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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 04-05-2024 05:37

The perils of cyberspace

A world in which everybody is electronically connected to everybody else and to the Internet is not one in which people feel closer to one another. Engrossed as they are with the talking pixels they see before them, they do their best to steer clear of flesh-and-blood creatures.

Technophiles look forward to the day when everyone will have a computer implanted in his or her brain and, they predict, will be able to get in touch with all other members of the human race. We are nearly there already. Throughout the world, city streets are full of people holding smartphones inches from their noses into which they speak loudly to someone who may be within shouting distance or a continent away.

On occasion, this can be disconcerting: the respectable-looking lady you think is showering you with endearments as she passes by, is not propositioning you but chatting with her husband, or someone else she is especially fond of. It can also be dangerous. A world in which everybody is electronically connected to everybody else and to the Internet is not one in which people feel closer to one another. Engrossed as they are with the talking pixels they see before them, they do their best to steer clear of flesh-and-blood creatures.

And, as those who are interested in social media warn us, most are happy to let themselves be herded by algorithms into “silos” that are reserved for men and women who share their preferences and prejudices, which encourages an us-against-them mentality. Many believe this has spurred the rapid rise of the extremely divisive “identity politics” that is plaguing so many developed countries.

Not surprisingly, governments everywhere are taking a keen interest in what is going on. Some, like the Chinese, welcome it wholeheartedly: Xi Jinping and his associates assume that, with Artificial Intelligence (AI) striding ahead, technology will soon provide them with the means to control their subjects’ private thoughts and quickly weed out anyone who is rash enough to dissent from the official truth. They are vigorously making the most of the advantages it gives them at home and are extending their reach to other parts of the world. When it comes to prying into people’s minds, George Orwell’s Big Brother with his pathetically antiquated television screens was a primitive amateur in comparison to the Chinese Communist Party big shots.

Though many other governments are tempted to do the same, in democratic countries they feel obliged to go about it in a less intrusive manner. Nonetheless, it is now routine for people in power in the United States, Europe and elsewhere to accuse their opponents of inventing fake news and employing armies of trolls who dedicate themselves to trashing honest politicians, some of whom have resented this so much that they have gone into a premature retirement Allegedly, this is something Javier Milei – whose followers are very active in the social media – is doing in an effort to make sure he wins the “culture war” he is waging against his foes.

In addition to the political risks posed by the proliferation of sophisticated devices that can be used to manipulate reality and make it even harder than it was before to distinguish between what is true and what is false, there are problems involving the effects they are having on younger people. Over the years, many millions of them have grown up surrounded by computer screens, big, small and tiny, which tell them what the world they live in is all about. Their universe is not the same as the one that previous generations knew. Is this good for them or for society as a whole?

Of course, it has always been normal for older people to say their juniors have gone soft because they have had it too easy, but – with the possible exception of those whose homelands suffered a violent revolution or were invaded by foreigners belonging to a very different civilisation – few have lived through changes in the mental environment that were comparable to those caused by the arrival of the Internet. For years, most went almost unnoticed, but as awareness spread that not all the consequences of the technological revolution that is taking place can be considered positive, demands that something be done to slow it down, as those alarmed by AI insist is necessary, are becoming more frequent.

After belatedly looking into the matter, many have come to the conclusion that it is not a good thing. Convinced that, by sidelining them and exploiting their offspring, the tech billionaires have brought about a social catastrophe, the adults are now fighting back. The British government, backed by well over half of those consulted by opinion pollsters, wants to ban the sale of smartphones to children under the age of 16. 

In France, the authorities are slightly less ambitious; they plan to make it illegal for those under 13 to have a smartphone, though they would also bar those under 18 from acceding to social media networks such as TikTok and Instagram, on the grounds that children are becoming a mere commodity in the technological market that has sprung up and made some companies amazingly rich. And in the United States, where all this got started, congressional committees have taken to hauling the tech plutocrats over the coals for what they have done to their compatriots.

In societies in which it is common for toddlers to be given smartphones, and many mums and dads are happy to see them kept entertained by electronic devices, legislation designed to shield youngsters from what the Internet has on offer will be angrily denounced as unacceptably authoritarian, as an example of what an evil “nanny state” thinks it is entitled to do. Equally aghast will be those individuals who have made a successful career telling politicians and teachers that the Internet is a wonderful educational tool they should invest huge amounts of money in.

At first sight, that way of looking at things may seem plausible enough, but experience has long shown that, for children, having desktop computers around, let alone smartphones, is decidedly unhelpful. According to a French researcher, it has negative effects “in terms of eyesight, metabolism, intelligence, concentration and cognitive processes” on those exposed to it. In other words, the experiment that has been undertaken by enthusiastic technophiles with the approval, or at least the acquiescence, of most governments, has already done great harm to a generation of young people and, if allowed to continue, will be certain to do permanent damage to the next one. ​

James Neilson

James Neilson

Former editor of the Buenos Aires Herald (1979-1986).

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