I grew up devouring science fiction. By the time I was twelve I had digested every science fiction book in our town's library--everything written in the 1950s and '60s by futurists like Heinlein, Asimov, Bradbury, Le Guin, Vonnegut, and Dick; all of the Science Fiction Short Story anthologies; and every fantastical classic going back to H.G. Wells, Jules Verne, Robert Louis Stevenson, Jonathan Swift, Mary Shelley, Edgar Allan Poe, and more. I credit my early immersion in the imaginative waters of these prophets of culture and technology for instilling in me an ability to think for myself, independent of the cultural groupthink that characterizes the way most people see the world.
Now I witness a long-foretold dystopian future unfolding before my very eyes, and it's not what I expected. Even as recently as 2009, when I wrote my own dystopian cyber-fiction novel, Reality Crash, I imagined a totalitarian state imposed from the top down in the classically fascistic, authoritarian hierarchy--much like the dictator known as "Big Brother" in Orwell's 1984.
It turns out the top-down model is not imposing its dictatorship upon us. It's a grass-roots movement that is fueling our culture's own destruction. And the people who are mistaking President Trump for Orwell's Big Brother have got it all wrong. I'm chuckling as I type this because I just read a NYT article dated 1/26/17 entitled "Why '1984' Is a 2017 Must Read," and I respectfully think the writer of that article has it all wrong, too. Trump is not Big Brother--Social Media is, and the Pandora's Box out of which it sprang is the internet and its greedy, power-driven minions.
Two days ago, a former Facebook executive went public with his "tremendous guilt" for exploiting dopamine feedback loops in human brains to make Facebook ever more addictive. Even our children are exposed to addictive snares, with teen users spending an average of three to five hours a day online with such apps as Facebook, Snapchat, and Twitter rather than hanging out, face-to-face, with their actual-reality friends. A couple of months ago, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg apologized for the way his social media platform has been used to divide people rather than bring them together.
And only yesterday, Consumer Watchdog put out a warning concerning patent applications that will allow Google Home and Amazon Echo devices to monitor your conversations at all times in order to learn your preferences and needs for targeted advertising. Talk about an Orwellian future! And it's not Donald Trump stuffing your mantle stockings with digital assistants this holiday season; it's you! Tell me, are these new electronic conveniences really worth the cost?
Researching this blog article caused me to dip into the academic well for news of the influence of algorithms on society and personal agency. I can assure you, I am not the first person to notice the great and terrible potential of allowing personal decision-making to be given over to mathematical algorithms that sort your choices, your friendship groups, and even your politics, into neatly packaged, clickable sidebars calculated for maximum engagement. Do you really wish to be sorted? Do you want your shopping decisions, your friends, and your political candidates preselected according to some secret formula?
One social scholar concludes his journal article thusly: