The dark side of social networks and the need for ethical products

A scrupulous look at our entangled relationship with technology

Photo by mohamed_hassan

We live in a society where our devices have become an extension of ourselves. We spend on average four hours a day on our phones — staggering statistics showing that we are addicted to our devices. Industry experts estimate that we check our phones around 150 times per day. We are in the literal sense on a hook. Our decisions, morals, motives are dictated to us by various companies whose primary concern is to generate revenue.

As I’m writing the first paragraph of this article, I’ve looked at my iPhone and Android phones at least three times. The distractions are numerous and hard to miss. I’ve come to admit that I’m addicted to technology. I’ve made several attempts to modify my device usage with no success.

However, I don’t give up so easily.

This article’s objective is to provide some context with regards to the current situation the world is facing with artificial intelligence and addiction to digital product addiction. This article is part 1 of a 4 series of articles that will be released in the coming four months. I will be discussing solutions and ideas for consumers, product creators, and governments.

Part I: The current dilemma

Famous American inventor, designer, and entrepreneur Steve Jobs was telling the world how wonderful the iPad is. However, he was limiting the access his children had to technology at home. He was aware of how addictive this technology can be.

The attention economy is all about how companies are competing for your attention. Artificial Intelligence (AI) is being used to predict your behaviours and emotions and selectively display advertisements to keep us staring at the screen.

AI is getting smarter with every click, view, ad viewed, and content that is being shared.

Nothing is free; everything comes at a cost. Thanks to advertisers, consumers do not pay for these products. The customers are the advertisers. In return, consumers’ attention is the thing being sold to get their attention.

These companies’ ultimate goal is to gradually change your behaviour, your mindset, what you do, how you think and who you are. That’s really how they make their money.

For businesses, this advertisement model is a dream come true because it offers them a guarantee that their ads will be seen by the intended targeted audience, reaching out to a broader range of potential customers right on their devices. This model is far more effective and has a higher return on investment. Advertisements will be successful and very profitable. The recipe for this success is great predictions which are obtained with lots of data from consumers using the products and services

Companies do not sell our data, but they create these algorithms using AI that can anticipate our actions and our thoughts. The business with the best model wins.

These technology companies have three main goals

1) Engagement: To increase usage and to ensure users keep scrolling and consuming content.

2) Growth: To keep users constantly coming back to the platform, invite friends, and having them bring their friends to the platform.

3) Advertising: Increasing revenue by exposing users to as many advertisements as possible.

We have created a whole new world where being online plays an increasingly important role in our lives. Consequently, when we communicate, we are more prone to be manipulated. This has also changed the definition of culture. When a connection is made, an AI behind the scenes exploits the people and the interactions. It is beginning to change the fabric of society.

Companies like Google and Facebook would constantly conduct small experiments on their users. For example, Facebook conducted what they referred to as “massive-scale contagion experiments.”

In 2010, Facebook discovered that they were able to use subliminal messages on 61 million Americans, which resulted in an increased number of votes during the midterm elections. They realized that real-world behaviour and emotions can be modified without the users’ knowledge.

Currently, AI is digging deeper in our brain to create unconscious habits and needs. It extracts our attention and modifies our behaviours and thoughts. It influences how we perceive ourselves, making us question our self-worth, and how we project ourselves to the world.

We care about how people in our immediate surroundings perceive us. However, we have not been created to process the perception, opinions, and approvals of 10 000 people every few minutes.

We personalize our lives around this perception that we live in a perfect world. We willingly allow these products to constantly bombard us with these short-term signals and notifications such as likes, thumbs-ups, emojis, etc. The latter gives us a temporary sense of satisfaction.

All we feel is a void and emptiness. We are then addicted, and we are yearning for that approval, for those likes, even if it is for a brief moment. Unfortunately, this is the reality of 2 billion people.

A whole new generation of people is becoming accustomed to using only technology to combat uncertainty and loneliness.

As Tristan Harris stated during a seminar in 2017 at Stanford University, “I think the deepest existential risk from this is that it is going to show them an individual reality that confirms their world views that’s gonna be so different from the thing that would confirm our shared sense of reality.” Initially, the goal of these giant tech companies was to help people connect and engage with each other.

However, that desire to connect is “taking entire societies and putting them through a paper shredder, where throughout the other end you get basically filter bubbles and echo chambers when people don’t have shared facts and agree on the same reality.”

When a Google search is conducted, the results vary depending on where the user lives, and the specific things Google knows about the user’s interests.

We would expect two very close people with the same friends on their respective accounts to see identical updates on their newsfeeds. In reality, it does not work that way. The algorithm is calculating and crafting a curated reality for each of them. As time passes, they believe that everyone agrees with them since the content from their friends’ feeds is similar to their own.

The algorithm has a brain of its own. Even if humans program it, it is designed in a way that it constantly learns on its own and evolves itself. Over time, it becomes better and smarter to select the exact posts, in the right order and displays the content to get users to spend more time with the product.

Only a handful of people from these big tech companies have a deep understanding of how this AI functions. They cannot explain what will happen when AI releases the content out there, especially since it has a mind of its own. It is a terrifying thought, but we have lost control of the systems that we have created. It has conquered our thoughts and emotions. It knows our deepest secrets and desires. It meticulously calculates our decisions and our next moves.

We have recently begun questioning the ethics of artificial intelligence that are injected into the various products that we use daily. However, there is still some hope.

AI can be used to do good in our society. However, as consumers, we need to ensure our goals regarding the use of this technology are aligned with technology companies.

These products can still be profitable, ethical and bring good changes to the world as long there is a mutual understanding between both parties regarding the intention of the product. Companies need to be transparent with their intentions. Consumers need to demand transparency, honesty and boycott products that do not measure up.

Thank you for reading. This is the first article I am publishing on Medium. I’d love to hear your feedback. Please reach out on LinkedIn.

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