Op Ed : Mental health, stress, privacy and fear in the world of Big Tech
It’s that time of the year again, logging onto Facebook and checking out that “friendly” race to see who is having the most exotic or expensive or happiest holiday of all them photos of all, silently thanking ourselves for cutting the Facebook habit 8 years ago even if we still have 2 accounts each and our deceased auntie’s account is still intact 7 years after her passing.
The pain of Facebook lives on as we recall the kid’s primary schoolmate who confided in us then that he felt ostracised by his parent’s indiscrete stream of his photos on his timeline that led to some shaming in school and we do know that the coolest thing these days for the teens is to post that photo of a new tattoo or the nose ring or just that cigarette dangling off the hand (illegal to be seen smoking) on Instagram and goodness, we have seen enough of those that the kid bothers to share with you. That makes us feel absolutely no regret in allowing the kid the liberty to swear at a young age because they can tell their haters to “f” off (thus no need to prove anything with the tattoo?), for a dose of wild parenting advice that has worked in that there has been no struggle with teenage depression or body image issues so far.
Spared of the “Like’s” and “Hate’s” anxiety which is the stress if one does not garner more “Likes” than one’s peers, the rule of thumb is to logon on that Facebook account once a week to like 10 posts just so as not to be antisocial but the Facebook algorithm must be screwed up because now we only keep seeing those same 10 people instead of the rest of the our friends. There is definitely no regret, again, when we just did not feel like telling people what we had for dinner even if it looked much better than your friend’s (or post that business class air ticket stub to show off because now we know it is a bad idea!).
Criminals must be hard at work during this festive season when we let our guards down because we have more spam than ever these which means someone’s phone must have been hacked again or some personal data directory somewhere out there compromised, and to think we have 2 phones – one number for all the directories and stuff which we will Never Answer, and the one for friends. Now when we start getting spam on the “friends” phone, it is likely that one of them got hacked and the time-consuming exercise of blocking all those Whatsapp pop-ups for loan sharks, real estate gimmicks, online gambling and such like, shuddering at the idea our personal information is out there for sale on the dark web and wondering if our photos are out there for criminal use even if we have not posted a photo of our boarding pass.
It is not just us now because the sentiments are turning very quickly against Facebook which started as a good thing for society and mankind when we fell in love with our accounts over a decade ago before falling out of love with it just a few years later. Research shows media reporting bias against Facebook since the last US elections and governments, including Singapore’s, have come out harshly against it with Singapore telling Facebook to correct a post under a new fake news law just last month. Indeed public opinion is swinging against social media as actor Sacha Baron Cohen slammed Facebook and the “Silicon Six”, a group of social media billionaires (Mark Zuckerberg, Sundar Pichai, Larry Page, Sergey Brin, Susan Wojcicki and Jack Dorsey = Facebook, Google/Alphabet/Youtube and Twitter), for creating the “greatest propaganda machine in history”, propagating hate speech and caring about the “hits”(profits/share price) more than protecting democracy.
These are mentally debilitating times and we wonder if social media has made us meaner people as well with our voices amplified a million times over, the more radically charged the comments, the more attention they will get as Donald Trump has realised since 2012 when he called for a revolution after then President Obama’s re-election. Even Bloomberg has switched to paying reporters more if their stories move the markets.
“The Internet, like the printing press before it, has empowered reformers. It has also empowered hucksters, war proﬁteers, terrorists, and bigots.” – New Yorker
“Twitter attracts, selects, and elevates mean and crazy people. BUT, it also makes even nice, grounded people act meaner and crazier. AND, it makes people sound meaner and crazier than they mean to sound. It’s a highly efficient factory for producing meanness and craziness. I am not even slightly immune. I say mean/crazy stuff on here I’d never say in real life. And even nice/sensible stuff I say comes off as mean/crazy to many. The first one is excepted anyway. Nice economists use this place as a refuge from the many mean ones. But even econ Twitter probably has more fights and beefs and rants and petty stuff than that same group of nice economists would have if they hung out in person” – Noah Smith on Twitter
There is also something about privacy that you can never reclaim once you lost it and for those of us who value that privacy, life has become hell. And you realise it when you check out that Starbucks cup in the bin at home and find a random name because the kid did not want to give his real name. You stop naming your parents Mom and Dad on your phone directory in case your phone gets hacked or lost and they get called for some scam.
Life has become nothing but fear and you feel that pang of anxiety when the car salesman disappears with your identity card and wonder if the photocopy will leak into a criminal’s hands. You guard your behaviour on social media because social media accounts are vetted by employers and immigration departments and defense departments and more.
Your privacy – DNA, face scans, fingerprints and all are at risk in this age of surveillance capitalism where your smart TV is spying on you (in another FBI warning) or on the next data breach that we read about every week, the latest in Singapore would be the Friday revelation that 48,000 students, parents and staff had their data stolen in 2016 which was 2 years ago and your heart sinks when you realise the car salesman has a copy of your payslip too (as well as the identity card). It is just as well that you have not downloaded a single new app that asked for more than your email in the past 3 years or signed up for any new membership out there that required your IC number while resisting the facial recognition phone or as many forms of facial recognition anything in our lives while pitying the poor Chinese who are now subjected to facial recognition scans just to get a SIM card. For the sake of having led a squeaky clean and boring life?
No. We start staying at home more because we are sometimes afraid of getting blamed for something we did not do and we do not understand why people are happy that the lift lobby has those in-your-face image readers because images can be edited as easily as text.
For we do not mind a bit if the data is under government protection (minus the bit that even Singhealth got hacked) but we worry about losing our minds to the big data A.I. out there under the controls of Google and gang which doctors your search results to blacklist websites, favour big businesses and edit your autofill responses to control and shape what you see and how you think! Much like how Facebook’s and Twitter’s algorithms control our newsfeeds.
We cannot assume we are smart enough because we now know that Facebook has the ability to rig elections and none other than the US elections. Right now Amazon workers are listening to what you tell Alexa and know your home address at the same time. Facebook employees have access to millions of passwords and photos are harvested by an Israeli firm for profits.
Yes, that DNA information can be sold to murder your insurance premiums or the Google Maps can rat on those brothel visits or how many steps you take per day. Your Apps know where you were and that information is priceless.
Yet it also serves in the name of justice because phone cameras have helped capture police brutality and other misdeeds and social media has exposed famous figures as sexual harassers etc. but encourages the injustice of false accusations, cancel culture and, with the exception of the EU, the right to be forgotten.
The convenience of hooking up for meals with friends, buying stuff, watching TV, playing games and all is compromised by constant surveillance by big data and lead to pricing discrimination, subliminal persuasions (thought control) and even your credit rating score which has been taken a step further by the Chinese government in their social credit system that extends to companies and foreign entities. As it is, celebrities have been barred from entering China over inappropriate behaviour and the NBA lost an important stream of revenue from their recent social media fiasco (which is a lesson in keeping your opinion to yourself).
So we have ended up with an endless stream of uncoordinated antitrust investigations and tax investigations around the world with even the IMF warning of giant tech firms’ dominance. Social media has also taken a political twist with the US Army undertaking a security assessment of China-owned social media platform TikTok on national security concerns which is an open admission that Google and Facebook are just as or even more dangerous?
What started out as great innovations have taken ugly turns – E-scooters now riding into trouble globally, vegan burgers are not as healthy as thought and now they say CBD/marijuana has the power to harm you and vaping which was initially hailed as a panacea to cigarette smoking has sparked a new health crisis with exploding e-cigarettes to seizures to lethal lung injuries. Even the sharing economy is now developing a dark side as Uber confesses to 3,000 sexual assaults per annum in the US for 2017 and 2018.
What about the Tech Neck ?
Young surgeons are also losing the dexterity to sew due to smartphone usage.
China is banning children from late-night gaming between 10 pm and 8 am and imposing other bans to combat addiction.
What is it worth to us versus what it is worth to Facebook and Google and all of them including Charles Schwab which is giving clients free brokerage to make money from selling client order flow information?
Yes, how about a world where we get paid for our data, our facial scans and our photos?
We are not sure but we thank Facebook for making us better people – yes, teaching us to be afraid, very afraid. It has not felt good in a while for us now and not just because food delivery drivers are revving their bike engines at the lights to dash ahead of you or the sight of someone loading packed food under their feet in their motorized-whatever delivery machine just as we feel our skin crawl every time someone asks for our I/C (latest was for a foot massage). Yet we just rediscovered the joy of leafing through the FT last week in print form, ads and all, the unhurried calm of strolling down the aisles of Cold Storage which is less crowded these days and the decision to walk to the Xiaomi store to buy the portable battery instead of getting scammed again online because those darn antitheft bags never arrived from Japan since our order in August.
After all Warren Buffet uses a 20 dollar flip phone and does not have a Facebook or Twitter account.