Well… some of the world’s brightest minds who were instrumental in its invention and propagation say the answer is, increasingly… “very dangerous”.
It is no secret for example that industry overlords such as Bill Gates and Steve Jobs placed strict restrictions on their own children’s access to the technologies they helped create.
Justin Rosenstein recently admitted having blocked himself from several major social platforms and described Facebook’s “like” button as providing “bright dings of pseudo-pleasure”. Of course, every crackpot gets to have their say in today’s online reality… even Justin Rosenstein, who invented the “like” button.
Other issues including privacy protection, cyber-bullying, targeted advertising, ownership of intellectual copyright, personal detachment, professional (non)-productivity, sleep deprivation, depression, proliferation of “fake news”… all are conundrums of increasing importance as we step deeper into the new millennium, and discussed when the wifi goes down.
One aspect of the new world which I find equally interesting and scary, is the algorithms which daily become more refined at showing us what we want to see. “Likes” and self-affirmation is all very nice and pleasant and self-affirming, but… very fucking frightening.
Recently I encountered an example of this; our world brought closer than at any time in history, and divided in previously unimaginable ways.
For context, this was barely two weeks after a school shooting in Parkland, Florida, in which 17 more young Americans lost their lives.
What stopped my habitual scrolling in its tracks was this photo, depicting senior members of a Pennsylvania church during a “blessing ceremony” while brandishing high-powered weapons. Unsurprisingly to me, photos of this event went viral, fast. The images flooded my news feed, posted by friends in America, Asia, Australia and the middle east.
This particular image stopped me completely.
One of the men in this photo is a personal friend of mine.
I’ve known him for years. My wife and I, when we lived in Korea, regularly joined him and his wife for an afternoon beer at our local pub. We joined them for dinner, in our home and theirs. They were educated and wealthy, and seemed, just… nice.
They had an interesting back story. They made no secret of their long-term affiliation with the Unification Church, and invited us to attend a service as their guests. Likewise, I made no secret of my personal disinclination toward theirs, or any organised religion and politely declined. We had some good conversations and there was a maintained semblance of mutual respect.
It had been a few years, but after seeing this photo I contacted my old friend on Facebook, mentioning his newfound virality. He got back to me, enquiring about my family and so forth. He said the church ceremony in question had been a nice, quiet affair and expressed mild surprise (whether genuine or feigned) at the media attention. After all, as Reuters photographers were there to document the occasion, I wondered how he could possibly have thought such an event might go unnoticed. I didn’t question him though.
I had a look at his Facebook page… and here’s the thing.
His Facebook page was, and is, more or less diametrically opposed to mine. It is filled with posts about “good guys with guns” being the only solution to American gun violence, and all manner of American Alt-right ideological memes. There were messages and posts from like-minded friends and fellow congregation members, praising Jesus, brandishing guns, demonising the libtards…
Just as my Facebook feed, and the Internet in general, reminds me each day that my thoughts and values are absolutely correct and (almost) universally agreed upon, by all who matter at least… so does his.
That, taken to a theoretically logical end point, will almost certainly not end well.