Through the Matrix, into a Brave New World: the dark side of social media companies.
Updated: Sep 20, 2020
Morpheus's words to Neo: "You take the blue pill, and the story ends. You wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill, and you stay in Wonderland, and I will show you how deep the rabbit hole goes" - thankfully, as Neo did in the first episode of The Matrix, I also chose the red pill.
The truth is that people have become a commodity. Simple as that. No different than a herd of livestock, a lump of wood, or a copper bar. Industrial inputs, what social media companies have transformed us into. For instance, we say that Facebook monetises by "selling our data," but that's not the case; what they sell is us, people, to other companies looking for customers. But I will get to that in a moment. Before, I'd like to take a step back and set the appropriate background.
The Matrix was my favourite science fiction movie growing up, and, after almost 20 years, it has finally come of age. Sadly, millions of people are today effectively "milked" or "farmed," almost like the human bodies disposed of in the dystopian dark wastelands depicted in The Matrix - a world dominated by machines and computers using human beings as their source of power. Luckily, we are not there yet; however, it's dazzling to notice that we are walking straight in that direction - or sprinting there.
And you may say, "ok, what's the matter here?". It happens in the early days of advertisement. People are subconsciously driven to do what they wouldn't even think of doing. What's new that should frighten us? Well, the big difference is that advertisement has never been so perfect, so personal, and so present like AI (artificial intelligence) can be today. We have moved away from mass indoctrination to what is now called Surveillance Capitalism. Until a few years ago, to be exposed to an ad, you had to read a magazine or look at a billboard while driving; in essence, you had to decide to entertain or expose yourself. Most of the time, that decision came almost spontaneously. Today, hardly anything related to media advertising is spontaneous. Everything is perfectly calibrated: your tastes, religion, political creed, age, and why not even genetics, all by thousands of algorithms determining which advertisement you will be exposed to, right from the tip of your fingers, holding an omnipresent smartphone. Companies selling ads today don't sell just ads. They are also and seamlessly pitching to people the ads they will like most.
So, which are the champions of this perverse game? Social media companies, the likes of Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, TikTok, and so forth. They are so powerful to influence not only single people but also entire nations. They are so powerful not just at launching products, but mass social and political campaigns. How? Because these platforms are clinically and psychologically addictive.
People using social media repetitively can mature severe serotonin and dopamine production imbalances, just like it happens to drug addicts. Furthermore, recent studies from Warwick University and Harvard University have shown that the suicide rate among kids between 12 and 24 years of age, in developed countries with easy technology access like the US, has grown as much as 50% in the last ten years (with spikes north of 100% among young women). Is this a grim coincidence, or the result of a horrible trend fuelled by the augmented social anxiety created by social media, coupled with the mass spread of smartphones? Try to ask the same question to the parents of those kids who have pursued clinical surgery to look like their filtered selfies - a phenomenon is known as Snapchat dysmorphia.
I am a financier. As part of my daily job, I also help people invest their money, and I invest myself. Still, always trying to keep my investments to the highest ethical degree I can. To this date, I have invested in most technology sectors and companies. Still, I have never managed to make the case to invest directly in a fully-fledged social media company. I just can't.
Companies running social media platforms are doing all they can to make their user interface more addictive (a practice called growth-hacking). However, people are ever more in self-denial to the evidence that they have become addicted to social media and worst annihilated to the real world's (hidden) beauty. In Brave New World, the famous book of Aldus Huxley, the dystopian world he described, would have a substance called soma. This drug would make people feel happy in small doses, create visions in medium quantities, and send everyone to sleep in large amounts. Well, whether you might call it soma or social media, to me, it feels like we have all gone into a deep sleep.
The sad news is also that Surveillance Capitalism has already gone global. Like the US in the West, in the East, China has mastered the practices of Silicon Valley's social media platforms to a new level. The Communist Party controls a nation of 1.4 Billion people, mostly via social media and the internet. Chinese citizens are fed with fake news and distorting messages to the point that even well-educated people believe in Beijing's lies. However, in China, mass manipulation is enforced by a government with supreme power. In the rest of the Western World, the manipulation is performed by publicly listed enterprises, the likes of Facebook or Snapchat, making this dystopia even more absurd.
So how do we wake up? Let's take the red pill! How? For me, the red pill was deleting Facebook and Instagram a good year ago. Luckily, I was only on these social media and LinkedIn - but that's for work, right?!?! Amazing things have happened to me since I quit, I will name just a few for you:
• Less anger
• Less anxiety
• Less stress
• Less lack of concentration
• More focus
• More happiness
• More real friends
• More love
We shall not surrender our freedom of thought and long-term happiness to a dystopian bunch of technology apps thriving by corrupting with their endless beauty contests designed to grab people's attention. We have the power to choose and awaken to this virtual exploitation. We have the right to demand regulation of AI and immediate action from our political representatives - hopefully just before they will all be incurably hooked by their Twitter accounts…
We better move fast!
0. Special thanks to Netflix's "The Social Dilemma" and BBC's "The Century of the Self".