Social Media’s Lessons for Artificial Intelligence

Image by Hands off my tags! Michael Gaida from Pixabay

Ever since humans invented tools, and evidence increasingly suggests that we actually stole that concept from Neanderthals anyway, we’ve evolved in lockstep with technology. Somehow, we understood in some unconscious way that tool use enabled us to survive unlike any other species. Technology enables us to exploit multiple niches unlike our fellow animals.

As revolutionary technologies have come into our cultures and societies, they’ve shaped us and then we have shaped them, evolved them through combinations. It’s often been very messy, at times it has lead to catastrophic conflicts such as Hiroshima, Nagasaki and the Holocaust. But technology has also enabled us to thrive, to live longer, be more prosperous, discover space and our deepest oceans.

We’re much smarter as a species now than we ever were. We’re getting smarter all the time. Even though it may not seem like it at times. We now know, for instance, that all technologies are a double-edged sword and they all have unintended consequences. We probably learned this lesson the most with social media.

With the arrival of Generative AI tools like ChatGPT, Midjourney and DALL-E, that slammed into our global society like a freight train hitting a large watermelon, we are again at a pivotal point in dealing with a revolutionary technology. Much like social media, AI impacts us globally. Especially so as a hyper-connected digital society that is only just entering the Digital Age. To say “sit down and buckle up” would be an understatement for what lies ahead.

AI could be even more impactful than social media. It touches everything from medicine and global finance to employment, military, academia, art, literature, music, transportation, space, communications, human-machine interactions, genetic engineering…well, you get the idea.

So what lessons can we learn and take from social media’s impact on our sociocultural systems? Do we want to learn those lessons and then, will we actually do anything about it? That can go down a very dark, despairing hole.

Lessons from Social Media To Learn From

Don’t Be Delusional: As social media began to reach the masses and traverse the world, it was going to be a Golden Age for democracies. Autocracies would collapse, we would share laughter and hugs and there would be rainbows everywhere. The complete opposite happened. Democracy is struggling and autocracies have become very good at manipulating the free world. And all the other issues we know.

We should not hold up grand illusions that AI will save the human race (it could, if we do it right), usher in unprecedented wealth and greater equality in society. This is a utopian dream. In humans, utopia is impossible.

Bad Capitalism: Capitalism can be a force for good. We’ve definitely prospered as a result of it. It is not and never has been, like democracy, perfect. But it’s the best we’ve got. Sadly, it has gone awry. Social media isn’t very social anymore. It is now no longer about the customer, the citizen. It is about advertising and selling. It is about the shareholder dividend and no longer delivering the social good as Corey Doctorow calls it, enshittification.

We should examine how AI may be applied by corporations. We already live in a society of surveillance capitalism as a result of social media. AI should not be allowed to make this worse.

Law Makers Are Too Slow: Politicians and even the bureaucracies that support them, were too slow to address the issues of social media and its impact on civil society. The EU, through GDPR and other laws was the swiftest. Autocracies too. China, Russia and Iran were very fast to ensure they could monitor and suppress their societies with social media. Democracies struggled to keep up, preferring to bat the problem to the next elected government.

With AI, governments need to catch up. Fast. At the same time, they must balance not blocking innovation and being overly oppressive. No small task.

Unintended Consequences: There were many unintended consequences from social media. From ending up being more lonely, to cyberbullying and so on. We know this is a fact of all technologies. While not all unintended consequences can be predicted, a framework can be designed to help anticipate some and be prepared for others. Humans do weird things.

Geopolitics: Influence activities, what used to be called Psychological Warfare or PsyOps, through social media is playing a key role geopolitically as we see foreign governments wage cyber warfare with each other. AI can be used to create even more dangerous ways to manipulate populations.

How Do We Apply These Lessons?

That’s a sticky wicket. It’s incredibly complicated because AI touches so many aspects of society and is a revolutionary technology that is instantly global. We used to have a fair bit of time to sort out the various impacts of revolutionary technologies. We don’t have such an affordance with AI.

Given the situation of our world today with countries aligning by values and the potential for global war and shifting financial affairs, this becomes even more challenging. The UN has become all but ineffective in these areas, most obviously through its utter failure to kick Russia off the security council. How can it possibly get everyone aligned on AI? And even enforce whatever policies it comes up with?

AI offers significant economic, military and geopolitical advantages and the race between China and America over AI in these areas is already in full-swing.

Governments are responding to AI faster, but fast enough? It’s taken an enormously long time to gain any form of consensus on dealing with climate change and it’s still not anywhere near where it should be. AI is evolving much faster than climate change.

Industry too needs to shake up the current approach to capitalism and bring it back to where it’s beneficial by delivering a social good. That’s a big change. And usually doesn’t happen until there’s significant social unrest.

What’s Going to Happen?

It’s going to be very messy. As AI rapidly evolves, societal tensions will increase. This will be especially so if one outcome proves to be increased economic inequality. Conflict is more likely, we just don’t know the scale of it.

We can’t know exactly what will happen or when, but if we look at history, we know it will rhyme and there are lessons to be learned.

While it may seem dark and depressing, so far, we’ve managed to learn and grow as a species, to make progress. Humans are nicer more than they’re mean. Maybe we should also make sure that for a little while at least, we can pull the plug.

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Giles Crouch | Digital Anthropologist

Digital / Cultural Anthropologist | I'm in WIRED, Forbes, National Geographic etc. | I help companies create & launch human-centric technology products.