Social networking on digital platforms: The emancipation of a global community and the prison of our minds

AUTHOR: María Soledad Rueda

A few days ago I was sitting in a restaurant in Cambridge, and while waiting for my friend, as a natural reflex I started browsing on my phone. On that very moment, I received a call from Emmanuel who lives in Liberia via Facebook Messenger -the messaging app and platform.  Three years ago I lived in Zwedru, a small town in the border between Liberia and Ivory Coast; Zwedru is located 12 hours by road from Monrovia, the town has no electricity, no water lines or even a hospital. Still, almost everyone in the village has a smartphone. 

Emmanuel was calling to say hi and to show me the village around -using video chat. The call lasted only a few minutes, and as I hung up I thought: amazing! Technology! When on Earth would I have ever imagined that I could talk to a friend on the other side of the globe (in the middle of the bush), hear him as if he was next door and at no-cost? I brought my mind back to the restaurant and as I looked around, in every single table, at least one person was using the phone. The couple in front of me was not talking to each other, they were on their phones; in the family sitting next to me, the baby was being entertained with videos from YOUTUBE and the ten years old boy was playing games.

Social networking through digital platforms is both: a revolutionary emancipation of societies/individuals to participate in a global community and at the same time, it represents the eradication of human will, with an existential threat against free thought and democracy.

One of the most significant challenges prompted by social networking through digital platforms is that they make part of our everyday lives and make us dependent, addicted, and automated. Giants like Facebook, Twitter, Amazons, Google, make us addicted and enter our “bloodstreams” with an ‘intoxicating level of daily convenience’[1].  The digital social networks get into our systems and feed us regularly while our physical, social networks can dissipate just as fast. We are able to spend hours in front of the screen to ‘connect with the world’ and at the same time we don’t know who our neighbors are. In his book World Without Mind, Franklin Foer explains the emancipatory power of digital platforms. Social networking through digital platforms allows societies that were once entirely excluded, to be part of a global community; like in the case of Emmanuel, my friend from Liberia, for him, Facebook Messenger became a window to the world. For me, a window to his world.

The danger, as Foer explains, comes when all that power is concentrated in a few units that control our lives.  Like the water that we drink or the air that we breathe, technology giants become essential to us. In this line, Franklin Foer explains the pervasive influence of digital platforms, and he depicts the power of giants of technology like Facebook, Google, Amazon, and Apple as one of the ‘most powerful monopolies in humanity’. As he explains brilliantly, these companies not only influence our very daily basic decisions (where to go, what to buy, who to follow, etc.), but they play an incredibly vital role in the health of our democracies. On the one hand, Digital platforms can be the vehicle for socio-political mobilisation or the organisation of massive protests like in the case of Syria or the Arab Spring in 2011[2]; in general, they can represent a fundamental tool to address problems that require collective action[3].  On the other hand, precisely, these technology giants have also the power to say what is trustworthy and decide whether the public can have access to certain information or not. Access to information as compared to rumours and even "fake news" becomes harder to decode. 

In his book, Foer makes two fundamental calls which I completely agree with. One, understanding that DATA is a public good, and as such creating the laws to protect it is fundamental; it is vital to conceive rules that preserve privacy against these rampant firms. Second, as individuals we permit ourselves to be addicted to these technologies; companies like Facebook, Google, Amazons are sitting on places of absurd monopolistic rents, and they know very clearly where they want humanity to be. We need to learn to exercise moderation and reclaim agency in this hectic world of consumption (consumption of information, ideas, food, goods, relation, recognition and popularity). The frenetic consumption and interaction with digital social networks pose a fundamental existential threat. The very qualities that define us as social human beings can eliminate us through digital enslavement.  ‘A world without private contemplation, autonomous thought or solitary introspection’[4], is a world without mind. 

Talking of Democracy, Foer explains that there is always someone deciding what is and what is not essential. What the public thinks or conceives as correct, often these firms have decided for; in a system that is considered democratic, technology giants become decision makers. While one cannot negate this vital aspect, on the other hand, it is possible to argue that places that do not enjoy of such democratic structures like the United States, digital platforms become the space for the population to express their dissatisfaction and struggle. 

Take the example of the current situation in Venezuela or Gaza. In Venezuela, Maduro's government found ways to silence the opposition through subjugating methods (incarceration, control of resources and censorship among others). Social media in this context became "a lifeline for those seeking help, and a form of protest — the only way to speak truth to power’”[5] .  In Gaza, often referred as the largest open-air prison on earth  “Palestinians use platforms like Facebook and Twitter to counter the mainstream narrative of the Gaza Crisis, reaching an astonishing number of people around the world”[6] ; in this way, digital platforms become an accessible instrument for people to express diverting positions and to exercise ‘choice’. Concerning democracy, it is precisely these characteristics of expression and choice that also make our democracies healthy and more effective.

In sum, social networking through digital platforms prompts enormous challenges, a key one: the pervasive influence of digital platforms in our daily lives to a poisoning level of dependency and addition.  Social media and digital platforms control our lives and the sort of our democracies. As Fore mentions, it is our very human condition and what we will become is that is at stake, in his book World without Mind Foer makes an essential call for laws and regulations that oblige monopolistic giants like Facebook, Google, Amazons or Apple to respect and preserve privacy and data, as a fundamental public good. 

Just as important as the laws that could govern the use of digital platforms, and target behaviour at the structural level, our individual conduct is fundamental to take advantage of social networking as a whole.  Individual moderation and restraint in the use of digital platforms would permit us to become agents in this big Matrix enterprise.  In his book Net smart: how to thrive online, Howard Rheingold aims to support anyone who wants to 'live mindfully in cyberculture'[7]. The first chapter of his book counts on numerous sources to explain the advantages of mindful choices. He calls for attention to select mindfully whatever social networks and digital platforms throw at us, or to select from the bulk rather than allowing this giant firms to choose for us. The contrary would be rather to remain plugged in the matrix.

Grotesque and mundane as it could be the relation deserves to be quoted: MORPHEUS: “The Matrix is everywhere. It is all around us. Even now, in this very room. You can see it when you look out your window or when you turn on your television [your computer, your tablet or your phone]. You can feel it when you go to work, when you go to church, when you pay your taxes. It is the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth”. NEO: What truth? MORPHEUS: That you are a slave. Like everyone else, you were born into bondage, born into a prison that you cannot smell or taste or touch. A prison for your mind” [8]

The Big challenge that social networking through digital platforms poses is to find a way to escape from own minds.  

***This disclaimer informs readers that the views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in this text belong solely to those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of any other agency, organization, employer or company.***

Endnotes

[1] Franklin Foer, World Without Mind: The Existential Threat of Big Tech (New York: Penguin Press, 2017).

[2] In the 2011 "Arab Spring" protests. Social media networks played an important role in the rapid disintegration of at least two regimes, Tunisia and Egypt, while also contributing to sociopolitical mobilisation in Bahrain and Syria. Ekaterina Stepanova, “The Role of Information Communication Technologies in the ‘Arab Spring’. Implications Beyond the Region.” (PONARS Eurasia, 2011).

[3] “Organized collective action to challenge the status quo, as opposed to the occasional outburst of

Resentment”. Ganz, Marshall. 2011. "Public Narrative, Collective Action, and Power." In Accountability Through Public Opinion: From Inertia to Public Action, eds. Sina Odugbemi and Taeku Lee: 273-289. Washington D.C: The World Bank.

[4] Foer, World Without Mind: The Existential Threat of Big Tech.

[5] Jasmine Garsd, “For Many In Venezuela, Social Media Is A Matter Of Life And Death,” NPR.org, September 11, 2018, https://www.npr.org/2018/09/11/643722787/for-many-in-venezuela-social-media-is-a-matter-of-life-and-death.

[6] Yousef Al-Helou, “Social Media: The Weapon of Choice in the Gaza-Israel Conflict,” Middle East Eye, August 21, 2014, http://www.middleeasteye.net/news/social-media-weapon-choice-gaza-israel-conflict.

[7] Howard Rheingold, Net Smart: How to Thrive Online (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2012).

[8] Film The MATRIX —Morpheus explaining to Neo what the Matrix is, 00:27:46. The Matrix. Dir. Andy Wachowski and Larry Wachowski. Warner Bros. Pictures, 1999.


Bibliography

Ekaterina Stepanova, “The Role of Information Communication Technologies in the ‘Arab Spring’. Implications Beyond the Region.” (PONARS Eurasia, 2011).

Franklin Foer, World Without Mind: The Existential Threat of Big Tech (New York: Penguin Press, 2017).

Ganz, Marshall. "Public Narrative, Collective Action, and Power." In Accountability Through Public Opinion: From Inertia to Public Action, eds. Sina Odugbemi and Taeku Lee: 273-289. Washington D.C: The World Bank. 2011

Howard Rheingold, Net Smart: How to Thrive Online (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2012).

Jasmine Garsd, “For Many In Venezuela, Social Media Is A Matter Of Life And Death,” NPR.org, September 11, 2018, https://www.npr.org/2018/09/11/643722787/for-many-in-venezuela-social-media-is-a-matter-of-life-and-death.

Yousef Al-Helou, “Social Media: The Weapon of Choice in the Gaza-Israel Conflict,” Middle East Eye, August 21, 2014, http://www.middleeasteye.net/news/social-media-weapon-choice-gaza-israel-conflict.

Film The MATRIX —Morpheus explaining to Neo what the Matrix is, 00:27:46. The Matrix. Dir. Andy Wachowski and Larry Wachowski. Warner Bros. Pictures, 1999.

Valentin Sierra Arias