Sunday, August 25, 2019

Social Division

Aired a couple of thousand years ago, these words may well be jarring to modern ears unaccustomed to old aphorisms: What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the Sun.

Today, digital social networks have taken centre stage and, like or loathe them, their in-your-face impact is inescapable; and whether they represent a force for good or ill remains an open question. To assess their value and what lies ahead, consider the following refracted view of the past.

From historical lore, the earliest recorded social network had precisely two members - Adam and Eve. To their eternal regret, they seemed oblivious to a reptilian eavesdropper lurking in the shadows, who must have overheard them mulling over the “forbidden fruit.” As the story goes, the Serpent upended the first couple’s idyllic habitat and, ever since, human beings have been wary of slithering fork-tongued creatures. Shortly afterwards, their social network expanded to include their two sons, Cain and Abel. Once again, a stealthy intruder came calling disguised as the Grim Reaper, who egged on Cain to murder his brother in cold blood.

According to the traditional Judeo-Christian account, following the Great Flood that destroyed the Earth, the survivors’ descendants “had one language and a common speech” and organised themselves into a homogeneous network. Subsequently, they conspired to “build a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens.” Again, the story did not end well. At the Tower of Babel, their language became confused and they were scattered over the face of the Earth.

Humanity’s early attempts at socialising and networking thus culminated in a crippling strikeout after a dismal batting performance. Starting with the geometric sequence 20 (Home Alone or network-challenged Adam) to 21 in the Garden of Eden, to 22 outside the perimeter of Eden, to 2n at Babel, these origin stories heralded DECEPTION, DEATH and DIVISION, respectively into human affairs. Since then, the world’s population has ballooned to 232.85, or 7.7 billion (need proof that the devil is in the decimals? Well, 232.5 = 6.1 billion and 233 = 8.6 billion), as at August 2019.

During the intervening period, the human spirit has remained indefatigable, subconsciously seeking to retrace its steps back to Babel, although Eden remains out of bounds. Incidentally, by virtue of technological innovation, it seems that artificial intelligence (AI) is at the cusp of enabling instantaneous, real-time language translation, while the largest social networks in history are being stitched together.

Two questions come to mind. Technically, what is a social network, and why are we so enamoured of human connectivity? Second, if minuscule networks conjured the aforementioned disasters, what types of creepy-crawlies might be prowling billions-strong digital networks in the 21st century?

The term “social network” is a standard construct used to study the interactions between individuals, groups, organisations, and communities. In societies where individual agency confers fundamental human rights, the notion of each citizen being equivalent to a network node is an extremely powerful concept. In such a scenario, a network node represents a connection point within a distributed network that can store, create, receive or send information, which is a perfect characterisation of the human need to communicate.

Now, assume that every individual within a society knows 100 independent people. It therefore implies that, theoretically, each person or network node is one step removed from a connection to 10,000 other people, and so on. This rolling cascade typifies the network effect, and explains why Facebook (or its Chinese equivalent) is so unbelievably powerful and dominant.

Conventional wisdom suggests that new technologies foster upsides and downsides. While optimists tout net positive outcomes, naysayers often warn about the end of civilisation as we know it. Despite numerous benefits, social media platforms have been blamed for an increase in attention deficit hyperactivity disorders, low self-esteem, depression, anti-social personality disorders, cyberbullying, trolling, extortion, suicides, erosion of privacy, spread of false information, and the rise of a global network of hate.

Furthermore, the ludicrous notion that social media services are free flies in the face of the axiom that “there’s no free lunch.” By trading personal data for a free service, subscribers should be aware that their online posts “cannot be entirely deleted,” which means that records of indiscretions remain in purgatory.

Even more pernicious is the fact that troves of subscribers’ data are subjected to algorithmic AI processing. Typically unregulated, generated outputs are often sold to marketing companies and prospective employers, and are being used to manipulate voters’ intentions. Also, surveillance and non-surveillance states alike are deploying facial-recognition software without seeking citizens’ consent. And with deepfake voice and video, soon we might not be able to distinguish the authentic from the unreal. On this evidence, what exactly does the future portend?

If "what has been will be again," it is plausible that the spirit of a malevolent, winged, fire-belching mythical DRAGON - an amalgam of our worst nightmares and pathologies - has already infiltrated the atmosphere and is now stalking cyberspace, including the deep recesses of the so-called Dark Web. 

Real or imagined, memories of old demons die hard. 

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