Einstien’s nightmare and the monsters of media

.. by Raza Muhammad Khan

I fear the day when technology will replace human interaction. The world will have a generation of idiots. This quote from Einstein, whose name is synonymous with genius, encapsulated his worst nightmare. We are undoubtedly living in that time, as electronic means of communications have replaced human interactions; everyone is distracted by social media gadgets and glued to their screens, often resembling robots. Social media has also greatly diminished or altered our senses and feelings for worse and retarded our thought process to make wise decisions about what’s right and wrong since it’s almost impossible to sift truth from falsehood.

Most chat platforms have turned into political battlegrounds, where opposing views are radicalized, bigotry is kosher and where arguments are won even at the cost of losing cherished relationships, family, friends and peace of mind. A study by the University of Wisconsin has shown that perusing unverified posts immensely diminishes a reader’s understanding of the issue at hand. Though this may seem counter-intuitive, upon reflection it makes perfect sense: confronted with enormous amounts of unfiltered information, we are inclined to choose portions which confirm, rather than challenge our preconceptions. Besides, in the ‘Metaverse’, of internet, one can find validation for any opinion or belief, no matter how outlandish. It is said that ‘Truth is the first casualty in war’. This is more relevant in the informational wars, where reality is frequently and easily targeted.

Traditional forms of media are imperfect too, but they make some efforts to verify data before reporting it as fact. Nevertheless, we exist now in an echo-chamber where “my friend told me” or ‘forwarded as received’ is a sufficient form of fact-checking and where misinformation or disinformation can move to millions of audience instantly, through algorithms. Once released, this evil genie is impossible to put back in the bottle. Thus we have far less space than ever before, within which to be fallible and lesser opportunities to be prudent. Resultantly, distinctions between the expert and the amateur, between the reflective thinker and the bloviaters are blurred. It’s a pity that access to and the information overload has outpaced our ability to process it for drawing logical, balanced and dispassionate  deductions about crucial matters; sometimes  leading to paralysis.

The cumulative effects of all such exposure may have, therefore, made us literally and metaphorically dumber. Sometimes it appears that the world has become a set of the ‘Night of the Living Dead’, as mundane communal or social events of the past like physical  meetings, cheering  your Team, sightseeing, shopping at real malls or picnics have been severely disrupted by  technological interventions and dystopia. The effect of social media is so pervasive and overwhelming that it has obliterated all the shields against it, if there were any.  It has violated privacy and the need for ensuring honesty and discretion before sharing posts.  It has reduced civility and universal politeness and given rise to nastiness in public discourse. Encouraged by the  ability to be simultaneously anonymous, public and  loud; reading on-line comments sections  of most news portray the  thoroughly dismaying capacity of humans, to heap verbal abuse upon one another, or state functionaries,  when afforded both a stage from which to orate and a mask behind which to hide.

Social media trolling and online attacks often leave deep mental scars and even drive people to hurt themselves or take their lives.  And as it turns out, cyber bullying doesn’t just affect kids. Adults can become victims of online abuse, too. Excessive social media use causes postural deformations, retarded growth, obesity, anxiety, nausea, headaches, muscle tension and  tremors. Social media can be more addictive than drugs, with a powerful draw for many people that lead them to checking it continuously and impulsively, some say in jest, like the diaper of a newborn baby. If you are staying up all night surfing the net but you’re not sure whether you’re addicted to social networks, try remembering the last time you went a full day without checking any social media accounts.

According to the Pew Research Centre, the most frequent users of social media sites are adults between the ages of 18 and 29. However other studies reveal that retirees over 60 years are equally active on social media. The elders may, therefore, be unable to advise or help the former group to adopt more appropriate behavioural norms. Equally lamentable is the infrequency of serious debate about what we have gained or lost or efforts to expose and control the dark side of scientific brilliance. Left unchecked by morality, responsibility and accountability, social media is becoming enormously destructive, like Frankenstein’s monster, for us; for those about whom we care the most and for the security, unity and cohesion of our country. So what can we do to defend ourselves? First; I contend that when anonymous invective and falsehood reaches a point where it is taken for granted, it is time for serious concern and contemplation by all, at every level.

Second; it is vital that we control our own behaviour, to model a more responsible level of discourse and, when necessary, push back boldly against the worst violations of wisdom, facts, values, maturity, privacy, decency and decorum. Third; if you think quitting is the best solution, it isn’t a bad idea. Fourth; the benefits of social media to spread education or connect people are immense but technological progress must not ignore human goodness. Social media must, therefore, be regulated to address this concern. This is also essential to prevent living out the aspiration of Frankenstein, (who was destroyed by his own creation) and to prevent the birth of his monsters’” hideous progeny.” This is not Luddism, or anti-technological rhetoric, but an attempt to highlight the urgent need for psychological and governance shifts, from a life arbitrated by powerful gadgets that enslave us; to attitudes and outlooks that can liberate and rescue us from behemoths and shape our futures, beyond Einstein’s Nightmare. —The writer is the former President of the NDU.

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