We’ve stopped investigating and are living in a state of negligence.
“Illusion is the first of all pleasures” — Voltaire
Technology and humanity have become inextricably linked and it’s more pressing than ever to understand the impact on our collective consciousness.
Reflecting back on the last ten years of technology, we saw social networks promising connection morph into social media platforms measured on performance, an overabundance of information designed to be shared not processed and the rise of machine learning, AI-powered algorithms laden with bias.
We’re living in a dopamine-driven economy, addicted to algorithms that perpetuate our bias. Drowning in information but starved for knowledge. The underlying impact is a sense of urgency leading to flash decisions and closing the aperture on curiosity.
What does the world become when all that’s left are echo chambers and confirmation bias? What does it mean for individuality when groupthink takes over? What is our responsibility when falsehoods spread faster and farther than truth online?
These questions were sparked after I read an article about a liberal Jewish boy who was drawn to the darkest corners of the Internet and joined the alt-right at the age of 13. Three years later, after returning to digital consciousness, he wrote about his experience in Fast Company.
What started as a search for belonging at an impressionable age left him believing that the wage gap was a fallacy fabricated by feminists, that black Americans committed homicide at a higher rate than whites, and that Jews controlled global financial networks.
The line between fantasy and reality is thinning in our society as a whole, and especially among our youth. Studies have shown that children are able to distinguish between reality and fantasy between the ages of 3 and 5, but what happens when we, as a culture, become untethered from reality?
Sascha Baron Cohen gave a poignant keynote at last year’s ADL awards capturing the state of our times with clarity:
It’s as if the Age of Reason — the era of evidential argument — is ending, and now knowledge is delegitimized and scientific consensus is dismissed. Democracy, which depends on shared truths, is in retreat, and autocracy, which depends on shared lies, is on the march. Hate crimes are surging, as are murderous attacks on religious and ethnic minorities.
In 2016, while Trump’s Presidential Campaign was charging full steam ahead, Oxford Dictionary announced their word of the year: post-truth, reflecting what it called a “highly-charged” political 12 months. It is defined as an adjective relating to circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than emotional appeals.
In 2017, fake news was the word of the year by Collins Dictionary.
The spread of disinformation doesn’t just impact us politically. In the last three years we saw status seeking Millennials flock to the non-existent Fyre Festival (a marketing campaign that relied heavily on social media tactics), families follow deadly health advice from Facebook and flat Earth conspiracies spread around the globe on YouTube.
The democratization of online platforms and conversations around free speech have created an unruly landscape where anyone can upload anything, at any time, from anywhere. And our appetite to indulge in internet absurdities without question leading us down a dangerous path.
We’ve put too much trust in the hands of predictive AI, targeting and big tech. Ultimately removing something innately human: our ability question, to ask ‘why’. Spend time with anyone under six and they’ll ask a string of questions starting with ‘why?’
We don’t fact check, we throw out outrageous claims as justified truths. We read headlines but not the whole article. We buy Instagram brands and are disappointed when its quality is poor and 10x smaller than we thought when scrolling the 4:5 frame.
The Internet has its own language and wraps everything in it, from the profound to the profane, making every topic of the same importance. This flattened space holds no weight or repercussions. We consume Trump tweets about war in Iran next to memes of baby Yoda next to dinner recipe ideas. Time has bent on this new plane and nothing has a lasting impact. We are living in a new form of surrealism. One we can’t escape or look away from.
Technology has made things easy, convenient and efficient. But the better technology gets at automating tasks and anticipating our behavior, the greater the threat to our own skills. We’re thinking in memes, talking in Tweets, learning from Reddit and dependent on Google for our answers while reasoning, critical thinking and focus are weakening.
In a world where we can find exactly what we’re looking for, confirm any belief possible, and follow it as the rule, we need to bring back a sense of skepticism. To question and be curious about what is served up to us.
Skepticism will become a critical skill for the future.
Skepticism is defined as:
doubt as to the truth of something
a person who questions the validity or authenticity of something purporting to be factual
Skepticism helps scientists to remain objective when performing scientific inquiry and research. It forces them to examine claims (their own and those of others) to be certain that there is sufficient evidence to back them up.
The Greek word skepsis means investigation. When we investigate, we bring a healthy dose of questioning to a seemingly solid case. We become inquisitive and soften to new ideas. Our curiosity is piqued. Curiosity is an essential tool in understanding differing opinions.
In the words of Brian Grazer, [curiosity] empowers– enables me to have a better, more accurate sense of what ideas feel authentic and what ideas feel inauthentic or copycats of other ideas. So in my– in the business of storytelling, you look for– you know, storytelling meaning movies or television or documentaries– you’re looking for originality.
You’re looking for originality in the subject, and you’re looking for originality in terms of a point of view. And having all these different sort of curiosity conversations and being interested in other people and other subjects, it gives me a deeper, richer filter in which to create ideas and hear ideas.
I propose three ways to bring skepticism to the Internet, starting with the individual, expanding to big tech and infiltrating our education system:
- From groupthink → To independent working minds
In our personal life, we need to identify our own filters blocking us from reasoning and empathizing. To be a little more curious. To entertain other sides of a story and make our own assumptions. To welcome, challenge and understand diverse schools of thought.
2. From algorithms confirming bias → To algorithms that prod for skepticism
Big tech needs to take responsibility for the impact they’re having. How can we rearchitecture these platforms with new behaviors and the whole human in mind?
3. From sourcing papers → To spotting fallacies
Our education system needs to be redesigned for the Digital Age to help the next generation of leaders identify false claims and spot deepfakes. Thinking back to English class, we learned how to write papers, properly sourcing and citing our facts. What would a digital curriculum look like with this new objective?
We must challenge people to come to the internet not with blind acceptance, but a healthy dose of skepticism. To be curious.
We must preserve and protect our independent working minds. They’re becoming endangered species.
- False news spreads faster than truth online thanks to human nature, TechCrunch 2018
- The number of young American girls turning to self-harm is skyrocketing, QZ, 2017
- I became part of the alt-right at age 13, thanks to Reddit and Google, Fast Company 2019
- Sacha Baron Cohen’s Keynote Address at ADL’s 2019 Never Is Now Summit on Anti-Semitism and Hate, ADL, 2019
- Fake news is ‘very real’ word of the year for 2017, The Guardian, 2017
- ‘Post-truth’ declared word of the year by Oxford Dictionaries, BBC, 2016
- Fyre Festival: The Most Successful Social Media Marketing Campaign for a Failed Music Festival, Ever, Tandem Interactive, 2019
- REVEALED: HOW DANGEROUS FAKE HEALTH NEWS CONQUERED FACEBOOK, The Independent, 2017
- Flat Earth: How did YouTube help spread a conspiracy theory?, BBC, 2019
- What makes us human? Newsstatesman, 2014
- Are We Losing Our Ability to Think Critically? Communications of ACM, 2009
- Stanford psychology expert: This is the №1 work skill of the future — but most fail to realize it, CNBC, 2019
- Brian Grazer on the Power of Curiosity, Harvard Business Review, 2014