make sure our own moral compass is pointing in the right direction, that a sense of humanity, empathy and meaningful connection is well established within us. To quote another former President, Jimmy Carter, “We must adjust to changing times and still hold on to unchanging principles.” Change is the new normal and we need to embrace it by being certain of our own actions.
In this next phase of connected humanity, we have to remember that technology will continue to become more powerful, but the decisions we make will still be our own.