Tech is just a tool… isn’t it?

Photo by Louis Hansel @shotsoflouis on Unsplash

“Never before in history have 50 designers made decisions that would have an impact on two billion people.”

Tristan Harris, a former design ethicist at Google

For many years I have worked at the boundary of technology use in education. I was personally an early adopter, introducing the ZX Spectrum to my classes back in the late 1970’s and owning my first Commodore 64 in the early 1980s. That was followed by various versions of the Commodore Amiga, BBC Archimedes, Apple IIe and Apple Macintosh to name a few.

Throughout the years I have worked with students, teachers, school leaders and served on national policy groups, I’ve frequently heard comments to the effect that “technology is just a tool, it’s what we do with it that matters.” In the early days I even heard myself saying that from time to time. After all, there’s nothing special about a hammer or a saw until it is picked up and used by someone with the ability to use it to achieve something they have determined to build or create.

But around 2007 things began to change – and change significantly. 2007 is the year that Apple released the iPhone – and even Steve Jobs didn’t imagine the significant influence that would have on the future of humanity. In his mind it was a way of combining a phone with the capabilities of the iPod, building the subscription base in Apple’s iTunes store in the process. Little did Jobs or anyone else know just how profoundly life-changing this device would be.

Around this time a range of other online services went public – Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn (mobile site) among them – which in turn created demand for this new ‘computer in my pocket’ which, through the magic of the ‘app store’ would enable me to connect to hundreds and thousands of others, creating a view of the world that is personalised for me, based on my likes and preferences etc. This was the dawn of social media on a phenomenal scale.

And now, some 13 years later, we are realising that this technology, the computer in my pocket and the apps that power it, is in fact, not simply a tool at all. Empowered by multiple forms of artificial intelligence (AI) these apps get to know me better than I know myself. I have become not simply the ‘user’ of these services – but a slave to them, and the ‘product’ that is being ‘sold’ to those who seek to capture and hold my attention, whether they be the retailers of consumer products and services, or political groups seeking to ‘win me over’ to a particular point of view of ideology.

And so we find ourselves in the midst of a The Social Dilemma – a potentially perilous time in human history where for the first time the technology is smarter than ourselves, and we are its obedient servants. The AI that is behind these various apps and platforms have successfully taken over our lives, causing us to behave in ways that even we aren’t entirely aware of. What started as a novelty with finding advertisements or suggestions for a ‘read next’ appearing on our online feeds has now become a part of a multi-billion dollar race to attract our attention, resulting in each of us becoming fed the things that are likely to influence us the most and demanding our attention at the expense of other things we might be spending our time doing.

The trailer below is of a documentary titled “The Social Dilemma” that is currently streaming on Netflix (where ironically it will become another data point in the service’s algorithm.)

This is not the first documentary to provide a warning about the influence of social media. Others include “Screened Out,” “Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World,” and “The Great Hack.” for example, but “The Social Dilemma” has a unique point of difference – in this movie many of the experts are the same people who got us into the position we are in — top executives from Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, Facebook, and other sites that seduce us into spending time and sharing information so they can sell both. 

This documentary is remarkably effective in sounding the alarm about the incursion of data mining and manipulative technology into our social lives and beyond. It should be mandatory viewing for everyone who has a social media account. After seeing it, you may look at your phone differently, as something that isn’t really your friend.

The most important lessons we might take from “The Social Dilemma” are:

  1.  As users of social media we must understand that our every word and action is being observed and used by an AI to create changes in our behaviour that will ultimately be of benefit to ‘someone’ who is paying for that information.
  2. As a consequence we should question everything we read online, especially if it is presented to us in a way that reflects a detailed understanding of our inclinations and preferences. This includes actively choosing to interrogate multiple sources of information on a given topic or theme, rather than simply accept what is being fed to us on our ‘personalised’ news feed!
  3. We must resist the “attention extraction model” that makes social media seem friendly and reinforcing all the while turning us into ‘zombies’, manipulated by the things that now hold our attention. This includes learning to resist the temptation to simply fall for the ‘clickbait‘ ads and links that appear alongside the things we search for or access online.
  4. If we are to overcome this onslaught we must make personal choices about the extent to which we immerse ourselves in any form of social media and we must value and build our relationships with others in the real/physical world (Jonathan Haidt, author of The Righteous Mind offers some useful tips on this at the end of the documentary – plus his book is an excellent read!).

While viewing documentaries such as this may not be comfortable for many, it is essential that we are united in our understanding of what is happening here. It would be all too easy to simply bury our head in the sand and hope it will go away, or become a part of a second wave of Luddites and completely reject all technology and its use. Neither approach is likely to be very effective. What is required is a concerted effort to raise the level of critical thinking in our populations, especially among our learners in schools.

The signs are there for us to be taking this seriously, particularly given the statistics around self harm and youth suicide (as a result of negative self image and feelings of self worth, often attributed to the influences of social media), as well as the manipulation of thought and behaviour through the proliferation of ‘mis-information’ in the lead up to our national elections.

This is not the time for spreading feelings of alarm, despair and abdication of responsibility. We need a collective, intelligent and informed response – in families, in schools, in our communities and society as a whole. Technology may be a tool – but it’s a tool that using us – because we have let it.

2 thoughts on “Tech is just a tool… isn’t it?

  1. A perceptive and balanced approach Derek. I agree with your call for action-and not overreaction:
    “We need a collective, intelligent and informed response – in families, in schools, in our communities and society as a whole. Technology may be a tool – but it’s a tool that using us – because we have let it. ”

    When Marshall McLuhan in the 1960s said “the medium is the message” he was mainly talking about radio and TV television. “Social” media amplify and distort messages and require that we avid digital consumers harness the power of the spine-top computer+ between our ears, in tandem with devices in our pockets and elsewhere.

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