SARAH WILD: Social media could come back to bite us — like nuclear energy
It is a catastrophe for a country such as South Africa to reduce people to caricatures, writes Sarah Wild
South Africans, like another 2-billion people worldwide, have swallowed social media without a second thought. Nuclear technology, cloning and fracking we consider to be dangerous technologies, things to be protested against, fought about, strongly regulated. But we welcome constant connection to a virtual world and are really only frustrated that high data costs inhibit greater contact.
In SA, there are 13-million Facebook and 7.4-million Twitter users. Social media appear to have missed the backlash and resistance that usually accompanies the introduction of new technologies. With few qualms, many users upload their private data, photos, location and thoughts. Organisations and companies once were desperate to have you part with your personal information. Today, they are trying to find ways to deal with the glut of social media information.
China has taken the overt step of using your data to decide the kind of person you are and either reward or punish you for it. The aim is that by 2020 each Chinese citizen will have a "score" that will determine a person’s access to things such as loans, houses and restaurant reservations.
In its planning document, the government says the Social Credit system will "forge a public opinion environment that trust-keeping is glorious". The "new system will reward those who report acts of breach of trust". Welcome to the Social Stasi.
During the rise of fascism in Europe, there was a grave concern about fascism being buoyed by new forms of technologyProf Premesh Lalu
We are not quite there in SA yet, although we do have Twitter witch hunts, a pack mentality to break, destroy and shame Twitter users.
This week, at a pre-event to the Science Forum, Prof Premesh Lalu noted "the entire world is mediated through a screen".
It was a meeting of natural scientists and humanities scholars in which the different academics tried to engage across a minefield of jargon. Lalu, director of the Centre for Humanities Research at the University of the Western Cape, said: "During the rise of fascism in Europe, there was a grave concern about fascism being buoyed by new forms of technology." There was a "disconnect between the technological sphere and what was happening in the social sphere". He pointed to the push to develop a more efficient train system in Germany in the early 1940s. The scientists and engineers were overcoming the technical problems, but "not thinking about where those trains were taking people".
In the case of social media, there is a disjuncture, part of which, panellists argued, is because the three-dimensional world is being transformed into two dimensions, separating aural and visual senses. We seem to forget there are people on the other side of the phone.
It is a catastrophe for a country such as SA, the past of which testifies to the dangers of reducing people to caricatures. Many horrible things that happened (and continue to happen) are based on a lack of empathy, and yet we use a technology that reduces meaning, conversation and individuals to a few words. "Hot takes" — responding without checking facts, sources or your temper — are an entirely acceptable way of engaging with the world.
Social media is a technological intervention, and all technology has consequences. "There’s no doubt that technology will be useful in addressing our challenges [but] no matter what kind of technology, it will always have unintended consequences," said Dr Josephine Musango of Stellenbosch University’s School of Public Leadership. "Technology is not separate from the human condition. Technology is not autonomous," she said.
• Wild is a science writer.