The Presence of Technology and the Absence of Choice
By Samantha Wickramasinghe
“In the past, censorship worked by blocking the flow of information. In the 21st century, censorship works by flooding people with irrelevant information. In ancient times having power meant having access to data. Today having power means knowing what to ignore.” - Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow
Many of us use various kinds of personal devices that are inseparable from us, namely, some of them are our mobile phones and laptops. Some of us keep them beside our beds when we sleep and the first thing we do when we wake up in the morning is checking the new notifications we have received. These devices contain a multiplicity of internet-based applications that give us access to a plethora of information.
Although information technologies have helped us to communicate efficiently, with one another, a question arises whether it has given us actual choices. We now know that many of the video choices that we make on YouTube, for example, are influenced by non-conscious algorithms that sort the best content for us based on our previous preferences. Thus, many of the choices that we make, particularly when buying certain products online are sorted according to our preferences by algorithms.
Under these circumstances, corporations like Google, Facebook, and Amazon have become extremely powerful. The influence that these companies can make on the choices that we make as consumers is massive. Some identify this phenomenon as ‘surveillance capitalism,’ by extending the political argument against capitalism in general i.e. capitalism works through mass exploitation in the name of making a profit. In this case, these companies (and many others) are after our attention.
The more attention they take from us, the more profit they will make. In the past, access to information was a privilege but in the age of information, it is no longer a privilege. With these new technologies which give instant access to information, consumers have been subjected to an ‘arms race’ conducted by various groups who seem to have vested interests in launching their agendas.
The rise of the internet-based addictions
One of the most staggering addictions which have come out of the internet age is pornography addiction. Before the internet, pornography was limited to a few mediums such as magazines and videos which could only be obtained physically. Nowadays, tube video sites contain millions of pornographic videos that can be viewed instantly through the internet. According to the author of the book ‘Your Brain on Porn’ Gary Wilson, pornography addiction can be identified as a ‘compulsive sexual behaviour addiction’ and it is shown that pornography addiction could cause conditions desensitisation and erectile dysfunction.
Binging on social media and Youtube have become common experiences for many of us, however, it is not all bad as we know. The rise of non-conscious algorithms and AI (Artificial Intelligence) is not necessarily evil given the fact that they are being used for various positive developments as well. For example, Facebook uses AI to track hate speech and graphic video content. However, AI and algorithms are not conscious beings, which mean that they
don’t care how the future of humanity should be. For example, algorithms do not care if half of the men in the world become impotent due to pornography addiction. This creates a dangerous situation and an urgent necessity to raise questions. Many AI software and algorithms are designed by computer engineers. Never in history, could a computer engineer make such an impact on our lives.
How do we make choices that are real choices not influenced by a handful of corporations and private companies or any other party who has vested interest in making a profit over our attention? It is very important to unplug from the apps or cut down use whenever possible to get a perspective on where we are.
One might argue that when we try to cut down it might reinforce our addictions and behavioural needs. But some are not even convinced that we are losing control of ourselves. Getting to know yourself better by doing things such as meditation, playing music, painting, reading, and engaging in outdoor activities have become so important than ever before. Or perhaps we might have to fight surveillance capitalism and attention-grabbers at their own game by subscribing to the ‘right kind of information.’ The bad news is we are losing more and more control. The good news is we are still capable of fighting back.