In the 2020s, polarized societies are empowered by AI technologies that tightly curate the granular dissemination of extreme sentiments.
Social networks are our 21st-century town square, meeting places where like-minded people are welcome, commentary recorded, and ideas explored. The global migration to social platforms has transformed the discourse from a place of serious analysis to a place akin to a restaurant serving comfort food. Anything is fine as long as it's emotionally compatible and easily digested.
Marshall McLuhan helps to fathom what's changed. McLuhan, the Canadian communications guru, famously taught that "the medium is the message." The phrase first appeared in his notebook in June 1957 and was featured in every presentation he gave until he died in 1980.
McLuhan argued that history is shaped not so much by ideas as by the tools we use to disseminate ideas. In his view, the medium exerts a more significant influence than the message. The events that changed history were not the birth of monotheism, the emergence of humanism, and the growth of feminism, but the revolutionary advent of printing, radio, and television; not the creation of new ideas, but the emergence of new media, which shape our very ways of thinking.
Technology can enrich our lives and fill our days with functionality not there before. But it can also impoverish us and take functionality away. McLuhan's 1964 book, Understanding Media, explains the difference between what technology gives and what it takes away.
"What it gives us is bright and shiny, but what it takes away is obscure and often invisible. The sugar hit arrives quickly and what it takes away isn't apparent. Its advantages are therefore seen and spoken about, while its disadvantages are primarily unseen and seldom known or discussed."
The Digital Revolution has been no less potent than the Industrial Revolution. The Industrial Revolution wrought havoc on the natural environment. Since the Digital Revolution, humanity's relationship with technology has spiraled out of control. And this relationship is by far the most challenging one that Western societies will need to regulate in the coming decades.
The human-technology relationship is one-sided and sick, and healing it is an urgent priority. The digital revolution has forever changed our lives via three self-serving visions.
1) The intellectual vision: we access knowledge without boundaries but have less capacity to concentrate and focus.
2) The social vision: we are far more available but much less attentive.
3) And most importantly, the emotional vision: we are infinitely more connected but have lost the capacity for empathy.
When we trade away skills for power, attention for availability, empathy for connectivity, and quality for quantity of relationships, we sign up to a pact with the Devil. An agreement for more control over the outside world but less control over our inner world.
What might a healthy human relationship with digital technology look like?
An elegant maxim comes from Sherry Turkle: "technology is a great servant but a terrible master. If technology is our master, it dilutes our connections, erases our free time, and pulverizes our learning skills. But if technology is our servant, it deepens our connections, frees up time, and broadens our minds. All three connections can suffer from an unhealthy relationship with technology, and all three can gain from a healthy relationship with the same technology."
The Algorithm has crafted the digital town square we savor to engage us in a warm embrace. We feel at home, loved, and valued—digital heaven. It's wholly unreal and hazardous but incredibly energizing. We're urged on by the town square inhabitants and come to believe we can reshape the world to reflect our values.
It's what happened in 2016 for the TrumpPublicans and the BrexitOnians. Both groups found their Nirvana and their Agency courtesy of The Facebook Algorithm.
The Algorithm has form. We know it can change the course of history.
Now we're entering a new phase of our digital journey enabling a virtual-reality-powered town square that makes 2016 look like a family picnic.
The Algorithm is our enemy.
It must be stomped on and never allowed to resurface.