Thursday, February 27, 2014
On Social Media PART I: The Ghost In The Network
If you have ever seen The Matrix you will be familiar with the concept of life taking place in two places: one in the "real world" and the other in a digital mainframe that constitutes an ideal representation of our world. In the film the matrix can physically be entered and exited through a series of wires and servers that transmit a persons' consciousness to and from the mainframe. Freedom— it is said in the film—comes when one is able to unplug from the matrix at will and even master it by bending "reality" from the inside.
"Do not try to bend the spoon—that’s impossible. Only try to realize the truth", an enlightened boy posited to Neo, the main character.
"What truth?" he replies.
"There is no spoon."
We don't (yet) plug into a simulated experience like humans do in The Matrix, but we do create avatars of ourselves that think like us, feel like us, and act like us. My question is: when does the avatar start thinking for us?
What if I were to propose to you that we have already begun the process of forming, living in, and assimilating into the matrix (or what I am going to call "the Network") here in the real world? Social media has created a whole 'nother universe that parallels our own which is slowly starting to become the catalyst for real world interactions. In this five part series, I would like to pick apart the uses of social media in order to evaluate its purpose in society and its potential for molding the real world around us. You don't need me to convince you of the power of the social network. You probably ran across this blog post through someone in your network. Its ubiquitous nature is undeniable, but its power has largely gone unchecked or unevaluated. This is my attempt…
Before I begin in detail I would like to set out a few presuppositions before you. First, I am assuming that the brain works in a network. Each synapse in your brain correlates to a certain idea, construct, or action and is connected to other synapses via electrical and chemical firings that are prompted by external or internal stimuli. (Where this impetus comes from no one [that I know of] knows) Likewise, I am assuming that the electrical wiring that makes computers—and consequently, the Network—function also fires between nodes in a similar manner.
Input --> connection^x --> pattern --> output.
The now infamous Edward Snowden leaks revealed something interesting about the nature of digital imprints. The NSA, he said, can gather bulk data on users including their social media posts and create webs of associations and patterns of activity. Now, if webs and patterns can be formed by persons' activities does it not stand to reason that these patterns—which will most likely replicate themselves over time due to the nature of behavioral patterns—could be interpreted to predict behavior? Furthermore, could these patterns of digital connections essentially mirror brain activity? For example, let's just that synapses X, Y, and Z are being used to form idea A^1. Now if that same idea is expressed within the network then a pattern will also manifest in electrical impulses in the electronic world. Let's call that pattern A, B, and C = A^2. Therefore, it would stand to reason that X+Y+Z = A+B+C. The only difference is the realm or world that the pattern takes place in—either the real world or the Network.
If real world experiences are indeed mirrored in the Network then a ghost—or a digital imprint of those recorded activities—exists permanently within the ether of the Network. If enough of these patterns form and replicate over time then they could form a metapattern that could essentially predict behavior in the "real world" given certain stimuli. The advantage that the Network has is that it functions with the might and power of the processing capabilities of the servers on which they are housed. Due to the multi-billion dollar backing of the Network by The Corporation—for all practical purposes—these connections are made instantly. Therefore, for the avid social media user their lives are being mirrored; interpreted and processed; and conclusions and predictions drawn—all in real-time.
Are there any benefits to this process? Surely. The advantages are that if someone is self-criticizing enough then they can monitor their patterns and alter them based on their desired outcome (their ideal avatar of themselves). The disadvantages are more numerous. Not many folks take the time to look backwards and evaluate their words and actions. Mostly they continue along their own linear timelines and make decisions based on the illusion that they have a choice. (Behavioral patterns and inclinations are predetermined even if individual actions are not.)
If every move you make is recorded on the Network then a ghost of yourself is imprinted there that—thanks to privacy policies and content agreements—exists apart from yourself. In short, a ghost of you exists in the digital world that has a life of its own. You don't control it. (Even scarier—someone owns it.)
In a recent interview on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, Michio Kaku a theoretical physicist and all around smart guy noted that the Obama administration has approved a $1B project to map the connections of the brain to make a person's personality available to future generations after their body has died. If a stationary map can be made of the brain then why could not some catalyst charge give it the impetus to repeat its patterns? It could think. You could think. Outside your body.
Now, humans are meant to be in community. No person exists outside of the connections they've made with other living beings or the "outside world". If your personhood is stored and firing in a digital file that produces a personality and we are a compassionate society then you would think that we would try to connect your newly extrabiological and transcendent presence into a community of like-minds (see what I did there?).
I think that social media is the first step in mapping these connections in a community. By creating patterns of our actions, affections, and platitudes we are creating a digital imprint or ghost in the Network. We are creating idealized portraits of ourselves to interact with other people's idealized portraits of themselves. In this way we are creating a rudimentary parallel world where these ghosts interact. One day this process holds the potential to hold our consciousnesses and allow them to exist solely in the ether. We can't plug in yet, but the mapping has begun.
I do think that the ghosts are starting to act on our behalf. Do I think that our digital imprints have somehow gained consciousness and are purposefully affecting or daily decisions? No, not yet. However, in the little under a decade or so that social media has exists think about how many electrical (neural) pathways have been created between people, ideas, activities (history), and a plethora of other experiences. These pathways (or patterns) have already begun to be processed. How do you think that advertisements are tailored just for you? I recently read an article that said that megachain Target's algorithm can predict when a woman is pregnant before even she knows based on her activity. If Target can do it think about what the higher sciences can do. Furthermore, how many “real life” arguments have you had thanks to a wrong “like” here or messaging the wrong person there? Why did it matter? Because your pattern is you.
In this five part series on social media I want to explore the reasons why I (and we) use this Network and if it is worth being plugged into the matrix. In the interest of transparency I will warn you that I am writing this as a sort of meta-external-processing in which I am going to try to figure out whether I want to continue plugging in. This is my journey evaluating and attempting to check the power of the Network before it has the power to say, "I am" (and I am not).
The Network seems to offer four basic functions: Entertainment, External Processing, Networking, and Medicine.