Category Archives: Reviews

Are social media a poisonous influence on society or a reflection of our culture?

The saying ‘If you’re not paying for it, then you’re the product’ sums up a reality of our times which is either unknown or ignored by social media users. As a trade off for accessing Facebook, Twitter or Google ‘free’ of charge is the implicit acceptance of handing over personal information. The gutting of traditional revenue streams for newspapers, magazines and music has been largely a result of more advanced, intrusive and powerful algorithmic devices used by companies such as Facebook for the purposes of advertising. The argument put forward by Marcus Gilroy-Ware in his book Filling the void runs counter to the deterministic view of our lives being dictated to us by the powers of social media. Instead, Gilroy-Ware argues that social media, as with technological advancements throughout history, becomes tailored and adapted by its users over time to act as more of a mirror to Western cultural trends.

The internet was imagined as a limitless hub of information which possesses instant answers to our everyday questions as a kind of vector from problem to solution. The reality however proved to be somewhat different. What is more evident now than ever before is the internet’s more common role as a means for distraction or emotional stimulation rather than the pursuit of information. As Gilroy-Ware alludes to, filling the ‘void’ refers to a deficiency or gap in our lives, be it anxiety, boredom, loneliness or a merely a desire to be entertained, which social media has filled in order to our grab and secure our attention. The causes of this need for distraction are complex but stem from a wider societal crisis of mental health and as Gilroy-Ware refers to, ‘late capitalist culture’ which emphasises the importance of measuring ourselves against others – in the case of Facebook through perceived popularity and self-worth.

The problem with this is the amount of time and information handed over to large corporations which pursue a business plan with the principle goal of monetising your likes and dislikes, your political views, your personal information and buying patterns into saleable advertising space.

This vast mountain of data which has accumulated has only recently (since about 2012) been harvested in order to be sold on to potential customers in advertising. This is known to have serious intrusive consequences on our privacy which have never before been so detailed. However the most sinister of the human adaptation of data has been its political consequences and what it means for democracy. Dominic Cummings wrote at length describing the capacity (for perhaps the first time in history) of Vote Leave to pinpoint marginal voters based on their age, location, posts, likes/dislikes in order to specifically direct articles and political messages arguing for the UK to leave the European Union. Cambridge Analytica are the data firm hired in the Trump campaign (and according to the Observer also employed by Leave.EU) in order to deliver specifically targeted political messages. CEO Alexander Nix explains the business here:

What Gilroy-Ware’s book does successfully is to avoid narrowing the debate to purely the political implications of social media but to examine the reasons behind our reliance on social media and what this tells us about our culture. The ’empty fridge’ metaphor is used in the book to describe our irrational human tendencies, quoted from a Facebook meme ‘Facebook is like a fridge. You know there is nothing new inside but you check it every ten minutes.’ There are serious underlying psychological reasons why we might seek comfort with social media, even in the knowledge it might not be doing us much good. Numerous studies, including this one published by the American Journal of Preventive Medicine indicate that increased social media usage increases feelings of social isolation.

‘As we scroll through the timeline, desperate to be distracted and emotionally stimulated, we are almost trapped in a virtual hamster wheel of media consumption and data generation.’

In our digital self we tend to present ourselves in an idealised form of our present selves, free of physical blemishes and most importantly with a focus on reminding ourselves that we are individuals liberated by the complete freedom of self-expression. A comprehensive article in the LRB by John Lancaster on this subject however quotes René Girard, a French philosopher who believed that human nature is more determined by ‘mimetic desire’ and a need to continually copy others.

Overall, I consider myself fearful of the capacity for large corporations to be responsible for the distribution of our news sources and the major implications thus brings on the decisions we make, either as part of the electorate or as consumers. We might consider ourself a responsible user of social media, someone who would never engage in disclosing compromising material. But the reality is that every use of social media, just as every innocuous contactless payment, is a donation of personal information to a powerful group of corporations who we accept do not have our best interests at heart. However Gilroy-Ware reminds us that Facebook and other forms of social media are, in the end, human creations which were often devised for wildly different purposes than those they now provide. The development of the interface and design of social media is largely a result of continual review by its users. Furthermore it is a wider societal shift towards a longing for novelty, experience and feeling which is driving the changes to our political landscape rather than a particular app on our phones. It is too easy to blame technology for the troubling news which circles us. As Gilroy-Ware notes ‘rather than determining culture, technology is culture, and it is essential to start seeing it as such.’

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‘Inventing the future’: A review

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By 2050, between 47% and 80% of all current jobs will become automated. This is both a terrifying and potentially liberating prospect. While the dystopian version of this proposition resembles a future represented by a Matrix-like society of humans controlled by machines, the future of our working lives inevitably depends on our relationship with technology. As the Western world experiences stagnant economic growth and increasingly precarious and insecure jobs which are often low-paid and low-skilled, these crises pose new questions for the kind of economic model we wish to follow. As the ageing working classes of Western Europe and the US struggle with the loss of identity connected to stable industries into anonymous and demeaning new careers, the purpose of work as it is traditionally defined comes under scrutiny.

What kind of jobs are we creating?

The global reality is that there is a growing ‘population surplus’ – meaning there are simply not enough jobs to go around and that we are continually having to artificially create new, often unnecessary ones just to plug the gap, while keeping unemployment high enough to put sufficient downward pressure on the labour market. Automation has created a polarised job market – on the one hand deskilled roles completing repetitive and menial tasks and also facilitating job prospects for highly-skilled operatives of improving technology, programming and data management.

Self-fulfilling protest

Discourse as to the solution to these issues falls decidedly within leftist political thought, often with disappointing or non-existent alternatives as part of the preparation for a post-capitalist society as a rejection of neoliberalism. Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams however go further than this – calling for a radical rethinking of society in a post-work environment. While representing a leftist argument, the authors are in fact as critical of the left’s current strategy as that of the right. Srnicek and Williams take the reader on a comprehensive tour of current geopolitical crises, the stagnation of the West and the current ineffectiveness of alternative political challenges to the status quo. ‘Folk politics’ is a phrase used repeatedly in a chapter on the failure of the left and recent protests such as Occupy to enact any long term structural change. The feeling of doing ‘something’ on a local level is, according to the authors, a futile and selfish attempt at gaining any meaningful change in an era where simply rejecting the current situation is regarded as radical.

What can be done?

Inventing the Future calls for the full automation of society, a process which has been picking up speed ever since the introduction of ATMs, self-scan checkouts and so on. Srnicek and Williams argue that this has previously been held back by the access to cheap labour and the levels of investment required in some cases to make automation viable. This process is, we are reminded, happening all across the developing world, as countries bypass the manufacturing sector in pursuit of a low-skilled service economy.

Now there is of course a sizeable section of society for whom technology has created and enhanced jobs and added complexity and value to the skills required to perform them in their relevant sectors. Agriculture for example has benefited from mechanisation and automation in order to free workers from the hardships and graft of working the land into new roles for farmers and scientists to operate in make farming a more productive enterprise.

Alongside the proposal for full automation is the somewhat underdeveloped argument for a Universal Basic Income (UBI). This policy has enjoyed a recent renaissance within European states, introduced by Finland and recently put to a referendum by the Swiss government. The idea nearly became a reality in 1960s Britain and dates all the way back to Thomas More’s Utopia in 1510. The idea of handing over state money across the country at a standard rate might seem absurd politically in the context of our declining welfare state and continued reminders of the importance of ‘living within our means.’ Would this grant the lower income population freedom from the drudgery and insecurity of contemporary work, an opportunity to spend time on things which actually bring a sense of purpose and direction to our modern lives. Or will it create a chaotic society where an irresponsible public needlessly blow away their incomes on pointless goods?

Srnicek and Williams put forward a careful and viable argument for automation and the freedom from unnecessary menial jobs. In comparison to other proposals for alternatives to the current neoliberal model, the detail is lucid and comprehensible to a mainstream audience. The question one might ask however is whether or not a future of full automation (leaving aside the fact that it is practically impossible) is something we want to pursue in a social sense. Srnicek and Williams appear unperturbed by the rise of machines and the manipulation of these tools by corporations. The ‘freedom’ associated with a life free from work seems to be offset by the prospect of a future determined by technological processes which have ever increasing control over the way our lives are led in a physical sense. Given the value associated with personal data and the ability to convert this into models for everything including our voting and purchasing intentions, a fully automated world brings with it alarming consequences which are perhaps underdeveloped in  this otherwise comprehensive study in alternative future scenarios for the way we define work.