On a cold, frosty night, a voodoo doll turned in its bed. It had come to life, but it could not do anything. For it to function at its peak, it needed information and that could only come from the person it’s linked to – a 15-year-old boy in Bangalore called Harish.
That night, after months of arguments with his parents, Harish finally created his first Facebook account (he lied about his age on the platform). He started adding friends and liking pages and before he knew it, his feed was filled with interesting content that kept his attention for a long time. His favourite games, his favourite athletes, his favourite movies – he could see them all.
While he was doing all of this, his voodoo doll version could see it all too and it started evolving. With all his likes, it started to get some hair. With all his chats, it started to develop nails. As time passed by, this voodoo doll was fully developed and knew Harish inside out. On the other hand, Harish didn’t know about the voodoo doll at all. The voodoo doll now had powers and it was connected to a million other voodoo dolls which functioned in the same way. After communicating with its peers, the voodoo doll knew the best way to keep Harish’s attention and control him.
All of us may not be as naïve as Harish, but if we have social media accounts, we all have our own voodoo dolls. It understands our mood, our preferences and our dislikes. Using an AI-based algorithm, it serves up content on our feed that is most likely to keep us engaged. This content may not even be the best thing for us. For example, if a child sees a video propagating the earth is flat theory, he gets so hooked to it that he ends up spending a long time on it. He had come there to spend 10 minutes, but ended up spending 30 minutes.
In an interview with Joe Rogan, computer scientist Tristan Harris revealed an alarming reality. He said that the executives who work at these social media websites don't allow their children to use them. This speaks volumes about the ethical responsibility of the product that they’re creating. Harris added that you wouldn’t trust a doctor who is not confident of operating on his own child. Using that logic, you shouldn’t trust social media websites too.
If we allow and keep feeding these platforms with our content, there’ll come a time when we’ll prefer a connection with a robot rather than a human. "As technology advances, it starts hacking our weaknesses. We start to prefer it over the real thing. For example, there's a recent company - VC funded. It's worth around $125 million and what they make are virtual influencers. So these are like virtual people, virtual video that is more entertaining and more interesting than real people," Tristan Harris said in the interview.
Perhaps it has already started happening. If a child is winning every game in PUBG with his friends, he’ll devote maximum time to it and not care about his family. He’s so engrossed in the game that he ignores other essential activities like socializing and exercising. PUBG is his life and it doesn’t matter if he is unfit or weak in the real world. All that matters is his online life, something that he loves more than his real life.
The Urruda take
Social media websites have many evils that we don’t know about. Companies like Facebook and Google have already been embroiled in several lawsuits pertaining to privacy issues. They may seem like saviours, but the real truth is murkier. It’s important for us to realize that if we are not paying for the product, we are the product. It was believed that lack of information and disconnected communities is the reason why the world is so stupid. The internet connected the world and provided access to information. But instead of making us smarter, internet has made our society even more complex and dumb. The problem with social media is not what is correct but nothing is wrong.