Tech is advancing fast, our behaviours are already being modified by it, our privacy is being wholly undermined and our lives are being manipulated more and more by unaccountable forces.
“We cannot have a society in which, if two people wish to communicate, the only way it can happen is if it’s financed by a third person who wishes to manipulate them” Jaron Lanier
Lanier is referring to the business models of the tech companies that are based on a currency of personal data that can be sold to advertisers and organisations who wish to manipulate our behaviour. Yet we’re hooked to the convenience all the apps on our tech offer us. Designers are using our own biochemistry against us to make their products even more addictive with dopamine hits and by tapping into our reward centres.The current cohort of teenagers are the most exposed, they have never known life without 24/7 connectivity in their pockets, and it is a science fact that the brain is at its most susceptible to addiction in adolescence. Teenagers, girls in particular, are highly sensitive to social exclusion, and this is only exacerbated by the new hyper-social culture born out of social media.Unaccountable algorithms, that don’t care about humanity, are already making decisions for us every hour of the day – what route we take to work, what news we read, who we follow, what movie we watch – and in return we are sharing more and more of our personal data with them.We’re giving away our privacy for convenience. “So what? I’ve got nothing to hide!” I hear you cry, but privacy is a fundamental human right and it is critically important to the functioning of a democratic society because under mass surveillance our behaviour changes, we become more compliant, more submissive, we make decisions based on the expectations of others and we lose our ability to challenge those in power. China’s social credit system may be a more overt version of this, but as those of us living in democracies give up our privacy, are we not passively heading in that direction too? Zuckerberg’s words,
“privacy is no longer a social norm”
should send a shiver down your spine, while our teenagers are busy posting, swiping, liking and comparing their lives on Instagram. Technology – the internet, machine learning, artificial intelligence – has the potential to be incredibly empowering for humanity, but we need to make some crucial, ethical decisions right now, before it is too late, about how we are going to let it into our lives if we are to avoid technology undermining our own humanity.
I am a Gen X-er who experienced first hand the buzz of the Silicon Valley dot com movement of the late nineties, who in those days thought of the internet as a freeing, democratising and positive force, but who, along with many of my peers, has come to realise there is a dark insidious side. I scroll through the Instagram feeds of today’s teenagers, our children, and sees relentless posts of young girls posing in underwear and beach wear asking for affirmation. When did that become normalised? I find it tragic that they’re publishing pictures of cut marks up their arms in some desperate cry for help that an algorithm isn’t going to give a damn about. I mourn the demise of serious journalism and the rise of fake news as we become victims of click-bait and become too distracted to read anything in depth or take the time to think critically. We need to place a higher value than ever before on an independent media, and protect and support it so those voices get heard.
I worry about the widening divides between us, this terrifying kind of tribalism that is being fuelled by the echo chambers that only echo louder as the algorithms improve (and, by the way, the algorithms are improving because everyday we are fuelling them with more and more of our data).
I am also someone who loves the convenience of being able to jump in an Uber, who’ll happily share my movements so I can track how fast I ran or to avoid a traffic jam, who is still using social media because that is how I can reach the people I want to talk with, who loves that I can talk so easily to my friends on the other side of the world. We’re never going to give this up, the genie is well and truly out of the bottle, but we can build a set of ethics and laws so that tech can advance humanity and not destroy it, we can make conscious decisions about how we use our tech and we have a moral obligation to protect the future of our children.
Through two initiatives I founded and continue to run, The Secret Illness and What’s Going On In Your Head, I explore mental health using live performance, discussion, art, film, and storytelling. I research the psychology that underlies these disorders and speak directly with people affected by them, and in those moments gain brief insights into the realities of what it is like to live with a mental health disorder. It is perhaps no surprise then that through my exploration of mental health and my own experience working alongside the Silicon Valley dreammakers, I have been drawn to this topic of how tech is affecting our behaviour, but what has surprised me is what I’ve discovered since I’ve started studying it in depth: it is a highly complex layered issue, it is more frightening than I had realised, and it is creeping up on us very fast. It makes me want to shout, “wake up, open your eyes!”. Others are talking about this, I’m not alone, but we’re sitting in our own echo chamber. That’s why I am making a documentary about this, in the hope that an algorithm out there will recommend people to watch it, so that there can be a greater understanding that this goes a lot deeper than just the number of hours you let your child use their screens, so that more people will be on guard to place pressure on governments and corporations to implement policies that will put humanity first, and so that we don’t leave our children with a legacy we will regret.
Can you help me make this documentary by supporting the project by coming on board as an executive producer and investor, or by making a donation? Or, if you believe in this project, but are not able to support it financially, can you help by sharing this with others who might?