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Tuesday, April 16, 2024

Can Social Media Be Redeemed?

“I read that Jack Dorsey, a cofounder of Twitter, claims to regret his role in creating the centralized internet. Given what we know about the divisiveness, violence, and misinformation that social media promotes—and now Dorsey's remorse—is there anything left to redeem it?”

Following @Jack

Dear Following,

It's never a good sign when the creator of a technology disowns his own creation, though it happens with surprising frequency. Einstein regretted his work on nuclear chain reactions, which led to the creation of the atomic bomb. Toward the end of his life, Mikhail Kalashnikov, the Russian military engineer who designed the AK-47, realized with a pang of guilt that his invention had been responsible for more deaths than any other assault rifle. One might wish these men had displayed a greater dose of foresight, but how much can we expect of humans when God himself failed to anticipate the destructive potential of his own creation? In the book of Genesis, God looks down on the evil taking place on earth and sees he has made a grave error: “The Lord regretted making human beings on the earth, and his heart was grieved.” His unsuccessful effort to wipe humans from the planet with a flood and embark on a new, more virtuous start proves the ultimate uselessness of such regret. It is an unfortunate but reliable truth that creators tend to recognize their oversights only after it's too late to undo them. Their tears of remorse may flood the earth, but they cannot wash away the damage.

Given the pervasiveness of ancient myths that imagine an Edenic world descending into chaos, you would think we'd be more wary of the promises of virtual utopias. Throughout the mid-1990s, techno-idealists (many of them writing in the pages of this magazine) argued that “the Net” would level social hierarchies, enable new forms of political organization, and put an end to corporate power. With the arrival of Web 2.0, these hopes coalesced markedly around Twitter, whose role in organizing protests during the Arab Spring suggested that the site could unite the masses against unjust powers. Dorsey himself emerged like a prophet from the wilderness, a young man who spoke in aphorisms and was often described as “ascetic,” thanks to his fasts, his Shaker furniture, and his simple, yet pricey, Filson bags. Profiles routinely rehearsed his childhood fascination with cities and systems and described him looming over the panorama of San Francisco from the heights of the Square (now Block) headquarters. Here was a “visionary” in the word's most literal sense, a godlike figure who could anticipate the complex functions of the world that so few of us could glimpse from the ground. “At the core of his being, he really wants to make the world a better place,” said a mentor of his in 2011.

Today, 57 percent of internet traffic is controlled by six behemoths—Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and Netflix. Although Twitter is not among them, it has become yet another seedbed for the problems that have sprouted from these centralized powers: misinformation, ideological polarization, data mining, mass surveillance, and algorithms that amplify the most extreme and sensationalist voices. The empyrean heights from which we have fallen are evident in Twitter's most popular endearment, “this hellsite,” a phrase parroted by those who hate the world they cannot bring themselves to leave. The fact that you have to ask whether these platforms have any redeeming values, Following, suggests that you too have come to detest your existence there. I'm not sure I can convince you otherwise. If there remains anything constructive about social media, it's perhaps what it can teach us about human nature and the ways in which horrible effects can stem from good intentions.

In theology, this problem is called “theodicy,” the question of how evil can emerge in a world created by a being who is both entirely powerful and entirely good. Norbert Wiener, the father of cybernetics, once argued that theodicy might offer a useful way to think about our own role as technological creators. In his 1964 book God & Golem, Inc., he noted that many religious narratives, including “Paradise Lost” and the book of Job, suggest that the Creator is not in complete control of his creation—that these stories are only coherent “if we do not lose ourselves in the dogmas of omnipotence and omniscience.” God, in other words, is more limited than we believe him to be, and if that's true, then no creator can be in total control of their creation. Just as the world took its own course, despite God's benevolent intentions, the consequences of the digital tools we create cannot always be foreseen in advance.

And our limitations as creators will only become more pronounced as our technologies evolve in complexity. “The penalties for errors of foresight, great as they are now, will be enormously increased as automatization comes into its full use,” Wiener wrote. He proposed that we should regard human creators less like gods or prophets than like the character in a fable who discovers a magic lamp and must ask the genie to fulfill a wish. Creators must be extremely careful in how they word those wishes (genies, like machines, are prone to literalism)—as they cannot fully anticipate the ripple effects they might generate.

Creators like Dorsey and Mark Zuckerberg made platforms that turn users into limited creators themselves. Seemingly innocent posts can be taken out of context, go viral, and ruin the life of the poster turned creator—or find their way into some dank corner of the internet where they become fodder for conspiracy theories. These sites flatter us into believing we are the gods of our own cosmos, creating our own bespoke realities ex nihilo by choosing which accounts to follow, which posts to linger on, which threads to engage with. But each of these actions is encoded in algorithms that then perpetuate and intensify those choices, shaping and ultimately limiting our understanding of reality. Even as the breadth of our vision narrows, the echo chamber of consensus strengthens our belief in our views, leading us to believe that they are—we are—foolproof and omniscient.

The favored solution to these problems is, increasingly, eschatological. Many long for the arrival of a new world: Web3, the blockchain-based postdiluvian cosmos that will return the internet to its original, decentralized perfection. Dorsey has himself expressed skepticism about the promise of this New Jerusalem. In December, he received blowback from the Ethereum/blockchain crowd for suggesting on Twitter that Web3 was already in the hands of venture capitalist firms like Andreessen Horowitz. When one of the investors of that firm tweeted a quote that is often mistakenly attributed to Mahatma Gandhi, Dorsey replied, “You're a fund determined to be a media empire that can't be ignored … not Gandhi.”

Despite Dorsey's responsibility for some of these problems, his brand of skepticism might offer a model for the rest of us to emulate. Given our history of seeing the powerful as prophets, we would do well to remember that the “visionaries” of our age are not divine entities but ordinary humans who have stumbled on magical instruments they do not fully understand. (See: Elon Musk.) Whatever shape social media and the internet take in the future, one would hope we might reach a point where “constrained media”—Dorsey's preferred term for Twitter's minimalist ethos—becomes not merely an aesthetic criterion but a genuine ethical ambition.

Faithfully, Cloud

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