Face it, man's a screen animal

Updated: 23 September, 2020 07:16 IST | Mayank Shekhar | Mumbai

If you're done trolling Facebook, on Facebook, can we cursorily look at the real problem?

A screenshot of The Social Dilemma on Netflix. Pic/Netflix
A screenshot of The Social Dilemma on Netflix. Pic/Netflix

Mayank ShekharNon-GenZs: Did your eyes ever (or probably still) fixate on the TV screen at the far corner of a bar/restaurant, while the company you're with is who you should be talking directly to? But you kept looking at some random sport/music-video playing in the distance, behind the cash-counter, anyway?

It's the power of the flickering image that naturally draws our eyes towards a screen. I belong to a generation that could watch empty TV (make that MTV) all night (if the parents were away). What's changed? That TV is in my pocket, and it beeps every few minutes, actively calling attention to itself. I always glance at it, while my companion at the restaurant/bar is visibly offended.

And I wonder, what's so great about people in the physical form, while you could quickly be with a few more — also, simultaneously optimising a moment of leisure, with work — without having to be anywhere else. It's a boon.

It makes solo-trips to the bar/restaurant (or another country) delightfully possible — let alone months at home, during a punishing pandemic. Sure it's also poor etiquette to be scrolling away, during precious life moments — something you can solve by deactivating notifications from all apps on your phone. No?

Yes, there are still addiction issues related to maximising 'dopamine' hits, from likes and shares, on social networks. There's also some scary data on the young — to do with rise in depression, self-harm and suicide rates — that, like most such stats, sometimes run the risk of simplistically confusing correlation, with causation.

But I don't think Jeff Orlowski's brilliantly directed polemic, The Social Dilemma, shining a light on humans as lab rats, manipulated by Big Tech companies, argues for total abstinence from social media, or the Internet, either.

It's playing on Netflix, a Big Tech firm, which itself mines personal preferences down to the poster of a film/series that appears on your screen, which is different from somebody else's. And Netflix works just as hard to expand your screen-time away from, say Facebook/Twitter/Instagram — all of which consider your sleep their prime competitor. What's the key difference, though?

Netflix is subscriber-based. You directly pay for the content in it. It's made a documentary film (like The Social Dilemma) cool — a genre untouched by mainstream palette before. YouTube, its main rival, is paid for by the advertiser. Any shit goes.

"Then what's the problem?" — there's an extended moment of silence, early on in The Social Dilemma, with that question, when all the tech-reformists in the film, look askance. They explain at length the tech design, directed at compulsive usage, being the problem.

The fact that fake news/history/science/geography/politics/biography/hatred is a problem, since it travels six times faster on social media, than real news. Because we show an inherent bias towards negativity, conspiracy theories, and confirmation of beliefs, once held/solidified.

This leads to polarising of opinions in populations, and if left unchecked, will cause civil wars and the death of democracy (in the short and medium run), and end of human civilisation (eventually).

Who benefits? Google/Facebook's bottom line. How? Because the business model is centred on the user being the product. And the customer being the advertiser. You hear this all the time — that if the advertiser pays, the advertiser is served. Hasn't media forever been in the business of selling and buying human attention?

All this advertising once went to the newspaper. Bulk of it did move to the Internet, but not only to the web versions of news. It went to aggregators like Google, Facebook, that hardly create anything. The newspaper, with reportorial depth/facts/checks in place, is responsible for every printed word on it. Why not Facebook then, given that it calls its infinite scroll a "newsfeed"?

Who brings you Facebook? The same sort of people, I'm guessing, that supply you desi crap as TV news. Now you can't ask a corporation where to spend its money. You can continue to believe they'll go wherever people are.

But you can become conscious, hearing blatant hate-speech, divisive innuendoes punching down/sideways at public figures to suit private purposes on TV. Look closely before/after the news anchor, who did not bring you the slander — the adverts did. You can also switch off TV.

Social media perhaps works differently. Dressed up as characters from Mad Men, you watch suits in The Social Dilemma, predicting/manipulating your behaviour towards psychological entrapment, so you are transformed, and just can't leave. But that's an algorithm. Yes, it is a technology issue. But it has a human solution.

There are real, proverbial Mad Men — from advertising itself — at the other end, who actually pay Facebook for their behaviour. We only refer to them as an unknown collective — faceless Mogambo, residing on another planet, overseeing the destruction of our own.

In line with the cliché of capitalists having no conscience/compassion. They still comprise people (like you and me, our kith and kin), being directly affected by an eco-system that rewards fake/sensationalist information, wreaking havoc on occasion.

Who is this Big Business, packed with amoral aliens, that can't address the problem its money causes (to itself)? Even if they disagree (so far), with its suggested scale, and we're talking existentialist/survival issues here. Helpless, unhinged Big Tech, taking on an Artificial Intelligence (AI) life of its own, is then simply the symptom, right?

Mayank Shekhar attempts to make sense of mass culture. He tweets @mayankw14

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The views expressed in this column are the individual's and don't represent those of the paper

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First Published: 23 September, 2020 04:56 IST

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