Wednesday, 11 April 2018

The Mass Effect of social media

We do things to ourselves we would never tolerate being imposed on us by others.

In 1984, the famous dystopian sci-fi novel, the Party has a television in every home. It’s two way, recording everything that is said, watching everything that is done. It’s always connected to some far off, unseen Party official, and able to chastise a citizen who is not keeping up with the Party’s official fitness programme (for example). But it doesn’t laugh like a witch, to be fair.

[Spoilers for the first three Mass Effect games follow].

The Mass Effect Trilogy* is a fantastic set of sci-fi games set a few hundred years in the future. Humanity has risen to the stars, and encountered numerous alien races. In this galaxy, the equivalent of a Galactic UN resides upon the Citadel, a space station discovered long ago (having been mysteriously abandoned). The Citadel sits at the heart of a Mass relay network, each Mass relay enabling immensely fast travel between two points.

It’s a trap. The discovery of the Mass relay network dissuades advanced races from developing their own faster than light capabilities, because they already have a system that works perfectly well. The Citadel space station being at the centre of the network, as well as being very sizeable and perfect for settlement, naturally makes it the seat of an inter-governmental organisation.

Advanced races are unwittingly funnelled into a pre-determined course of action. They’re surrendering their freedom to choose their own fate and develop in their own way because of the gifts they’ve been given, without realising there’s even a giver.

In the vast chasm between galaxies, a race of sentient machines known as the Reapers live. Once every age, they return to devastate the advanced races of the galaxy before they reach a stage where they might be a threat to the Reapers. The Citadel can be remotely controlled by the Reapers, and used to destroy the seat of galactic government. Lack of stand-alone faster-than-light travel capabilities means civilisations develop along the Mass relay network and can be readily obliterated. The path of civilisation occurs along lines laid down ages ago, in a repeated cycle of growth and destruction.

The funnelling effect (although, happily, not the mass extinction at the hands of heartless sentient machines) is something we’re seeing now in social media. The internet is becoming more and more consolidated, certainly in social media terms, in the hands of fewer and more powerful firms. Algorithms are used to massage/manipulate what stories get more coverage. Users can be shadowbanned so their messages don’t show up, without even realising it.

We’re collectively empowering these social media firms and limiting our own freedom to discover news free from the filter that such sites (must necessarily) impose. This is, perhaps, to be expected. Human history has seen a shift throughout the ages whereby the many villagers migrate to the few cities. There are advantages in scale to being a member of a large, rather than a small, community (just ask on Twitter if someone knows something, and you’ve got a decent chance of getting the answer).

But with social media there is also a significant downside. Such sites must have the right and ability to expel those who are troublesome. They are not free from laws forbidding, for example, the sharing of state secrets. And that requires punitive action to be taken. The problem is that, because they’re social media, this can extend to silencing the troublesome who have unorthodox/challenging opinions. Deciding where to draw the line in such cases is not easy. But drawing it wrong can stifle debate, even if said social media firm has no agenda of its own (and some clearly do).

You cannot like a comment if you never see it. And if the algorithm decides an unorthodox opinion is wrong and harmful, see it you shall not.

Social media is incredibly useful, and it’s here to stay. But I would strongly advocate not relying solely upon it (particularly a single firm) for news. Because doing so is to put blinkers on yourself, not even knowing what the filters are preventing you from seeing.


*There is a fourth game, which I haven’t played, and the first three do form a single overarching story.

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