The internet is the most transformative innovation of our time. But is it the greatest? Jon Malyon explores its negative impact and what we can do about it.
What is mankind’s greatest innovation?
Ask any technophile and they’ll tell you it’s the internet. Sure, as far as historical game-changers are concerned it’s got a lot of serious competition. The wheel, the printing-press, the internal combustion engine, the light-bulb and antibiotics to name but a significant few. But in terms of bringing about dramatic and exceedingly rapid societal change, the internet, along with the creation of the World Wide Web and consequent technological developments, has got to be up there in first place.
The most transformative innovation, then, certainly. But is the internet really the greatest? In many ways, absolutely. What could be a more equitable system than one which enables free access to information for (increasingly) everyone? What could be more unifying than a network that allows people to share knowledge and ideas with others all over the globe? And what could be more humanly empowering than a system that shifts the balance of influence away from large organisations into the fingertips of individuals tapping away at their desktop computers in far flung corners of the earth?
If it sounds utopian, it is. In fact, the evolution of the internet over the last forty years (and particularly during the last ten) has brought about a somewhat different, and more sinister reality.
So what went wrong?
Despite (or more accurately, perhaps, because of) the noble intentions of its early founders, the internet model of free access to all has been its undoing. Free access and the resulting reliance on advertising to support it, was, as Jaron Lanier, a pioneer of digital culture and VR puts it, ‘a globally tragic, astoundingly ridiculous mistake.’
As dramatic as it sounds, he’s right. In line with the principles of equality and free access for all, the brilliant early internet entrepreneurs designed their services on a ‘free with ads’ basis. Free searches of the internet via Google, then free connections with friends old and new via Facebook. Free news, free advice, free education, free photos, free video, free games and free social networks have all followed. We expect it. We want it. And through most of the major players on the internet, we’ve got it.
But as we all know, nothing is ever really free. Free access to the internet has come at a huge human cost. Although early forms of internet advertising were transparent and fairly innocuous, as internet usage has increased, so has the potential for money generation. Advertising mechanisms have become ever more sophisticated. Scientists have used the study of human psychology and behaviour to analyse, predict and modify our browsing and buying processes and patterns. Our private and consumer data has been automatically collected, stored, processed, used and sold. Algorithms have become increasingly complex and intelligent. Our online personas can be analysed, followed around, nudged, persuaded, and targeted.
And the big internet platforms are complicit in this, if not intentionally, but through the fault of the advertising-funded business model. The more we use the internet, the more opportunities there are for third party advertisers, so platforms are competing to design features which drive up user screen time – and advertising revenue. Designers are employing techniques that actively encourage addiction to the system. We may search for and watch a specific video on YouTube – but the system has been designed to autoplay twenty more. Tech designers are using neuroscience to actively manipulate our behaviours. Research shows that achieving a goal or anticipating a reward in return for completing a task releases Dopamine and feelings of pleasure in the brain. And that these feelings are more intense if the rewards are variable or unpredictable.(Read more here) Indeed, it’s this craving for Dopamine that causes obsessive compulsive and addictive behaviour. And it’s exactly what designers are using to compel us to click, to scroll, to share, to press play, to want more. Witness the extraordinary power of the Facebook ‘Like’, or Snapchat ‘Streak’ for how this science is being exploited to keep us hooked on our devices (and of course, looking at advertising).
But what is this doing to our collective well-being?
As Jaron Lanier eloquently puts it: “We cannot have a society in which, if two people wish to communicate, the only way that can happen is if it’s financed by a third person who wishes to manipulate them.”
Because what’s best for manipulating our attention and modifying natural behaviours is not what’s best for our mental and physical health. A system that initially promised to transfer influence from the few to the many has in fact facilitated social engineering on a massive scale by a handful of enormous and powerful organisations. And it’s eroding the pillars of our society.
First there’s the obvious health implications of spending time looking at devices rather than being engaged in physical activity, and the intrusion into our sleep, rest spaces and patterns. But what’s more worrying is the impact on young people’s mental health, our social relationships, our communities, our creativity and even our democracy.
The recent #statusofmind survey revealed that 4 of the 5 most popular social media platforms were having a damaging effect on young people’s mental health, with Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat all reported to exacerbate worries about self-image, feelings of anxiety, depression and loneliness and to worsen the effects of bullying.
Leadership guru and professor Simon Sinek has spoken at length about how Millennials who have grown up using technology have become reliant on the releases of Dopamine that come from the reward system mechanisms built in to the design of social media apps. Dopamine is also released in the brain when we drink alcohol, take drugs or gamble – and as a society we have decided to regulate these addictive activities for young people because of their potentially harmful effects.
But why not social media usage?
The addictive nature of social media is surely negatively impacting young people. Their technological world is now one of instant and easy gratification. If they are lonely they can have immediate virtual interactions, if bored, they can use apps to watch now, download now, or buy now. Consequently, young people are not learning the social skills and patience necessary to negotiate the real-world full of awkward relationships, boredom, problems and challenges. Virtual interactions are replacing meaningful relationships and eroding our real-life friendships and communities. What’s more, by the very nature of its attention-consuming design, the online world is stifling creativity. Ideas happen when our minds are allowed to wander, when we notice little things around us, have random real-life interactions and when our thoughts can go off at a tangent. The internet is actually decreasing the opportunities for these ‘micro-moments’ when true innovations can occur.
Source: Simon Sinek, Youtube
Most alarming of all is the devastating and potentially world-changing effects of the internet on democracy and political stability. Negative emotions are the most powerful and infectious and the click-based economy of the internet rewards outrage and sensationalism. The spread of fake news and conspiracy theories can be monetised and manipulated for political advantage. Personal data is being used to influence behaviour and political outcomes. Conflict means clicks; rational debate is quashed as our communities become ever more polarised. The very concept of ‘truth’ has come into question which threatens our institutions of government and society.
So far so bleak!
But it doesn’t have to be this way.
Despite the fundamental flaws in its design, the internet and social media have had many positive effects. From enabling positive communication and education to generating support for worthwhile causes and giving vulnerable or repressed people a voice, the online world can be a powerful force for good. So what if we harnessed the positive and used it to inform future technologies? What if technology design became ethical? What if we could shift the focus of technology away from profit-based attention-consuming design towards value-adding, people-focused design?
Why don’t we approach technology with the question ‘how will this product benefit people?’ rather than ‘how much ad revenue will this product generate?’ When we design our digital solutions, we need to think about what we can give back to society, rather than what we can take from it. Let’s be willing to pay for access to good, ethical design – and keep the influence of third-party advertisers out of it.
Many innovators have made a start; we can now use apps to be more healthy, to meditate, to help out in our communities, to donate to great causes, to protest for change. We need to continue down this path with technological design; to think less about profit and to focus on people. The alternative is, frankly, horrifying.
This video says it all:
Architects of our digital world. Stop. Be better.
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