The Perils of IT and Social Media

We have let loose the monsters of IT and social media onto every half-educated even uneducated Tom, Dick and Harry. Yet they feel empowered because they can access information without being educated

By Arvind Saxena

“Your product is killing people”. This was US Senator Josh Hawley addressing Meta Chief Executive Mark Zukerberg at a US Senate hearing which started on January 31. Zuckerberg’s response was as evasive as ever. He apologised and said that “we will continue making industry-wide efforts to ensure that families do not suffer”. The hearings started with testimonies of parents and children about the social and psychological issues faced by youngsters exposed to social media platforms. Suicides, eating disorders, unrealistic beauty standards, bullying, sexually addictive behaviour, etc., were some of the issues raised by parents and children in their recorded testimonies. Child rights advocates have for long asserted that giant social media companies were not doing enough to protect users from the ill-effects of their platforms. The Committee will also hear CEOs of TikTok, X, etc.

Earlier, we had seen how over 40 States in the US were suing ‘Meta’ for building algorithms in its Instagram and Facebook platforms, which promoted addictive behaviour. Anti-trust regulators in several European countries have also heard pleas demanding greater regulation of social media companies and questioned the business models of IT giants like Microsoft and Google, etc. Amnesty International has produced a report titled ‘Driven into darkness’ which documents the many ills which users are facing.

So, do you see a glimmer of hope – a small sliver of light in the darkening dungeon of toxic social media? Perhaps yes. It is only the bright light of enquiry and transparency which can destroy the rot created by greedy IT companies. The question is, why are we not seeing enough debates on this mounting social crisis? Has this destructive technology already destroyed something in us? The spirit of questioning and enquiry?

Every student from the post WW-II generation will remember how, at one time or another, they were required to write an essay, or join a debate, on “Is nuclear power a boon or a bane? Is it a blessing or a curse?” Massive public mobilisations were seen across the world and most responsible nations backed away from large scale adoption of nuclear energy for civilian projects. All promises of clean and boundless energy, safety measures, etc., were rejected by the people. Strong non-proliferation treaties and laws also ensured restrictions on the widespread use of nuclear weapons.

We have also witnessed public debates on the health hazards of ‘processed and fast food’, ecological perils of big hydroelectric, transportation and mining projects and dangers of introducing new pharmaceutical products without adequate clinical trials. Public awareness campaigns against tobacco effectively reduced smoking to a socially unacceptable behaviour. The debate against use of fossil fuels continues as we grapple with global warming and climate change. But we don’t see IT causing any similar damage to our natural habitat and causing disease, do we? Their offices are made of shiny steel and glass. Right? No, the ubiquitous IT sector is polluting another natural resource, perhaps as precious as the air, water and land which we are struggling to save. It is polluting our minds, it is giving rise to mental issues and playing havoc with our social equilibrium. 

If producers of spurious or potentially hazardous technology and substances could be hauled up for exemplary damages, then why are we not seeing enough regulatory activity against the global IT giants? The moot point is that public scrutiny alone can safeguard public interest, not proforma apologies and promises of “industry-wide self-regulation”. We need public spirited regulations and severe penalties for those selling deleterious technology to unsuspecting masses. But before that we need widespread public enquiries and debates on IT and, now the even bigger social disrupter, AI.

The occasional article in newspapers and journals on how IT and social media tools influence public opinion, and thus elections, in the ‘free world’, or how algorithms are designed to spread fake narratives, outright lies and create a ‘need’ for unnecessary and useless goods and services are helpful. But we are still not seeing enough disclosure on how digitisation of all data and processes is opening up the lives of people, institutions and countries to ceaseless surveillance, paving the path for massive subversion of nations and coercive control over common people. Peoples’ lives were supposed to be personal under transparent governments, toady we have turned this paradigm on its head – opaque governments pry into each sphere of the common man’s life.

Do some of you get a sense that I am opposed to technology? I am most certainly not. With an M.Tech in Systems Management from one of our most reputed institutions – where we were working on an IBM-360 mainframe, when most of the world did not know what a computer was – I am a great believer in how technology has helped humankind emerge from a life of drudgery, and how the industrial revolution was perhaps the greatest wealth creator in recorded history. The difference is that the technology of the last two hundred years emerged out of felt needs of people, it was developed to ease the travails of industrial and agricultural work. So we consciously accepted that the price we paid in terms of ecological damage, for the benefits of a better lifestyle, was unavoidable – at least in the short term.

The IT sector, on the other hand, creates ‘products’ and then hunts around for people it can be sold to, of course making false claims of increasing efficiency and transparency. It thus invests large sums of money to create unnecessary demands. Does it sound like the junk food and sugary drinks industry? Well, it is exactly that. Just as junk food gives you an energy rush – a quick pick me up, the efficiency promised by IT ‘products’ is also nebulous, and the dependence, or craving for more of the same, keeps growing.
IT and the internet are certainly amongst the most powerful and useful tools developed by man. The technology has revolutionised the way we work and collate information for making better and informed decisions. But then so was nuclear power. The difference is that while access to nuclear technology was restricted to a few highly qualified educated and trained scientists, we have let loose the monsters of IT and social media onto every half-educated even uneducated Tom, Dick and Harry. Yet they feel empowered because they can access information without being educated, albeit without the faculties to discriminate between facts and falsehood. Therein lies the danger.
We must therefore start by asking questions and disabuse ourselves of certain notions about this technology propagated so strenuously over the last few decades.

You might say that the IT sector is providing highly paid jobs for our young, so what is wrong with that? Since the remunerations are fairly high, start by asking what these jobs are? Why the salaries are so high is a separate question which needs examination. Let us focus on the nature of these jobs. These are essentially of four types: The most challenging and creative ones are undoubtedly for writing original software, programming and systems analysis. Only a very few graduates land up jobs of this type.

The second category involves retrofitting existing software, tailoring it for specific consumers. They do nothing original but are the ‘Seventh Wonder’ type of tailors, who used to alter and refit your old suits. Still, they do add value to the products in the market. The third category revolves around maintenance of IT systems and software which is about fixing malfunctions and bugs. Still there is some technical contribution involved here. The fourth category of jobs, which draws the most number of youngsters is about data collection, processing of data, digital marketing and sale of the data processed by them.
Let us look into this proliferation of processed data. To begin, what is the reliability of this data, whose sample location, distribution, economic, social, ethnic, religious and cultural distribution is uncertain. Not everyone uses the internet, so are we collecting skewed information. All digital data can be manipulated, padded up through bot activity and tailored for, not just commercial, but also political objectives.

Related question – if this data is so unreliable, why are corporates using it for advertising and promotion of their business? There is something very fishy here which is not dissimilar to the huge amounts of money which moves across national boundaries in the guise of buying media rights and broadcasting rights, etc., for league sports and other big ticket events. This activity is suspiciously incestuous, with both the data buyers and data sellers somehow dealing in undependable products for the sake of creating huge financial transactions. The only other use for such humungous amounts of stolen data is for creating crooked data banks for fooling regulatory authorities, or worse for surveillance of the population.

Arvind Saxena is former Chairman, Union Public Service Commission, India

Mauritius Times ePaper Friday 9 February 2024

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