Sanjeev Ahluwalia | How the fatal tug of social media got bigger, stronger

The Asian Age.  | Sanjeev Ahluwalia

Opinion, Columnists

Social media fills the spatial, societal and relationship gaps which separate individuals from their dreams.

The social media’s unregulated, decentralised character makes it prone to spread misinformation, provoke community violence, deepen criminal activity. (Photo:AFP)

If you get your news and views from Twitter or Google search, you correspond via Gmail or Slack, your files are stored on a cloud, your friends and associates are on LinkedIn, Facebook, Snapchat or Tumblr, your music on Spotify, iTunes or YouTube, your entertainment is from Amazon or Netflix, your date is from Tinder, your lifestyle from Instagram, TikTok or Reels, your reading from Reddit or Goodreads, your phone chats are on Telegram, WhatsApp or Skype or any of the equivalents from firewalled China, you are part of a virtual community upwards of fifty per cent of the global population.

Nevertheless, physical facetime remains significant. It is more fun to party in person though virtual work and shopping are convenient. No one nurtures children virtually, albeit parents might feel like cash vending machines whilst the real bonding happens in virtual cohorts of friends. The clock is ticking on real relationships, slowed only by low per capita incomes and poor infrastructure in the developing world, which makes smartphones unaffordable and constrains Internet access — the life blood of the social media. India’s Internet penetration rate (the proportion of connections to population) is just 46 per cent, versus 72 per cent in China and 91 per cent in the United States.

Social media excels as a communication and outreach tool, particularly in audio and video formats, courtesy higher transmission speeds and capacity and improving albeit nascent language translation features. Ukraine’s feisty President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s strategic use of the social media won the virtual war for global hearts and minds — cash, weapons and ammunition to fight followed — aided by Starlink, Elon Musk’s private, low-earth orbit satellite service, which bypasses telecom networks and transmits to user dish-sets directly, making communications resilient to Russian rockets and bombs. Russia fought on the ground, Ukraine from space.

The social media’s unregulated, decentralised character makes it prone to spread misinformation, provoke community violence, deepen criminal activity, or build “blue ticked” personality cults, now available for cash. Its virality — which advertisers love — across time zones and national boundaries is driven by features catering to instant responses, “share”, or “like”. It is also a laboratory where the naïve assumptions that humans can control intelligent robots is being assessed — e-platforms claim their algorithmic marketing is near autonomous.
Simultaneously, human longevity is being enhanced by technology and commodified by the market. Ageless ageing, replaceable body parts, rising incomes and an efficient services industry dilute the emotional premium of being a family, a clan or community. Technologically enhanced individuals rise above human frailties. Sadly, they also rise above need-based social bonds which hold communities together. The social media is the harbinger of this transformation. It challenges past regulatory constructs. National governments, neither autocratic nor liberal, get regulation right ranging from stifling controls to lax oversight.
The shocker is that just over two (purists claim three) decades ago this global community did not exist. 1991 was the inflexion point for decentralised content creation and distribution — news, views, images and films — when Tim Berners-Lee added hypertext software to the Internet creating the World Wide Web. Technologies which support the social media — failsafe, high-speed transmission networks linked globally through satellites or undersea cables, consumer appliances, e-platforms and apps followed, responding to the demand for social media.

This is just the beginning. Over the next few decades, this virtual community could be bound even tighter via technology like “neural links”, thereby bypassing the frailties of the human body.

Neuralink Corporation, a US neurotechnology company founded by Elon Musk and other scientists in 2016, develops implantable brain-computer interfaces (BCI), a chip so complex that only a specially designed surgical robot can implant it in the skull — thus far only on a monkey and a pig.

The objective is to replace lost cognitive skills, bodily functions or dexterity. Programmed electronic impulses simulate neural signals to move a computer mouse or to “feel” a human handshake on a prosthetic arm just by wanting to.
Once electronic chips can enhance neural functionality, how far could giga-augmented virtual reality be? Cautious scientists downplay the hype. CBI stimulated neural applications are in their infancy despite ongoing research since 1970. But who would have wagered in 1969, when Apollo 11 landed on the Moon, that within the lifetime of astronaut Buzz Aldrin — the only surviving member of the trio on that mission — wealthy private individuals would pay to fly to the International Space Station and back?

We have only skimmed the surface of dematerialised, virtual social interaction via Zoom, Webex, Microsoft Teams, Skype and WhatsApp. They are efficient but far from the warmth of physical interaction. “Immersive” social media will fix that, going beyond transmission of audio, video and images to initiate and receive “physical like” responses. Substituting today’s emojis and GIFs with transmissible, simulated, personalised feelings — like love or the warmth of a hug — are needed before people stop catching jammed flights be home by Christmas.

For hi-tech enthusiasts, the Holy Grail is to network eight billion ideating and emoting human brains with a vast fleet of robots doing the dirty or dangerous physical tasks associated with human life and survival. To more grounded observers it is a nightmare — the virtual equivalent of being trapped in a vast messy, and hyper-intrusive joint family exerting the numbing pressure of constantly being measured-up and risking social exclusion, if one opts out.
Unbearable social and work pressures and never-before personal wealth explain the growing market for immersive fantasy games. The latest is Metaverse’s August 2022 offering — Horizon Worlds — free to use though you need a virtual reality headset. You can choose your avatar — a digital twin. By October, this year 0.2 million avatars floated up virtual streets and to stand out bought “digital outfits from Balenciaga, Prada and Thom Browne — iconic fashion brands”. Sadly, legs to go with the floating torsos are to follow!

Social media fills the spatial, societal and relationship gaps which separate individuals from their dreams. Movies have offered escape since the 1890s. But grim reality floods back once the movie ends. In contrast, social media is an alternative, self-curated, virtual reality, from which you escape, only briefly, to earn real money or meet real world obligations. Drawing bright red lines around its indiscrete use to shield netizens from its fatal pull, particularly the young and the socially marginalised, is going to be as complicated as regulating drug abuse, drinking or smoking, especially when there is so much cash to be made by global corporate bodies.