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While the reputations of Cambridge Analytica and Facebook are being slaughtered in the news, the state of our privacy is being questioned. Are we too willing to give open ourselves up to Big Brother? What are the consequences of such an open society? Is such a society even open?
The media asks these questions to cultivate certain responses from the public, usually favouring images of a totalitarian society set against a dystopian backdrop of grey skyscrapers and tapered emotions. In ironic contrast to their warnings of social media brainwashing the masses, the media's encouragement of us thinking about these questions implies they want to change how we think. Specifically, they want us to believe their perspective and their stories, which are not always unbiased.
Some of us pour our whole lives onto the internet, a realm of dazzling and terrifying possibilities, with the intention of being monitored by the public, in the forms of likes and comments. But when it is highlighted that such monitoring isn’t from our desired select public, we’re in outrage. There are now countless articles listing the ways Facebook and similar data-hoarding companies, such as Google, have accumulated information on our lives, perpetuating the Big Brother image. For example, this Guardian article begins with the questions “Are you ready?” and “Want to freak yourself out?” implying that although we pretend to be transparent on social media, we are not ready to air all our secrets out in the open. Select transparency online is an illusion that has just been shattered in the general news. We were not ready, but we probably should have guessed that our personal data was being used and manipulated from fiction such as Orwell’s 1984. Surveillance tropes are constant in fiction and films, especially with the rising reliance on technology, which the Guardian article seems to have missed; “The harvesting of our personal details goes far beyond what many of us could imagine.” Many of us can and had imagined, watched, and read about it.
Should social media be loathed or loved then? As a social species, we love the drama, the suspense, the uproar, the sharing. There is truth in the argument against social media that it creates a validation loop, as ex-Facebook executive Chamath Palihapitiya pronounced, involving the need for certain amount of likes to feel worthy in the eyes of our select public. Palihapitiya also mentions that sites like Facebook unconsciously programme us to feel and act in certain ways. This is true to a certain extent. The social media wave has changed how we interact unprecedentedly, for better and for worse.
However, as previously mentioned, it is not only social media attempting to unconsciously programme us, since the general media also tries their hand at changing our perspectives, just as everything we interact with does. That’s what it means to socialise. As we grow and learn from one another, we rely on our intellect to sift through what’s good and what’s bad information. We should be encouraged to question things, to challenge our individual perspectives, and to not blindly use powerful technology. Ultimately, we are in charge of what technology we use and what stories to believe.
We are an intelligent species that loves to socialise and create. The latter, unfortunately, shares a fragile border with destruction, meaning it is easier to focus on and makes for a much better news headline. However, technology and social media are tools to facilitate this love within us, as they not only ease our lives, but excite them also. Personally, I’m happy to be along for the ride during such a thrilling and tumultuous time, and cannot wait for the next technological marvel.