I have always been wary of promoting any particular company in this column, but I must make an exception for Skitster.
Skitser, announced just this week, and backed by some of the leading venture capital firms in Silicon Valley, is the first social network for what is good for you. Once downloaded on to your smartphone, Skitster quietly watches your mood with your selfie camera, and eavesdrops on everything via your microphone. It then gently nudges you to be happier.
It tells you what to watch on YouTube or your TV, what to listen to on radio or on your player, and which things to read on the internet or on the printed page. It tells you what great things to buy and then goes right ahead and automatically arranges all the debt for you. It tells you what to eat, what to wear and how to stay healthy. It manages your partner and friends, ensuring that you are always the centre of their attention. It tells you everything you need to know, and even how to vote. The app, conceived and built by the brightest and best-paid engineers in Silicon Valley, is the only real-time platform for continuous paradise.
At the end of this month it will be the 350th anniversary of the birth of Jonathan Swift. The dean of St Patrick's Cathedral was a poet, essayist and, especially, satirist. His first major work, A Tale of a Tub, is a parody on morals and ethics. In one of the many digressions around the central tale of the three brothers of the "Tub", he notes: "For if we take an examination of what is generally understood by happiness … all its properties and adjuncts will herd under this short definition, that it is a perpetual possession of being well-deceived."
Our social network platforms make us happy. They are proficient in amplifying what we each have come to expect. While none have yet matched the achievements of Skitster, they reinforce those things we each believe to be right and true. They reassure us that in fact we do know best, while others have just got it plain wrong. By noting what we read and what we ignore, what we click and what we pass by, what we promote and what we scorn, they quietly deduce our own prejudices and biases. They feed us content to our contentment, and so keep us happy.
Smugly cocooned, we nominate items of personal interest to our digital social circles. We seek out intrigue and insight, which confirms our suspicions. Memes then spread virally among like-minded people. We come to trust and affirm others like us, rather than all those professed experts served up in the general media.
The opportunity for manipulation of society becomes obvious. Outright lies can avoid critical assessment if they are sufficiently intriguing. Professional journalists frequently struggle to respond to such fake information, precisely because the media believes serious analysis is necessary in order for the media to itself be taken seriously. Debating the facts to refute a fake assertion risks reinforcement of the lie, because the deceit becomes heavily repeated.
Sophia McClennon, a professor at Pennsylvania State University, has argued that some political satirists have been much more successful at challenging fake news than the established media. Rather than impartial representation of all sides of a debate, comedians on the US networks such as Stephen Colbert, John Oliver and Jon Stewart instead cut straight through the absurdity of some news items, using reason and sheer disbelief. In the spirit of calling out an "April fool", they challenge their audiences to laugh at the crassness of ridiculous statements, situations and especially their consequences.
Maybe we should start to approach every news item with a healthy scepticism, enjoy ourselves and laugh more. Maybe we should wonder whether every post carefully selected just for us by our favourite social media platform is in fact a potential April fool joke, regardless of the actual date. Rather than always engaging in serious debate, maybe every professional journalist should have more fun and thus call out “Trumpery” for what it is.
But if we approach every new piece of digital information with an initial scepticism, we surely risk a cynical contamination. Swift asserted that we will be happiest when we are continually deceived. If instead we are continuously cynical so as to break deceit, then surely we are likely to become bitter and disappointed – and yes, unhappy.
Perhaps we should just passively accept all those digital inputs that make us happy, make us feel content and reinforce our imagined wisdom that we are right. After all, Swift also noted in his same essay that fiction has advantages over truth, since our imagination can build much more interesting scenes and thoughts for us than real life ever can do.
Skitster? A parody of technology and our modern digital society. But I trust I’ve made you think.