Tuesday, January 03, 2012

The AIDS of Social Media

This being early 2012, the media has finally dispensed with the annual cavalcades of the previous year's events, allowing them to turn their attention to doing what they do best: spreading fear and doubt about our collective future. Personally, I'm an optimist. I'm the guy who walks into a room full of horse manure determined to find a pony. So while I choose to look beyond the press's propaganda in search of sunlight, I fully understand that the road to redemption can take you through some pretty dark places.

At the moment, the darling on everyone's dance card seems to be social media, the phenomenon which is really nothing new save for its technological ability to intrude on your privacy, increase the rate of human polarization and destroy people's ability to form real human relationships while simultaneously compromising access to your bank account.

Sure, Facebook is enjoying all kinds of popularity right about now, but something tells me its success has less to do with its inherent benefits and more to do with the laggard economy: After all, if you've been out of work for a few years, Facebook is a wonderful way to fill your spare time. What happens when the economy fully recovers is yet to be seen, but for my money, I'm betting Facebook takes a serious dive the minute the employment rate takes a substantial leap.

Until then, however, millions of people follow the Facebook faithful, like lambs to the slaughter, completely unaware that every keystroke is recorded, saved and searchable even after they think every one of them has been deleted. Like those tattoos of a foolish, carefree youth, bad data never really goes away. It sticks around for life and pops up in the oddest, ill-timed places. Background checks revealing other-than-laudable photos and stories continue to derail the most promising employment interviews. But that's not the worst of it. This just might be:

I'm watching an entire generation of digitally-dominated young people completely stranded by social polarization. The technology that contends to "bring people together" in fact does just the opposite. Not too long ago, for example, people actually socialized and were motivated to do so. There was no internet, so there wasn't nearly as much to keep you home, exploring the world from your video screen. If you wanted to meet someone, you called them on the phone and talked to them in real time. If you hoped to meet someone, you went to a library where people didn't download books. If you wanted to thank someone, you sent a real, handwritten note through the mail. And if you wanted to see someone, you made plans to go do something together, rather than chat about it through a video screen.

Thanks to digital technology, nobody has to do anything with anyone else any more. You can download books to your Kindle and movies to your own living room, eliminating the need to sit in a crowded theater. Sadly, the chance for bumping into that romantic stranger you've been dreaming about has been eliminated, as well. In fact, the more you look around, the fewer opportunities you can find for genuine human interaction. You can thank social media for that. You can also thank social media not only for an increase in lonely, depressed people, but for propagating a culture in which those poor, unfortunate saps are raised without any idea of how to interact with other people in real life. Newsflash: Real human beings don't react to your pointing and clicking.

I live in a world where thousands of false prophets spread gospels about the deliverance of social media. They point to the Arab Spring as evidence of social media's great benefits to mankind. Well, I'm calling all those prophets out with a prophecy of my own that spells the doom of social media's dominance. And it goes something like this:

History has proven repeatedly that among nature's greatest forces, few compare to the power of the human heart. There are a lot -- and I mean a lot -- of unfulfilled people out there, yearning to feel the warmth of others, but who remain too enslaved to the intimidation proffered by technology, specifically social media. So they remain in their designated cubicles, writhing in their loneliness, yearning for a reason to justify an escape. The problem is that two entire generations have been undermined in their attempts to seek personal fulfillment. They've been led to believe that social media is an acceptable substitute for genuine human interaction.

Well, it isn't. Not for the high school kids waiting desperately to go out on a date and not for any of my clients, each of whom continues to insist I visit them in their offices rather than "do the meeting by Skype."

So where and how does this all end? The way most social dynamics do: Catastrophic fear.

Most people, for example, believe that AIDS is an easy-to-contract, 100% fatal disease. Ask any knowledgeable medical authority, however, and he'll tell you that AIDS, in terms of contagion, is actually more difficult to contract than a great number of diseases. That's not to say you shouldn't be careful with what you do and with whom you do it. What it does say, is that what really powered the efforts to control and hopefully eradicate AIDS was the fear it's been tagged with. Gonorrhea and syphilis are far easier to contract than AIDS, but neither are fatal, so they don't get as much air play. But AIDS is a "killer" that scares the hell out of people. Everyone knows someone who's died of AIDS, so its story always gets on the front page.

My point here is that these days, for things to really change, they have to be tagged with serious fear. And that's what's going to bring down social media. It's only a matter of time until Facebook (or something similar) becomes massively infected with one or more viruses that will devastate hundreds of millions of users' accounts, and accordingly, their lives. In a relatively few short seconds, all of the "sharing of data" guarded by supposedly "secure technology" that "stores its data in the cloud" will turn into just so much digital sludge, infesting and mutating data with effects that reach far beyond users' Facebook pages. It's not hard to imagine bank accounts, real estate records, medical data, personal information and more either damaged, destroyed -- or worse yet -- made publicly available to anyone, anywhere, any time.

That's the kind of nuclear meltdown that changes people's habits. That's where social media will hit the wall. And hopefully, that's when human beings will take back their lives and relationships. Not because they want to, but because they'll finally have a reason to justify wanting to.

Think it can't happen? Fine. Keep denying your humanity and entrusting your life to unsupervised algorithms. But you've been warned. And wearing a condom isn't going to save you.


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