How Facebook and LinkedIn make you stupid (in completely different ways)

Encouraging bad behavior or monotony of thought

If any technology has fallen from grace in the past few years, it is social media. Gone are the days in which Facebook and Twitter were praised for their ability to coordinate mass popular movements such as those which fueled the Arab Spring of 2011. Today’s views of social media are broadly hostile to its contributions to democracy, not least by how the deluge of fake news and political vitriol have poisoned reasoned debate. If you’ve ever debated online with a Trump supporter, or a Brexiteer, you probably know what I mean. But the left (particularly young progressives) has done no service to itself by adopting the same angry, intolerant rhetoric, perhaps more worryingly, even against its own kind.

However, not all social media is the same. Recently, I read a comment about how fake news is practically non-existent on LinkedIn, the professional networking site. This raises some interesting questions on what it is about Facebook that makes it so uniquely prone to be subverted by vitriol. However, LinkedIn is not free of its own original sin.

Facebook and our second life

The key point to consider about social interaction on Facebook is the low, in some cases no-existent, negative payoff of bad behavior. By bad behavior I will consider the three main ones that are prevalent on that site (in no particular order of severity): 1) fake news, 2) extremist opinions (mainly racism and misogyny), and 3) hostile discourse. None of these three are present in “real life” interaction, at least in civilized environments, to the degree that they are found in social media and there’s two main reasons for that. The first is payoff. There is a lot of discourse on social media whose content or tone would be met with a punch in the face in real life. If not a punch, at least some other form of visible disapproval that could cause embarrassment or a reputational hit, such as walking out on a dinner conversation, a formal complaint to superiors, etc. People on social media suffer very few consequences for the material that they post or share but in turn, gain considerably from the approval of like-minded individuals which are easier to come across in the global society that the internet creates. Facebook almost makes stupidity a rational choice. Continue reading

Steven Pinker’s dangerous optimism

How to defend the status quo by giving humanity props it doesn’t deserve

Are we high on humanity? Despite the pessimism over the return of right-wing populism, religious fundamentalism, gun violence, and stagnating prosperity in the West, two recent events can give us hope that some degree of optimism about the destiny of our species is not entirely unwarranted. For starters, we recently accomplished the singular feat of sending a car to space, orbiting permanently (and pointlessly) around the globe in order to remind us of the supreme narcissism of its previous, earthly owner Elon Musk. The other, is the publication of Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now, a quasi-sequel to his bestselling The Better Angels of Our Nature. Both books follow the same basic plot line: humanity has never had it so good. By every measurable standard of progress, we are leaps and bounds better than any generation before us. Stop complaining.

If optimism is a religion, the Canadian-born Pinker is its high priest. The religious analogy is not unfounded: Pinker defends his thesis with a zeal that is uncommon outside of theistic circles, admonishing his critics and presenting absurd arguments even in topics where he has little or no academic authority. In a recent article in Popular Science, he argues that we should not fear AI being smarter than humans any more than we had to fear airplanes being faster than eagles because “someday they will swoop out of the sky and seize our cattle”. For someone defending the use of reason, an argument like that almost begs ridicule. Sadly, his perennial defense of human progress comes with an unfortunate by-product: it becomes a thinly disguised support of the economic and political status quo. If this makes you uneasy, just remember how much wealthier and healthier you are compared to your great-great-great-grandfather.

End of story, so it goes. Continue reading