BEIRUT: If you are reading this text, you are most likely looking at a screen, emitting the reflection of these words as a form of light into your eyes, creating an image that is transmitted to your brain for processing and identifying where a stimulus is generated whether simply by recognizing and classifying this image or by reacting to it.
The process of looking at your screen might actually have started earlier today, when your phone wake up alarm went off, alerting you that it’s time to get up and start your day. After multiple snooze trials, you reach for your phone and you check the exact time but your attention really goes to the multiple notifications you’ve got ranging from emails received, WhatsApp messages and other social media applications.
Being curious by nature, you start by quickly checking the different messages on your screen, unconsciously transporting you to the outside world, exposing your brain to a large amount of information while you are still lingering in your bed, resisting the temptation to get up and face the real-life daily challenges. Exposure to interactive screens can vary from phones, tablets, smartwatches and TVs, Virtual Reality headsets, etc., but their main function is almost always the same, acting as a virtual portal letting you reach out to the world and extend your presence well beyond your physical body.
We will limit the above examples to the usage of smartphones – these are personal, the phone is yours and it belongs to you, always locked and protected for the simple reason to forbid other people from checking its content. The smartphone is a digital extension of you and the available applications that you’ve decided to install on your device are nothing but the digital fingerprint of the phone’s owner.
While genuine human interaction and cooperation for a person with others are limited to almost a group of one hundred people or so (family, friends, work, etc.), anything above this will usually be based on gossips and unverified information. The average Facebook user has 338 friends and is following another 200 profiles on Instagram, business and personal profiles combined. These numbers can vary rapidly if we assess the numbers by age range, geographical area, and occupation.
Status and reputation are important as we are social by nature. It’s well known that the serotonin system governs your emotions and help regulate your mood and social behavior, it affects how people respond to you and what they think of you. That’s probably why you are constantly checking yourFacebook and Instagram accounts (and many other social apps) as well as your messages and obsessing continually about your online presence, contacting people frantically and seeing what the updates are.
Without paying attention and after a short period of time, this becomes your casual habit unconsciously you start “browsing” through the different stories, posted pictures and statuses. Well, what’s wrong about that? There is nothing wrong about that as long as you really care about seeing stories, pictures, and comments about people that you’ve probably never met or can’t even remember their names - Ok I understand you also directly follow some brands, political or religious groups and companies but that won’t change the scenery a lot.
Let’s say for example that you would like to read a book or subscribe to a certain magazine like theFT or Forbes if you are in finance, ELLE for a touch of beauty and fashion or simply the SportIllustrated if you are interested in sports (and the cover models of course), you manage in advance your expectations in term of content and information that you judge are of interest to you, confirming your choice by the monthly subscription you pay.
You are probably asking yourself what is all this fuss about, thinking that you can easily minimize the people, figures and companies that you follow on social media based on your interests. Ok, maybe, most likely for some, but have you ever wondered what is the big difference here? It’s really obvious now and simple, yet very complex: most of your social media applications are “Free of Charge”. If
it’s free, you are probably the product. After a certain number of likes, shares, tags, and posts, an algorithm will predict your opinions and desires better than anyone that you’ve known. To give a real-life example, Cambridge Analytics managed to identify the voting intention in the last USA presidential elections for more than 30 million Facebook users. Facebook claims that it actually collected the profiles of 87 million users. Your emotions could be directly controlled by other people, companies or organizations and maybe change your voting position, by injecting directly to your screen the proper images, texts and videos.
This might be the most known case for mass emotions manipulation and voting swing, at least it was publicly exposed and discussed, but do you relate now to the different Arab spring movements and other mass movements and reactions? I’ll leave the rest to your imagination...
Meanwhile, no one can deny that the usage of the current technologies and available applications is essential on the personal level. It allows us to talk to friends, share photos and videos follow the news and current events, learn about new products, share views and opinions on different topics.
Our lives have become digital, our friends virtual, everything we would like to know is just a few clicks away but we are constantly exposed to second-hand information. Next time you are facing your screen, make sure to remember that you are a small but an important part of a bigger chain and that everything you do, read or believe matters.
Jean Saïfi received an engineering degree from ESIB, USJ and a masters in management from SKEMA business school. He is an expert in innovation and strategy as well as a lecturer at the faculty of engineering, USJ.
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