Perils of uncontrolled exposure: conclusions and way forward

The first perfunctory observation is that SM is Janus-faced with good and bad sides of exposure

Inam Ul Haque May 23, 2024
The writer is a retired major general and has an interest in International Relations and Political Sociology. He can be reached at and tweets @20_Inam


Previously in this space, themes and broad strands that carry the current onslaught of uncontrolled exposure to social media were outlined, such as obsession with current affairs; the endemic negativity; being critical of everything without offering constructive alternatives; individual complexes, not objectivity and rationality, driving the discourse; effects of availability of a platform and audience for all, and finally; AI manipulating SMN. This piece will draw some broad conclusions and discuss whether humanity would be able to internalise this wave of technology without losing its humanness.

The first perfunctory observation is that SM is Janus-faced with good and bad sides of exposure. Like all things human, growing up is a tedious process shaped by parents, siblings, peers and the environment. This entire process has checks and balances in the form of parents, elders, teachers and broader societal forces. Human beings are tutored, guided and mentored all along. Replacing this time-tested process with SM’s inappropriate and over-exposure, mostly unguided, has its own pitfall.

For example, early exposure to pornography, which today constitutes one-third content on the internet (the other two being ‘infotainment’ and ‘gaming’). Premature exposure may affect studies in formative years, dissipating focus and concentration. Even adult exposure to some content through the dark web may be deeply unsettling, socially and morally unacceptable, and outright illegal.

Secondly, universal education and learning about anything under the sun is now pervasive, and inexpensively possible. Be it the side-effects of some medicine; or information about a leader, an era, or an event in history; or theories of philosophy or anything in sciences, you have it on the fingertips through an inexpensive smartphone. Although AI is increasingly addressing the accuracy issues with the content, the broader concern is that SM has begun to overtake teachers, professionals like doctors, and cohort, making places of learning redundant in most cases.

Thirdly, this wave of ubiquitous and uncontrolled SM exposure is redefining social relations like never before. There is a paradigm shift in human learning and experiences, affecting and redefining intra-human sociology. Picture a family before an evening meal with all glued to their cellphones, surfing the virtual world rather than the real physical world. It is creating perceptive distance between family members sharing a roof, and a gulf between these human bots, and the not so IT/SM-savvy humanity. Today, humans seek friendship with AI-generated avatars and chatbots, transforming human sociability. What would be its effects on society, and where would this wave end, if at all. Will humanity be able to internalise this smartphone-generated SM deluge like all technological waves before it, the jury is still out.

Fourthly, big data is today more powerful than established governance mechanisms. Analytica of all kinds drives corporate world and international governance. Governments rely on SMN, like X (former Twitter), WhatsApp, to some extent on Facebook and TikTok, to disseminate their messages…real, fake, or manipulative. Even powerful countries are at the mercy of Google and Microsoft, for example, whose assets are distributed worldwide to avoid scrutiny and punitive regulation. Big daddies like Elon Musk, Sundar Pichai, Satya Nadell, Andy Jassy and Jim Lanzone of this world increasingly set the global agenda. Nations are still grasping to regulate AI, which would be well-nigh impossible with more time wasted. Inject some rouge actors, and humanity has a crisis like never before.

Fifthly, non-regulated AI and its increasing pervasiveness while affecting human life also affects the scale and scope of conflict and warfare. As in Gaza, a weaponised SM has broadened conflict to societal levels. This may redefine the rules of warfare alongside the implements of war. There is already movement towards declaring attacks on electrical grids, for example, as crimes against humanity, as electrical disruption affects non-combatants more than the combatants.

And lastly, the SM stranglehold on leadership. Whereas everyone today faces the challenge of keeping the perspective right while meandering through the SM deluge, leaders at the top are particularly vulnerable. Look at the fickleness of conducting SM-influenced foreign policy recently. After Bishkek rioting targeting Pakistani students, the Government fearing a domestic backlash, in a knee-jerk reaction decided to send the Deputy Prime Minister/FM-combine and another Minister, only to be embarrassingly advised otherwise by the Kyrgyz Government. Exercise of leadership under SM exposure without gut, vision, determination and intellectual robustness is almost impossible. Moreover, the role of a weaponised SM in organising these riots is a given, after circulation of manipulated content.

In the crazy world of social media, nobody is popular or stays popular forever, as tables are easily and frequently turned. Those basking in its transient glory today need to realise that it is a perceptual world representing a typical stratum, and it is not a barometer of rationality for basing decisions.

Picking responses to uncontrolled SM is equally challenging, hence some cherry-picking. First, without being reactive, we need to stem SM tide to protect young people especially from SM’s uncontrolled exposure, besides ensuring social harmony. Some regulatory controls at government level like blocking and suspending some streams as in X (Twitter); some at the big-tech level like controlling screen time, deployment of filters for unwanted content, more robust verifications, content-purges, etc; and passing some responsibility to parents, might work ‘temporarily’. In the long run its absorption of this wave of technology by humanity at large, and that is crystal-gazing.

Second, continuous education and creating more channels for propagation of authentic news, correct narratives, besides exposing falsehoods are critical. The efforts need to highlight the perils of ‘no-holds-barred freedoms’ as unchecked freedoms have costs — psychological, social, financial and emotional. Similarly, phishing, hostile, manipulative and fake sites need to be known and made known on a regular and continuous basis. Again, quality education would be the ultimate panacea.

It is admittedly a losing battle; however, efforts should be focused on ‘counter-narrative’ and ‘authenticity of information’ as ‘quickly as possible’ to make some difference. When I searched how the future looks like, Google said in 2030, we will have lightning speed internet, 6G, Wi-fi7 and satellites. Virtual and augmented reality would be the next big technology; and by 2050, there would be more integration (and hopefully peace) between quantum computing, nanotechnology, augmented reality, metaverse, human brain, AI, etc. And maybe that is the elusive absorption of this wave of technology.

Maybe. I keep my fingers crossed!

Published in The Express Tribune, May 23rd, 2024.

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