Dark Ages 2.0”: Social Media And Their Impact

Vom 25. Bis 29. Juni 2019 find­et in Urbino, Ital­ien, die »15th Inter­na­tion­al Con­fer­ence of Socio­cy­ber­net­ics« mit dem Titel »“Dark Ages 2.0”: Social Media And Their Impact« statt. WISSENSKULTUREN ist mit mehreren Vorträ­gen vertreten. Hier ein Auszug aus der Kon­feren­zankündi­gung:

In 2009 the ISA Research Com­mit­tee 51 on Socio­cy­ber­net­ics host­ed its annu­al con­fer­ence in Urbino. The title of the con­fer­ence was »Moder­ni­ty 2.0: emerg­ing social media tech­nolo­gies and their impact«. Along the line of vision­ary found­ing fathers of cyber­net­ics and sys­tems the­o­ry, the call solicit­ed inter­dis­ci­pli­nary con­tri­bu­tion to explore the pos­si­bil­i­ties and tack­ling the chal­lenges of a “new extra­or­di­nary change that we can bare­ly describe today”. A decade lat­er, hav­ing wit­nessed the first impact of social media on soci­ety, it is about time to call for a new socio­cy­ber­net­ic forum to reflect on what we learned so far and the future per­spec­tives.

The antic­i­pat­ed dis­rup­tive poten­tials of dig­i­tal and social media unleashed on our soci­ety but the out­comes appear to be dark­er than what envi­sioned by schol­ars ten years ago. The entire indus­try is heav­i­ly con­cen­trat­ed in the hands of few orga­ni­za­tions (Face­book, Google, Ama­zon, Apple and Microsoft). Our medi­at­ed pri­vate and pub­lic con­ver­sa­tions increas­ing­ly take place on pow­er­ful plat­forms owned by pri­vate orga­ni­za­tions that, in a clas­sic feed­back loop, lever­age these data to tar­get adver­tise­ments tai­lored to our tastes and pref­er­ences. Con­tents on these plat­forms are sort­ed and fil­tered by pro­pri­etary algo­rithms that pri­or­i­tize most engag­ing con­tents. Traf­fic to news source is increas­ing­ly dri­ven by these algo­rithms and so are their rev­enues. For the first time in his­to­ry, a hand­ful of glob­al pri­vate orga­ni­za­tions are more pow­er­ful and rich than an entire coun­try. At the same time, their man­age­ment appears unable to address prob­lem­at­ic issues such as mis­in­for­ma­tion and dis­in­for­ma­tion spread­ing ram­pant on social media plat­forms and mes­sag­ing apps. The goal of mak­ing the “world more open and con­nect­ed” comes with unin­tend­ed con­se­quences. Bil­lions of peo­ple inter­act­ing in an unprece­dent­ed com­plex medi­at­ed dig­i­tal envi­ron­ment proved to be hard to gov­ern even for the own­er of the plat­form itself.

Once again, the orig­i­nal issues of steer­ing and con­trol­ling at the roots of cyber­net­ics seems to be a core con­cept to under­stand a soci­ety where human beings increas­ing­ly inter­act through and with machines. The dialec­tic between con­trol of this plat­forms (and lack of there­of) is cen­tral to face some of the main chal­lenges of con­tem­po­rary soci­ety. The exploita­tion of behav­iours and indi­vid­ual choic­es, of con­tents gen­er­at­ed and shared by users feed the algo­rithms and cre­ate the inter­nal order. And, at the same time, the vari­ety pro­duced by indi­vid­u­als is used to increase the inter­nal com­plex­i­ty of the sys­tem itself. Vis­i­ble per­ma­nent pub­lic con­ver­sa­tions and inter­ac­tions are increas­ing­ly scru­ti­nized and ana­lyzed to get a real time pulse of the pub­lic opin­ion. As a result, these real time quan­ti­fied atten­tion indi­ca­tors become a tar­get worth to be hacked through unau­then­tic users and behav­iours aimed at inflat­ing likes, shares and reach­es of cer­tain con­tents and ideas. In a quin­tes­sen­tial exem­pli­fi­ca­tion of the effects of self-obser­va­tion in social sys­tems, the pub­lic opin­ion observed through the dis­tort­ed mir­ror of social media affects cit­i­zen opin­ions and behav­iors. The whole mis­in­for­ma­tion and dis­in­for­ma­tion issue filed under the “fake news” label calls into account the role played by the observ­er and the divi­sive­ness, point­ed out by Heinz von Foer­ster, brought by those claim­ing to speak the Truth. Claude Shannon’s orig­i­nal con­cept of infor­ma­tion as a func­tion of the prob­a­bil­i­ties help to explain why made up news tend to trav­el fast and spread quick­er than legit­i­mate news sto­ries. Fur­ther­more, Luhmann’s descrip­tion of the codes that dif­fer­en­ti­ate func­tion­al sys­tems in mod­ern soci­ety sup­ports the idea of a co-exis­tence of mul­ti­ple dif­fer­ent per­spec­tive that goes beyond the dis­tinc­tion between true and false (or the domain of the sys­tem of sci­ence).