Social Media and Social Good

Do we shape our tools or do they shape us?

Social media was a major force behind last year’s Arab Spring, after communities organized and overthrew tyrannical dictators, as well as last month’s riots across the Muslim world, after the trailer for The Innocence of Muslims circulated on the Internet. Like most technologies, social media can promote the good or accentuate the bad. But does the technology itself have its own bias for better or worse? What is the nature of technology? Is the new social media—Facebook, Twitter, and the rest—simply a toolbox that people pick up for their own purposes, good or bad? Or is the new social media inherently progressive in its ability to promote a greater meta-nexus between humans near and far? Are we homo faber, man the maker, or homo factus, man the made?

These questions served as the backdrop to the three-day Social Good Summit recently held in New York City, which brought together leaders, innovators, and entrepreneurs interested in pursuing technology that promotes human betterment. The event featured successful models for addressing Big Problems through new media and provided a platform for speakers to conceptualize the impact of social media today—namely, how it can help us craft a better world.

At the start of the first day, participants were greeted with a video recording of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. She spoke about the use of innovative social media to ensure individuals become diplomats of social good. Her words would reflect a theme that ran through much of the conference: the U.S. government is embracing private, technological innovation. It realizes the importance of transparency and inclusion not only for the growth of the private sector, but also as a promotion of democratic principles in the U.S. and beyond. The government views the continued growth of technology as something both inevitable and having a long-term positive impact.

Later that day, musician Peter Gabriel and social entrepreneur and futurist Andrew Rasiej explored how technology might be actually changing the human nature/condition. Gabriel even went as far as to predict that we are on the cusp of a fundamental evolutionary change due to our technological innovation. Gabriel referred to the idea that humanity is approaching a singularity, a future in which accelerating innovations — robotics, genetics, nanotechnology, and artificial intelligence — are radically transforming human nature and the world. Both exhibited apprehension when considering the increased role of technology and the unintended consequences it might have for the health of our planet and our species. The challenge is to be aware and in control of our increasingly powerful technologies.

For me, this ambivalence about technology was the most interesting undercurrent of the Social Good Summit. Many speakers insisted that social media is merely a means to an end. In other words, it is a tool that we utilize along with other resources to achieve goals, such as social justice and development. This was a message endorsed by many of the speakers. For instance, Henry Timms, deputy executive director of 92Y, said in closing that "Social media and technology are not agents of change, they are just tools. We are the agents of change."

Others voiced a different understanding of social media. Klaus Schwab of the World Economic Forum noted that, "Social media is much more than a means to an end, it is a way of life." And Deepak Chopra, who spoke at the end of the conference on "Spirituality, Social Media, and the Global Brain," attempted to place social media in a wider spiritual outlook by appealing to cosmic processes. He understood the emergence of social media as a process by which individual identity evolves into a global identity. Just as epigenetic phenomena can impact our biological functions, it appears that technology can "re-wire" human individuals into a wider and more complex network.

A helpful way to think about this debate is whether you subscribe to the mantra, "Guns don’t kill people, people kill people," or whether you are more sympathetic to the slogan, "If all you have is a hammer, then every problem looks like a nail." The former suggests that we have total agency over our technologies and can thus determine how they will be used. Many would argue that we have the complete, personal freedom and ingenuity to use technologies exactly as we intend, without feedback from the technology itself. The latter claims that the existence of a given technology impacts humanity’s relationship to the external world. Yes, you may choose not to use the gun in your possession or you may even choose to use it as a hammer, but the fact remains that the gun and the hammer are designed for given purposes.

We need to rethink of our technology in terms of evolution. Our brains co-evolved with our vocal chords and oppositional thumbs. Our bodies co-evolved with the controlled use of fire and the domestication of plants and animals. The rise of spoken and written language can also be understood as new technologies that resulted in further co-evolution of our brains and bodies, as well as individuals and societies, including the dynamism of collective learning of which technological innovation is itself a dramatic case in point.

In his new book, What Technology Wants, Kevin Kelly argues "Technology is acquiring its own autonomy and will increasingly maximize its own agenda, but this agenda includes – as its foremost consequence – maximizing of possibilities for us" (2010, p. 352). Kelly’s optimism needs to be more nuanced and balanced with an understanding of the problems also created by technologies. In the case of social media and the social good, we need also a rigorous critique of the destructive and unintended consequences of tweets, postings, blogs and Googling for "facts." In the words of Neil Postman:

"Technology giveth and technology taketh away, and not always in equal measure. A new technology sometimes creates more than it destroys. Sometimes, it destroys more than it creates. But it is never one-sided" (Informing Ourselves to Death, 1990). 

The participants of the Social Good Summit were incredibly passionate about the emerging technological revolution and with good reason: the conference highlighted many projects that have used new technologies to promote education and economic development, freedom and human rights, social justice, and they are truly promising and remarkable. Social media is actually changing the world for the better.

As a member of the digital generation, it is hard for me to recognize how it was before ubiquitous computers and the Internet. It is hard to know how it could be otherwise and what might have been lost in the process. We need to properly frame these big questions about our technologies in order to remain critical agents in their use, if we are to create a better world.

In this regard, Big History is necessary in providing an evolutionary and historical vantage point from which we can productively navigate the growing possibilities and complexities of the Anthropocene. Instead of losing our identity in heaps of data and devices, we can look back at how old technologies and new shape us. Through such an education we can gain a sense of how we have co-evolved with technological innovations in the past and how we might successfully co-evolve in the future.

 

References

Kelly, K. (2010). What Technology Wants. NY, Penguin.

Postman, N. (1990, October). Informing Ourselves to Death. Speech presented at German Informatics Society (Gesellschaft fuer Informatik), Stuttgart, Germany.

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