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Wednesday, July 8, 2020
Connecting Our Communities

More invasive tech is not the solution to the perils of social media and device addiction

The social media blitz officials are using to quell would-be partiers around Waterloo’s universities come St. Patrick’s Day – warnings about repercussions likely to be more useful than any attempts to convince students partying isn’t cool – will undoubtedly be used against any who do take part in the festivities.

Such is the surveillance state that we’ve built for ourselves, allowing companies and the police state to invade our lives despite their ill intentions … and gleefully joining in by not taking even the simplest attempts at protecting our privacy.

Outside of the potential for Waterloo street parties, it’s a safe bet you or somebody you know will post online photographic evidence of the weekend’s festivities. Seems harmless enough, right? Well, maybe.

At a time when governments are increasingly bent on taking away our privacy and other rights, we’re often our own worst enemies when it comes to exposing ourselves to the world, literally, in many cases.

For young people in particular, the tendency to post the details of their lives on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and other social media sites comes with a host of perils.

Even young people are starting to become aware of that. While social media, such as Facebook and Instagram, are popular for sharing photos and other aspects of people’s lives, many users are worried that their postings could have an impact on their job prospects. Such young social media users think that something they posted could come back to haunt them.

A form of “day-after remorse” seems to be evident. An increasing number of users say that they have removed or taken down a photo or other social media posting because they feared it could lead to repercussions with an employer.

But just because you delete something you’ve posted, that doesn’t mean it’s gone. Chances are it’s been captured by archiving sites and will live on, perhaps longer than you do.

Internet sites like Facebook exist to harvest information, sell it to advertisers and target you with personalized ads. Tracking is the norm, as is collecting as many details as possible of what each of us does online. There’s nothing neutral about most of it: this is not just a sociology study, though, of course, it’s that too.

Leaving aside the issue of why exactly people feel compelled to post the up-to-the-second minutia of their lives, there’s a danger of what you post being used against you.

There’s an obvious peril to posting about illicit acts – not uncommon, if not bright – but a less obvious risk comes with not-criminal-but-damning posts sought out by prospective employers. In fact, people going in for interviews are now sometimes asked for Facebook login names and passwords right on the spot so that the interviewers can poke around their online lives.

Already a dubious phenomenon, the ironically named social media sites – led by the likes of Facebook, Twitter and a thousand variants of Instagram and Pinterest – has descended into little more than partisan flame wars, blatant marketing and outright propaganda.

Coupled with the undermining of privacy – embraced by governments not the least bit eager to protect their citizens – the sorry state of affairs should leave no one upset if they all suddenly went away tomorrow. Such would be a reason to rejoice, in fact.

There’s very little social about such sites, at least in the conventional human sense of the word. The occasional use is one thing – though the sites, along with the ubiquitous Google, are mining data, joined by the likes of the NSA – but there are many people, many of them young, who spend too much time and think too little of the consequences.

More than just too much information, poor judgment and bullying, such time spent online has societal implications.

The tech companies are developing increasingly sophisticated tools for gathering up large swathes of online data – the things you post and like on Facebook, for instance – in order to both predict your behaviour and to sway it. This goes beyond targeted advertising, which is itself somewhat problematic.

Even those who helped develop social media sites and software are warning of the perils of technology, particularly the tendency to addiction – intentionally programmed – and the loss of privacy. While such revelations are useful, they’re often followed by positing “solutions” that involve yet more technology, rather than actual solutions, such as laws forbidding data mining, collection of personal data and demanding rapid expiration of personal information, under penalty of civil and criminal charges.

That, however, is beyond the pale, as governments are the leading violators of your privacy.

At this point, expecting governments and tech conglomerates to fix the problems they’ve created by intent is like putting the Big Bad Wolf in charge of building houses for the Three Little Pigs. The proposed “remedies” for the ills of social media – taking spa day breaks from your smartphone to counter addiction or installing additional apps to tweak the phones security – are really just defences of the status quo.

“The iniquities of social media, of course, won’t disappear if they’re briefly ignored or contained. Instead, addressing them will require companies like Facebook and Google to be viewed holistically: Rather than an isolated scourge, they’re symptoms of an economic system in which profit supersedes public health and societal stability. The answer lies not in a micro-economy of pseudo-conscious nonprofits, books, and startups, but in structures independent of and contrary to the values of capitalism,” suggest culture writer Julianne Tveten in a column this week.

“Whether championing an hour of smartphone severance or a revised iPhone menu, the trend of tech repentance isn’t a challenge to the bane of surveillance capitalism; it’s merely an upgraded version of it.”

There are plenty of people looking to use and abuse your personal information, in both the public and private sectors. There’s no need to make it any easier for them.

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