They are, after all, our little pieces of magic that connect us to everyone, everywhere, at any hour of the day.
Because of Covid and the restrictions imposed on our social lives, we’ve been scrolling and making purchases on them at a ferocious rate. Which is all very well, but when you think about it, who wants to be a slave to technology? And slaves we are.
Back in 2009, the American biologist, Edward O Wilson, said that “the real problem of humanity is the following: we have Palaeolithic emotions, medieval institutions, and godlike technology.”
It behoves us to be aware that we are being manipulated every time we check our phones. But then, awareness of the way we’re being influenced is rarely to the fore.
Instead, as we slump on our couches in the evening, following work, we seem to find it impossible to put our phones aside and concentrate on reading a book or watching TV. (As I read, I have the phone next to me and think nothing of checking it, after finishing reading a sentence. It doesn’t even feel like distraction anymore.)
The renowned science fiction writer, Arthur C Clarke, once famously stated that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”. Our smartphones have magical qualities so that if, say, we are climbing a mountain, we can show our friends hundreds or thousands of miles away what we’re at. A selfie on the mountain top shared is all that’s asked of us and it will garner ‘likes’ and comments, making us feel connected and popular.
It seems it’s no good any longer to do a solitary mountain climb, engage with nature and relate the experience to our friends after it happened. We mostly want to share it NOW. We live to document our experiences and disseminate them instantly.
In truth, as John Lanchester, author of Reality And Other Stories, says: “We are never away, never alone, never unseeable.”
While Lanchester acknowledges that smartphones are “miraculous” devices and one of humanity’s greatest achievements, “the issue is whether we can cope with them”.
He points out that we “lack laws to control the things that pour into our heads through our phones”. We haven’t had time “to develop psychological resistance to all the deliberate manipulation taking place”.
However, history suggests that both things will come in time.
The most basic fix for social media would be to “treat the platform the same way we treat other publishers and give them responsibility for the content they host. This would break their existing business models, which would be a good thing for society as a whole.”
Schools should teach pupils, perhaps in ethics classes, how to spot fake news, as well as spot the tools and techniques of manipulation.
This would call for initial hyper-awareness and gradual disenchantment.
This is more pertinent than ever, given a new and powerful technique called generative adversarial networks (Gans), which uses tools from artificial intelligence machine learning. It involves creating completely new images. The images cannot be distinguished from reality.
Gans is capable of creating images such as the ones you can see at thispersondoesnotexist.com. Take a look. The ‘people’ are not real human beings but the creation of a Gan. They are so utterly convincing and can be used in ‘deepfakes’.
With the next wave of technological magic coming speedily down the line, it’s important that we see it for what it is.
Deepfakes are false images in which faces, bodies and voices are manipulated to make images of real people doing things they did not do and did not say. They began life in pornography but now, they are said to be arriving in the world of politics and propaganda. The potential outcome could be utterly devastating. There’s nothing benign about this type of technological development.
As Lanchester points out, when it comes to older media, we’ve had time to develop laws and norms as well as our own understanding and scepticism to resist the tools for capturing our attention. Shouty headlines, for example, do not inevitably make us buy a particular newspaper. We’re a bit more savvy than that.
And if we succumb, we are making the purchase with the awareness that our nosiness has been triggered. But we can take it or leave it.
Unfortunately, we’re still in thrall to our smart phones. Be very careful...