Are We Becoming The Guinea Pigs Of Information Technology?

Social media powered by AI

My 14-year-old student (Inaya Yana Nisar) wrote this article, based on our two-hour discussion about the current state of the Internet & Information Technology, mass data collection and usage of AI to modify our cognitive behavior. For the readers, let’s just enjoy her way of thinking at that age, despite some obvious factual mistakes & room for debate, looking at the world from a 14-year-old human perspective.

— Publisher & Editor’s note, Rimon Habib

Despite having written about the dark sides of the Internet & Information Technology, it must be acknowledged that we, the leaders and users of technology and the Internet can, should and will make the world of technology a better place. We have a moral duty to achieve that type of technology.As in the lyrics of Heal The World by Michael Jackson and Imagine by John Lennon.

🎶 Make the world a better place for you and for me. 🎶

🎶 You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one. I hope someday you’ll join us, and the world will be as one. 🎶

— Author’s note, Inaya Yana Nisar

In today’s world, one thing practically everyone is familiar with is…well, the Internet. First, we should really have a brief grasp of the definition of the Internet. The Internet, in the simplest possible vocabulary, can be defined as the interconnection of millions–billions, really–of devices like computers, cellphones and smart devices like smart home systems (for instance, Alexa, Google Nest) worldwide.

With the advent of the Internet, we have also witnessed the rise of stuff like e-commerce, social media and e-banking, like anything that has to do with the Internet. In particular, we noticed the drastic, to some extent aggressive, rise of social media. Social media refers to applications like Facebook, Twitter, etc. that (were originally supposed to), bring people together in the name of a digitally interconnected and friendly world. Soon we shall find out why I said “were originally supposed to”.

Anyway, so with the rise of the Internet came stuff like social media. Most people don’t realize it, but they are addicted to their social media feeds. Let’s dive into the perhaps not-so-pleasant behind the scenes of social media. 

Have we ever, perhaps, stopped for a moment to think that our social media feeds, especially ones like Facebook, seem to probably know us better than ourselves?

This is because the algorithms that run these platforms actually gauge our activity to the bone, and the artificial intelligence, AI, affiliated with those algorithms are enhanced and improvised by the data being secretly extracted from the users. The AI then fills our feed with stuff that is closely related to our most recent activity or even our interest in general. We might then perhaps be interested in the stuff on our feed, and the AI then decides to display more of that content, and we eventually get hooked on it. This is a classic example of a feedback loop– we have certain inputs, they are processed, there are a bunch of outputs, we get feedback, and then we add more inputs accordingly, creating this loop.

This process of feedback loop happens spontaneously, given the fact that the technology we have now is sophisticated enough to do this in real time. This sounds really creepy, but it’s the plain truth. Social media could be thought of as behavior modification empires (according to Jaron Lanier). Soon we’ll learn why.

Social media aren’t really the only behavior modification empires. Companies like Google and Amazon also collect data about us.

Let’s think about our last search with the Google search engine. You might have noticed that when we typed in, like the first search term or even the first three letters, the search engine automatically suggested and might have even filled in the rest of the search keywords.

This happened because Google also has AI that gauges our actions at the moment based on different contextual factors like geographical location, political status of that location, etc. You can conduct a quick experiment to see how Google search autosuggestion changes by using a VPN connection and searching for the same keyword from Honk Kong, Germany and the United States.

There is one slight difference between Google and platforms like Facebook though; while our social media feeds are full of stuff based on our latest activity and interests, companies like Google in particular can sort of foresee our next move, and it can proactively do the job for us, so it can be deduced that Google in a way watches us even more closely than a company like Facebook.

google search autocomplete
Photo by visuals on Unsplash

Many of us are familiar with reward-and-punishment behavioral conditioning. When a child, or perhaps a pet animal, is being good, we reward them with something like a treat, pocket money, etc., and if they are misbehaving or something like that, they get punished.

We may have also heard of the Skinner box, invented by Burrhus Skinner. It is like a box, in which there is a small animal like a mouse. A mouse does certain stuff, for which it is either rewarded or punished. Eventually, the creature learns to associate certain activities with certain outcomes, like rewards, and it is automatically attracted to those goodies, and so will keep striving for more prizes.

To make things clearer, it can be helpful to make an analogy. In this analogy, a social media app like Twitter is equivalent to the Skinner box and we, the users, can be analogous to the creature in the box. Now, when we make a post on Twitter, Tumblr, or whatever site we are using at some point in time, we often expect some reaction to that post, mostly a positive one. When we get a reaction to that post, we get a pleasant feeling, which is informally termed as a dopamine hit (dopamine is the “happy hormone”).

This dopamine hit can be analogous to the reward. However, some people may not like our post, and might give a negative reaction or, worse still, a pretty bad comment that had better not be typed here. The negative reaction then causes us to feel awful, and this bad feeling can be called punishment.And it is important to note that good feelings take a long time to develop, and they can fade really quickly, while bad feelings can stem pretty fast, and they linger around for a relatively longer period of time.

Photo by Su San Lee on Unsplash

Due to the fact that bad feelings last longer, sometimes people actually harm themselves because of those bad feelings. Tech giants of this information technological age, monetize our addiction and, to some extent, our mental sanity.

Researchers even drew links between social media usage and increasing anxiety, depression, ADHD, which is clearly a very alarming image. It is also a sad reality that, instead of a “digitally interconnected friendly world”, we are really falling victims to an addictive loop which we can’t even recognize most of the time, and by the time we do, sometimes it’s just too late. In short, this situation can be described as a liberal dystopia, since we have so-called “free speech” and all that stuff on social media and, at the same time, we are constantly being watched and manipulated by these AI-operated giants.

Those who have read till this point, I know you might think that, all I am writing is the negative side of Information Technology. There’s no doubt that we need our information technology. Without the progress we are making on this, we will be stuck in the past as a specie and can not move forward. I don’t deny that. But I do think there are very serious problems with our current state of technology. I strongly believe to solve a problem, the first step is to acknowledge the problem. That is the whole point of this article. I would also like to mention that this article is a part of my ongoing exploration. More write-ups on these topics are coming up.

Despite all this, it must be mentioned and emphasized that we can build a better internet. A lot of people are working for a new age of Information Technology at the time I am writing this article, for a better internet, better social media. This is another big and interesting topic on which I will write soon.

On a related topic, you might also check out the article I wrote a few years ago while doing a project. I tried to explain how our internet is broken.