Rosemary Ganley The Peterborough Examiner October 29, 2020
Sophocles, the great Greek playwright who wrote tragedies around 500 BC, said something that reverberates today: “Nothing vast enters the life of mortals without a curse.”
In this century, we are trying to cope with both the blessing and the curse of the World Wide Web. It entered our lives only 20 years ago, and has become dominant in the age of COVID-19. Anyone who cares about our culture and our kids must analyze both its good effects, and its dreadful ones.
The web can find an organ donor for a needy patient, offer up urgent news or show an inspiring poem. At another time, it can empower hate groups or depress a teenager who is being bullied online. We must reduce and regulate its damage, at the same time acknowledging its positive effects. Every country is struggling to understand the communications revolution in its awesome power and reach. Then there is the additional question of guarding free speech.
In a recent New Yorker magazine article, writer Andrew Marantz said bluntly: “Facebook is overrun with hate speech and disinformation.” And conspiracy theories, I would add. Although it has policies against their spread, the corporate giant inadequately moderates the input, too rarely takes down an ugly post, and seems to exempt certain toxic politicians. White supremacists and ISIS use the networks it to recruit members and spread hate.
Facebook has three billion monthly posts, and several thousand moderators all over the world look them over. Many seek mental health counselling after viewing a day of them.
But Facebook maintains it is not a publisher of content, since true publishers are subject to hate and libel laws, but is merely a platform for “user-generated content.” These are weasel words from tech giants disavowing responsibility for giving a megaphone to those enabling child abuse, incitement to suicide, pornography and other evils. Meantime, the social fabric frays and erodes.
There is a new documentary called “The Social Dilemma” on Netflix (and who among us doesn’t know Netflix now, because of the isolations of COVID-19). It is an important 90 minutes of watching and listening to fine-looking young men from Silicon Valley in California, all white, almost all aged 20 to 35, who have been former innovators and employees of the internet giants, Facebook, Google, Twitter, Apple and Pinterest.
They are bright and they have consciences. They speak about their worries regarding the technology they helped develop. They have left their jobs because of ethical concerns. So they warn us and equip us with some harm-sniffing awareness. Several keep devices away entirely from their children; others keep strict rules about their use such as time limits, storage outside bedrooms and the like. “They become “digital pacifiers,” one said.
I watched “The Social Dilemma” because I am a grandmother concerned about the dependence of my grandchildren, and to a lesser extent, my grown-up children, on their devices. There is a cartoon around showing a gleaming phone attached by a strong chain to a heavy ball.
Teachers makes rules about students’ dropping phones into a box on entering class; lecturers refuse to teach to a room full of undergraduates looking attentive but focusing on Facebook; pedestrians bump into others, oblivious to everything and everyone around them, so plugged-in are they.
The young people on “The Social Dilemma” say that the big corporations are selling our eyeballs to advertisers. It’s lucrative. The internet companies are the richest in human history.
“Only tech companies and the drug industry call customers “users,” says one interviewee wryly. “It is a drug, and dopamine is released,” says another. “We all become more afraid and more anxious.”
I will soon comment on a thoughtful response to this dilemma in Canada, written by Daniel Bernhard of Friends of Canadian Broadcasting.
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