Are we falling prey to the tech world?

Published On: September 29, 2020 07:49 AM NPT By: Fr. Augustine Thomas, S.J.

Fr. Augustine Thomas, S.J.

Fr. Augustine Thomas, S.J.

Father Augustine Thomas has a PhD in ‘Leadership Studies in Organization Development’ and currently serves as the Principal of St. Xavier’s College, Maitighar, Kathmandu.

With lifestyle swinging uncomfortably with the new normal where education, communication, business and even life are dependent on gadgets, we need to outline protocol for the new normal living.  

Two of us walked into a cafe for a quality conversation over a cup of Americano double shot. When the waiter approached our table to take our order, my friend asked the waiter, “excuse me! What is the password of the wifi here?” The waiter answered “no wifi, talk to each other.”  What a password to wake us up to the reality! It has become so natural that digital world gets equal or more attention even when one is with a real person.

Netflix produced two documentaries recently. The Great Hack (2019) was an investigative film on how Cambridge Analytica hacked the data of the Facebook users and manipulated the data to influence the users during the 2016 US election. The algorithms could actually predict, based on what you surfed, the psychology of the ‘undecided voters’ and feed their social media pages with propaganda that will win over them to vote for the republicans. It’s amazing and at the same time shocking how machines could easily understand my vulnerable point and swing me to the side it wants me to go.

The Social Dilemma (2020) dug deeper into the tech world and exposed how it can be an existential threat to the human psychology and society. The testimonies given in the documentary are of those who worked for Facebook, Twitter, Google, Apple, YouTube, Snapchat, Instagram and Firefox & Mozilla. Interestingly many of them, though experts in technology, confessed that they would never allow their children to enter the social media world. They even have timetable for people at home on how long they can be online. 

Hijacking common brain

Though the movies have drawn attention of the viewers to some real existential threat caused by the digital Frankenstein of the modern era, the most important point is how Artificial Intelligence (AI) has taken control of human psychology. The algorithms used in designing social media is designed to project what the users liked and then to thrive on the psychological leaning of pleasure and enjoyment of that person. A suitable analogy is of a good-looking man luring a village girl till the point she would do anything for him—even run away with him not knowing that he is a trafficker. The algorithms have immense power to UNDERSTAND and MANIPULATE the human psychology.

The social networking sites can predict the behaviours of the users and keep suggesting news, pictures, videos that the person has interest in. Evidently, two most consumed products are drugs and software. The users don’t use them, rather these products use the users. One can easily fall into a ‘dopamine deficiency state’ where one avoids boredom and constantly engages in what stimulates pleasure. Once you reach this stage, you are no more a person who can make a choice in complete freedom, rather you become a robot that is triggered by the world of possibilities of entertainment.

If social media has such negative ramifications, then the obvious questions are: Why do the tech businesspeople do this? Did the tech companies create them to destroy individuals? Absolutely not. With the help of social media, world is in a much better place today. Families have reunited, stranded people have been rescued, needy people have received food, medicine, organs, the list goes on. The uncountable goodness that tech world has brought cannot be ignored but should be recognized and utilized. At the same time, it cannot be overlooked that there is a slow poison that is damaging the psychology of the young people, especially the teenagers.

The testimonies of the experts tell us that the social networking companies never intended it to be harmful to the users. It is the business model that seeks economic benefit at all costs which found it possible by systematically entering into the psyche of the users. This business model blooms on creating a need for pleasure and satisfaction in the mindset of the users. The sites just want the user to remain longer online and surf longer, reading the news, watching videos, surfing photos and profiles of friends. The longer one remains on the social media, the stronger the desire for the pleasure of being engaged in that world. We are prone, then, to subscribe to the clan of social media and less to one’s own family and friends in the real world.

Existential threat      

Is this melancholy on Artificial Intelligence just a cry of some old folks from Stone Age who are misfits in society today or is there truly an invisible monster in the software world? After all, all these apps are free, and they have all the features that one needs in a modern day. The strategy on which these free apps are working is ‘if you don’t pay for it, then you are the product.’ The advertising companies have paid for you already. In return the advertising companies are trading for our attention and time. The longer we spend on social media the harsher the psychological effect on us. Studies show that American society is more polarised than ever in the recent years and social media played a huge role in making it that way. Tristen Harris, former designer of ethics of Google who quit the job from Google due to ethical concerns states: “It’s not about technology being the existential threat. It is the technology’s ability to bring out the worst in society. The worst in society being the existential threat.” 

With lifestyle swinging uncomfortably with the new normal of today where education, communication, business and even life altogether are largely dependent on gadgets, it is imperative that we deliberately outline protocol for the new normal living.  Those who are born in Generation Z (1997 onwards) were thrown into the world of social media at a very early age. Social media world can lead a young mind to social comparison, dependent self-esteem, self absorption that results in self centredness and being overly opinionated about everything around. Today with the students whose education is totally dependent on gadgets and digital platform, they are the most vulnerable group. If this is the new wine, it must be poured into new wine skin.

Need for a protocol at home

Here are a few doable tips to include in everyday practice to cater to the importance of mental health, cherishing family and relationships, promoting real relationship rather than virtual relationship.

Discern: When we choose to be digitally engaged, distinguish between what is the ‘need use’ and what is ‘entertainment use’. Watch out for the psychological inner compulsions that pull towards certain apps, games or a particular kind of show on YouTube or Facebook.

Keep gadgets away from the dining table: While having your family meal, sharing about how the day went is a good practice. Conversations on personal experience of the day rather than ideas can nurture personal bonds in the family. Studies have shown that it has been more and more difficult for younger generations to express what they feel or experienced but easier to talk about idea or concepts.

And begin and end the day away from gadget: Use of gadget keeps the mind constantly occupied and an overly engaged mind is too exhausted to get a sound sleep. Spend a few minutes in fresh air before going to bed. Brain is a part of the body that is most active the whole day and it is the brain that needs most rest to recuperate for another day.

The author is former principal of S. Xavier’s College, Maitighar

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