Have you ever pondered, whether there is a point on the human evolutionary ladder, that will be our absolute zenith? If there is a peak in our evolution, then what follows must be a crash. For 2.5 million years, our ancestor’s progression had been miniscule. Yet in the last 500 years alone, we have jumped from a feudal, subsistence agrarian society, without little knowledge of science and medicine, to a supercharged, technologically-advanced planet. In this short space, we have gone from a flat world, that was explored by ships with sails, to sending probes to the extremities of our galaxy. If we can do all that in just 500 years, humanity must only be getting started, right?
People cite climate change as the obvious challenge to humanity when we think of irreversible epochal annihilation, but in truth, it’s a close race with our destructive relationship with technology. Paradoxically, the thing that has turbo-boosted our advancement could ironically be our undoing. We have more technical knowhow in our phones than NASA had when they put Neil Armstrong on the moon in 1969. How can this be a bad thing? We are at the ‘zenith’ of humanity so…hold on…where to next?
Students of anthropogeny tell us our direct ancestors, Homo sapiens, began their evolutionary process about 200,000 years ago. For a long time, little changed. We co-existed with Neanderthals, who were better suited to survival due to their more muscular torsos, ability to tolerate cold, and even bigger brains. Yet Neanderthals became extinct, and the Homo sapiens line survived, flourished and colonised the world. The reason? Language. Homo sapiens began to develop ways to think, process and communicate in a way that gave our ancestors the edge. Think about it. Language produced advanced communication and developed imagination, which propelled humanity forward. It allowed groups to co-operate, share, develop and think through problems. The stone age axe was around millions of years before some Homo sapiens said, ‘maybe it would work better with a handle attached?’
Once we had language, the greatest leap forward of all time has to be the invention of writing. Some anthropologists date it to about 3,500 BC when the Sumerians invented a writing system for the data they needed to keep records of crops. All kinds of evolutionary concepts sprang from written language: rules, taxation, religion, passing of knowledge, recording the past. The list is endless. I would argue a close second, for most significant human invention, was the printing press, made famous by Johannes Gutenberg in Germany in 1450. (It was originally invented in China during the Song Dynasty 400 years earlier.)
When people realised they could print information in large quantities and relatively cheaply, what followed was a vast spread of ideas. After all, it is ideas that makes humanity unique. That ability to think creatively and spark debate, innovate and invent. It is no coincidence that in Europe, the coming of the printing press helps herald in the invention and creativity of the Renaissance and the mass debate about religion in society, which led to the Reformation. More people were exposed to ideas than they ever would have been, if we remained an ‘oral’ people.
As long as you have had language and, even more so, with print language, you’ve had propaganda. Life centres around people trying to persuade us to ‘join our tribe’, ‘vote for me’’, believe in this’, and ‘buy that’. Despite the many word merchants and language techniques employed, one stood a fighting chance when engaged in the war for minds. You could choose a liberal paper or a right wing one. You didn’t have to take leaflets when one was handed to you. You could question the motivations of an election brochure; or turn off a television.
People today get most of their information online. The game has changed. Another of humanities greatest inventions, the internet, has connected the world in ways unimaginable, when only a few decades back we had just the printed word. While you’d be a fool to think the internet has not revolutionised humanity and taken society on great steps forward, you’d have to be equally naïve not to realise the pitfalls of the platforms that are used on the internet. Surely our phones and computers are simply the next evolutionary step on that chain? Or are we approaching the peak and can’t see it in the hazy heights?
Social media has become our greatest and deadliest evolutionary step in communication. Never before have we been so connected, yet so disconnected to reality. As a teacher, it frightens me when kids tell me how much phone time they spend on TikTok, Facebook, Instagram, Snapshot, WhatsApp, Gmail, and so on. Thirty to 50 per cent of their day in some cases. Adults are just as addicted. Check your phone settings and be ready to be shocked. What social media does brilliantly is that it keeps you engaged and scrolling. Because we are all ‘connected’, you can easily be drawn into hours of shares, likes and conversations that you had not intended nor sought. A lot of the day spent staring at screens is frivolous and time-invasive. It is also constantly damaging our ability to focus. We are persistently getting notifications, news feeds, and tags that interrupt out daily tasks. Researchers have found once we stop what we are doing to check our latest ‘bing’ or ‘buzz’ of a notification, we take a full twenty-three minutes to get back to the same level of focus we had before the interruption
There is also the addiction effect of social media. Dopamine is a natural occurring chemical high we get from the brain when we engage in natural things, like scoring a goal, having a swim, finishing an assignment, listening to music, and so on. It also occurs from negative things like substance abuse and alcohol. Worryingly, it comes from engagement on social media too. The social media platforms understand how to use it; to keep you scrolling, engaged, and obsessively sharing likes, videos, photos and messages. Whereas before, you could stop buying a paper if you didn’t like the tone of the journalism, or change the channel, or not take the leaflet, the genius behind social media is that is has taken our most precious evolutionary trait ‘communication’ and used it against us. Unless you are connected in their many apps, you feel that you are missing out. The more we communicate, the more they harvest data; that in turn allows the social platforms to entrap you online and keep you addicted. (I’m not exaggerating. Go three days without your phone if you dare.)
Each feed a user gets is unique and purposely built based on your click habits. The algorithms that the engineers write in Silicon Valley are influencing the thought process of its two billion users. This algorithm or ‘Artificial Intelligence’ can anticipate what you think you want to see, or want to purchase, because of data it has amassed. If you communicate to a friend on Facebook or Snap Chat that you think it might be a good idea to lose weight, then soon enough you will get adverts for (example) diet weight loss pills. If that doesn’t work for you, and you start searching pictures of perfect bodies, and asking ‘how do I look like these images’, the algorithms are engineered to steer you to the next step, be it forums for teenagers who self-harm because they don’t fit in, or clinics for plastic surgery. The job of the algorithms in social media is not to deliver you content that’s necessarily best for you, but content that keeps you on their app for as long as possible, in competition with other social media platforms, which are all trying to do the same thing. Teenagers and adults are associating things such as notifications, likes and tags to real popularity. When they don’t get enough of them, it becomes problematic. People conflate online popularity with real popularity, when in fact there is no substance behind the majority of ‘friends’ or ‘followers’ across their many social media platforms.
The brilliance of it all is that the changes on your social media platforms are deliberately imperceptible, small and gradual, so you won’t recognise the transformation in your behaviour. The Artificial Intelligence does not feel like humans, so it is not interested in truth or your wellbeing. It is only interested in whether you will engage and what products you are profiled to purchase. It would be problematic alone if the goal was solely fixed on getting the user to buy more products. But it’s not only about persuading us to buy merchandise; it’s about influencing how we perceive the world. From the conspiracy theorists that support people like Trump, to online climate deniers, social media has been working to feed them content, based on their search habits. The term they call it in the tech world is sending you down a ‘rabbit hole’. It works because the algorithms understand that content that is more extreme or causes outrage, will keep you ensnared more than other less volatile content. The deeper you go down the rabbit hole, the more excessive the content becomes, and the more convinced you can become over time. One can easily find themselves inside a communication ‘echo chamber’ with people that reinforce their viewpoint and are fed news notifications that simply share your biases and not challenge them. It is hard to ascertain truth from reality when this happens, and we now know fake news is six times likelier to trend on social media than the truth.
If you want evidence, look no further than Trump’s election when it was discovered he hired Cambridge Analytical to harvest people’s data so he could ultimately know who to target and influence in the election. The thought process of voters, over time, could be shifted to where Trump wanted them to go. [It so crazy – it all sounds like a conspiracy theory in itself!] This is a tool, democratic and despotic rulers alike, can use today. It is already happening more than we understand.
So how do you keep all the good of technology and get rid of the bad? You can’t. Our hope is to regulate and redesign platforms for our benefit, and not for the benefit of big business or powerful lobby groups. Pandora’s box has been opened. We will only know we are at the peak when we find we are looking over the edge of the cliff, but by then, it will be too late.