A techno-utopia is therefore an ideal society, in which laws, government, and social conditions are solely operating for the benefit and well-being of all its citizens, set in the near- or far-future, as advanced science and technology will allow these ideal living standards to exist; for example, post-scarcity, transformations in human nature, the avoidance or prevention of suffering and even the end of death.
Even today, the negative social effects of a technological utopia can be seen. Mediated communication such as phone calls, instant messaging and text messaging are steps towards a utopian world in which one can easily contact another regardless of time or location. However, mediated communication removes many aspects that are helpful in transferring messages. As it stands today, most text, email, and instant messages offer fewer nonverbal cues about the speaker’s feelings than do face-to-face encounters. This makes it so that mediated communication can easily be misconstrued and the intended message is not properly conveyed. With the absence of tone, body language, and environmental context, the chance of a misunderstanding is much higher, rendering the communication ineffective. In fact, mediated technology can be seen from a dystopian view because it can be detrimental to effective interpersonal communication. These criticisms would only apply to messages that are prone to misinterpretation as not every text based communication requires contextual cues.
Large technology companies have come to dominate the online experience, constantly gathering users’ personal data, often without their knowledge, and feeding it through proprietary algorithms to curate search results, recommendations, and news. Propagandists and extremists wishing to conceal their identities fund targeted ads and create armies of social media bots to push misleading or outright false content, robbing citizens of a basic understanding of reality. And authoritarians take advantage of technology to censor information and suppress dissent. The most sophisticated effort comes from China, which, in addition to its Great Firewall, is developing a system of “social credits,” which takes the idea of a credit score to its creepiest extension. The idea is to aggregate information from public and private records to assess citizens’ behavior, generating scores that can be used to determine their opportunities for employment, education, housing, and travel. China is using facial recognition and vast data to exert control over the ethnic Uyghurs in western China in a high-tech update of the mass surveillance and societal control of East Germany’s Stasi and, before that, Hitler’s Germany. Not only has the Internet been used to strengthen authoritarian states; it has also been used to weaken democracies.As detailed in the indictments issued in February by Robert Mueller, the U.S. special prosecutor investigating Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, Russian operatives created fake online personas aimed at spreading false information. It was run by the Internet Research Agency, an organization linked to the Russian government that is responsible for online influence operations. A particular goal was to depress African American turnout in order to hurt Clinton’s campaign. As an investigation by CNN found, one social media campaign called “Blacktivist” was actually a Russian troll operation; it had more “likes” on Facebook than the official Black Lives Matter page.
Those who organize disinformation campaigns on social media exploit commercial data-gathering and targeting systems. They sweep up personal data from a host of sources across different devices and categorize people by their behavior, interests, and demographics. Then, they target a given segment of users with ads and bots, which encourage users to like pages, follow accounts, and share information. In this way, disinformation campaigns weaponize digital platforms, whose algorithms seem to reward outrage because that is what keeps users engaged. As the scholar Zeynep Tufekci has found, YouTube’s recommendation algorithm steers viewers toward increasingly radical and extremist videos. Sites like InfoWars – a conspiracy theory site are frightening.
We must act now to prevent the further weaponization of the Internet against democracies and individuals attempting to exercise their human rights – and to do so without sacrificing democratic values such as freedom of expression. Dark money and dark data to undermine democracy are real threats. Digital platforms should find a way to offer users more context for the news their algorithms present. They might do so through some method of differentiating those news outlets that follow accepted journalistic practices (customs such as having a masthead, separating news from opinion, and issuing corrections) from those that do not. The platforms should be required to take down fake accounts and remove bots unless they are clearly labeled as such. The largest social media companies – Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube – need to be transparent about their content-moderation rules. Regulation might even require certain platforms to provide due-process protections for users whose content is taken down.
The spectre of 1984 is more real than ever before.