By Zubeida Mustafa
EARLIER this year, WHO classified video-gaming as a disorder. It is defined in the draft Eleventh Revision of the International Classification of Diseases as a mental health condition. Understandably, controversy has erupted round this move as many experts believe that sufficient data doesn’t exist to support this drastic diagnosis. Besides, the symptoms defined are too broad to be applied to one particular area of engagement. Thus a person may have a strong preference for any activity that he enjoys to the extent that “he does not stop even if there are negative consequences, the compulsion strains his life, health and relationships” — WHO’s definition of the gaming disorder. Definitely more data is needed.
It is, however, a different matter to revisit a variety of social media to see how it is affecting society the world over. We do not necessarily have to study the medical aspect to worry about Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, and so on.
It is important to view these entrants in the digital world in the context of communications technology and artificial intelligence (AI) and their impact on human society, politics, the growing economic divide and the lifestyles of people. Social media has dramatically transformed the communication scene for all and sundry.
From oral communication that connected men and women without any help from technology, we have moved over the millennia into the digital age. Even the invention of paper in China and the printing press in Germany did not have the same far-reaching impact on human society as the internet has had.
It is worrisome how the internet has taken control of human life.
The change driven by digital technology has been rapid and ubiquitous. This has been possible partly because the social media set out to do just this. The Facebook’s website states its mission “is to give people the power to build community and bring the world together. People use Facebook to stay connected with friends … and express what matters to them”. A noble intent no doubt. But as its founder Mark Zuckerberg himself once admitted in an interview, he had not anticipated the course his creation would take.
Within reasonable limits no one would have taken any objection to this activity. The internet has made communication easier and facilitated the work of people looking for information/education. But what I worry about is the way it has taken control of human life. This is by design. Facebook, the oldest of the lot, has nearly 1.45 billion daily active users, WhatsApp has 1bn and Twitter 336 million.
These statistics do not tell us how much time is consumed and exactly what effect this massive interactive exercise daily has on people’s lifestyles, emotional health and physical fitness. Even in terms of bringing the world together, as social media claims to be doing, the results are questionable.
Social media, in its various forms, is a tool of communication, offering advantages that have never been offered in human history. Yet, its utility cannot be taken for granted. Like other similar tools, it carries risks of fraud, breach of privacy and the global consequences of a breakdown or misuse. We have already been witness to Black Monday (1987), when the stock markets crashed, and the 2008 banking crisis. The internet certainly had a role to play on both occasions. With users rapidly becoming its compulsive slaves and the corporate sector increasing its hold over digital space, regulation is becoming more and more difficult.
It is too early to assess the long-term impact of the new narcissistic culture, the loss of privacy, the irresponsible dissemination of disinformation and paradoxically the personal disconnect social media encourages between people living in physical proximity.
The most serious aspect of the social media that is difficult to regulate effectively is its misuse to spread rumours among gullible users who have no means of verifying the information that is disseminated. The Cambridge Analytica scandal conclusively proved that digital information on many social media outlets could be stolen to manipulate data with evil intentions.
Our next worry should be AI that has a symbiotic relationship with the internet. It is now creeping into our daily lives. We should not ignore scientist Stephen Hawking’s words of wisdom: “I believe there is no deep difference between what can be achieved by a biological brain and what can be achieved by a computer. It therefore follows that computers can, in theory, emulate human intelligence — and exceed it. That could lead to the eradication of disease and poverty and the conquest of climate change. But it could also bring us all sorts of things we didn’t like — autonomous weapons, economic disruption and machines that developed a will of their own, in conflict with humanity.”
He categorically declared that the outcome was not known. His advice to scientists was to study this phenomenon and find out if AI was going to kill us or not.