I watched the documentary film, The Social Dilemma, yesterday. People working in the Attention Economy finally admitted they’ve turned the world into a Truman Show and us, social media users, into zombies to be manipulated. Something we’ve known for sometime now.
I think it might be too late for Millennials and Gen Z. The developing minds and personalities of this lot are irrevocably altered. Their phones are an extension of their hands and they feel a phantom limb sensation if physical contact with the phone is lost.
Of course, the social media czars didn’t know this would happen. They were so delighted with the pros that they didn’t even think there could be cons!
They started off well enough twenty years ago and users saw them as a blessing. And they are, no denying that. Currently, aren’t we all relying on social media to keep in touch with family and friends in the middle of this pandemic? It’s wonderful that we are able to take pictures and share them in real time with close family members who live in other places, see them on video calls, and have group chats.
It’s great that people in the industry are now talking about the downside of social media addiction, its negative effects on the lives of people, especially the young. But the hours, days, weeks and months frittered away online cannot be retrieved, and kids might have lost sight of whatever they intended to achieve when they graduated from school. Many of them might feel regret, anguish or a sort of despair like John Milton did:
How soon hath Time, the subtle thief of youth,
Stol’n on his wing my three and twentieth year!
My hasting days fly on with full career,
But my late spring no bud or blossom shew’th.
I haven’t seen rehab working too well for alcoholics and drug addicts and I don’t think it’s very effective for social media addicts either. So I guess we are looking at damage control starting with Gen Alpha, as kids born after 2010 are apparently called. Maybe Gen Z is indeed another Lost Generation, like the Lost Generation of the Great Depression of 1929, as some say.
Frankly, I don’t believe the industry that uses our data to manipulate us is capable of reining itself in despite the earnest efforts of the people who made this honest documentary. Getting on the prestigious Forbes List is too big a deal, and generating revenue through advertisements targeted at vulnerable users is a brilliant strategy for plutocrats. Can they give up their modus operandi now, when they only have a few more years before they reach the dust-to-dust point in their lives?
Economy was traditionally about industry, production, trade and consumption in a market system. The link between economy and survival of the human race as a whole was visible to everyone. There was some sense of ‘we’. Not to say it was a perfect system. It just seemed less oligarchic because getting into college, buying a house, buying a vehicle, etc. seemed possible if we saved wisely for them, unlike now, when we need bank loans for everything.
But the goals of the Attention Economy are not inclusive. It’s like a disguised form of feudalism, where land is substituted by data, and individuals give up their privacy/ownership of data in exchange for ‘free’ use of social media.
The business model of ad-based revenue deliberately creates echo chambers because more ‘clicks’ mean more eyeballs are drawn to ads. In the process, users receive and unknowingly spread fake news, hate and anger. There’s no telling what will happen if two echo chambers fed opposing ideas clash. Maybe riots of the sort we see nowadays?
It’s not too hard to imagine that the powerful plutocrats of the Attention Economy could bring about an apocalypse by sowing discord among people via our wonderfully user-friendly, unregulated, social media, while they stay safely ensconced in their well-stocked fallout shelters. Perhaps this is a conspiracy theory, but the Eugenics movement is apparently still alive, concealed behind public chatter about human rights!
Seriously though, perhaps it is time for an apocalypse, time for us all to leave, and let the earth recover. The earth has withstood ice ages, meteorite collisions, our own Chernobyl, Fukushima, the British Petroleum oil spill, and god knows what else, for four billion years. The earth will not be destroyed even if all life on it ceases. It’s we who are expected to survive within a narrow range of parameters called homeostasis! And every time we weaken a section of humanity out of greed we weaken ourselves as a species.
Though natural processes are not under our control and can cause life on earth to end anytime, one thing we can do is use social media to change the way this story is going, to the extent it’s under our control.
In general, the elements of a story’s plot are:
- Introduction to characters and the conflict
- Rising action
- Falling action
In this story we are the characters. The things we do to fulfil our aspirations as a species is the conflict. I think we are now in the stage of falling action, though optimistic people might say we are still in the stage of rising action. Resolution of our conflict depends entirely on how we want to write this story – because we are the authors. Will our story end with a catastrophe or a happily-ever-after?