Jennifer O’Connell: Don’t be a Zucker for social media in 2017

After two years in the US tech industry, I do not believe Silicon Valley is creating a humane world

At home with the  Zuckerbergs: the 13.8 million people who viewed the video of Mark Zuckerberg’s child Max’s early steps are not his family or friends

At home with the Zuckerbergs: the 13.8 million people who viewed the video of Mark Zuckerberg’s child Max’s early steps are not his family or friends

 

If there is anything to be said for 2016, it is that it left us with ample reason – a whole, disturbing catalogue of reasons – to reassess our relationship with social media in 2017.

2016 brought us Facebook filter bubbles. “Fake news” controversies. The daily, 3am purging of Donald Trump’s bile in a series of outraged, painstakingly-punctuated tweets. More harassment, more trolling. The propaganda war over Aleppo. The censoring of an iconic photograph of the Vietnam war. The use of social platforms to enable the rise of the so-called alt-right movement. Snapchat’s offensive “blackface” filters. The rise of influencers. Warnings from doctors to parents about the risks of “sharenting”.

I cannot be alone in wondering how a technology that was supposed to offer us more and better ways to engage and create connections, new opportunities to reach one other, and improved, ubiquitous access to information, has instead left us more confused, alienated and apparently worse informed than ever.

Ironically, it is just as public cynicism about social media appears to be reaching a height that we are on the cusp of giving up yet more of our privacy and autonomy in the name of convenience and “deep personalisation”.

Over the course of 2017 and beyond, we will see artificial intelligence and machine learning gradually play a greater role in our everyday lives, harvesting our own data to make everything from our social shopping to our healthcare experiences more relevant, more targeted and more invasive.

Wearable technology will become a little more pervasive and intrusive. Smart homes will begin to offer the illusion of control of our environment – when in reality it is we who will be controlled.

Live video will solidify its presence in our lives in the coming year, becoming just another way of capturing, sharing – and, yes, compromising – private moments. Virtual reality might improve the gaming experience – but at what cost, as users retreat further and further into their own private worlds?

As we face into 2017, two moments captured towards the year’s end defined, for me, the twin poles of our increasingly fraught relationship with social media.

Remarkable scene

The first was the image and video of gunman standing over the still-warm body of Andrei Karlov, the Russian ambassador to Turkey, slain just seconds before in a gallery in Ankara. It is a remarkable scene: from the spotless, incongruous suit worn by the gunman, Mevlut Mert Altintas, to the fury etched on his face, to his iconic, calculated pose, an arm held aloft, like he was auditioning for a part in Les Misérables.

It is a sign of how completely social media has redefined our boundaries that there was very little public discussion about whether, where, and in what context, the image of Karlov’s body should be shared.

Within hours of the killing, the New York Times had published disturbing close-ups of the body, along with a defence of its decision to do so. The Irish Times did not show Karlov’s body in its print edition, and published the video with a warning on its digital platform, blurring the body of the ambassador.

But the decisions made by traditional news media matter less and less: inevitably, the image was everywhere on social media, its impact and capacity to shock dulled with every share or retweet.

Eventually, on my Facebook feed, a friend who knew Karlov through his work made a quiet, heartfelt plea for his own friends to stop sharing it.

The second moment could not, at first glance, have been more different. It was another short video – this time shot on a 360-degree camera, and featuring the first steps of Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan’s daughter, Max. Rather than anger and death and hatred, it captured joy, and life, and love. But it was disturbing too, in a different, but not entirely unrelated, way.

Zuckerberg was arguably doing what billions of other parents – this one included – do every day: sharing a precious moment for the delight of family and friends. But he is not like other parents, and the 13.8 million people who viewed it are not his family or friends.

Anyone with a laptop or a phone can now survey the contours of Max Zuckerberg’s little face or the interior of the family’s mid-century San Francisco home – from the child’s rocking horse, to the family dog, to the kind of lock they have on the French doors leading to the garden.

There is something deeply unseemly about a man who keeps a piece of tape across the camera on his Macbook for security reasons compromising his family’s privacy, and potentially its safety, in this way.

And for what? So he can flog us yet another cool new feature? So he can reassure us that, despite this annus horribilis, social sharing is sweet and touching and laudable? Give me a break.

Together, these images paint a startling picture of the world we now live in. At one end of the spectrum: a moment of violent death, captured on smartphone by horrified onlookers, and shared around the world in seconds.

Millions of strangers

At the other: precious moments at the beginning of life, captured by a proud parent, and cast out into the world to be ogled and shared by millions of strangers.

2016’s gift to us is the opportunity to reflect on the commoditisation of these extremes of human experience, and the price we have paid – and will go on paying – for the promise of convenience, personalisation and the allure of shallow, instant engagement.

The pace and unquestioning manner in which we ceded control over the past 10 years to a small group of elites in Silicon Valley over many of the things that make us human I find deeply alarming.

A small group of elite technology leaders hold a massively disproportionate influence over the way we engage and interact with one another; the manner in which we consume news about the world around us; our instincts about privacy, and ownership of our data.

I spent two years living and working among those elites. Though many of them are individually empathetic, compassionate and humane people, the culture that they are engineering is not.

Don’t be taken in by the focus on diversity, the philanthropic initiatives, the perks, or the woolly promises about “believing deeply in people” and “not being evil”.

I saw no evidence that Silicon Valley is a world that spends a great deal of time agonising about its impact on the rest of society. It is not a place much given to self-reflection. It is not somewhere awed by its power to shape the way the rest of us live.

Rather, it is a place whose primary focus is the enrichment of its shareholders. And that enrichment depends on our willingness to cede more and more of ourselves; to permit our boundaries to be further eroded, and to allow every aspect of our lives to be commoditised.

The old adage about how if you’re not paying for something, then you are the product, may be a cliché, but it has never been more true.

It is too late to put the genie back in the bottle – but we don’t need to throw open our doors to him, hand him a 360-degree camera, and invite him to start filming our lives either.

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