Week 10 — Theories of Media and Technology

We’ve talked about this idea of the Panopticon for quite some time, and I found it interesting how it closely relates to our interaction with social media as humans. The idea of the Panopticon reminded me of a documentary I watched: We Live in Public.

During the documentary, we follow the journey of an Internet entrepreneur Josh Harris. He conducted an experiment where he recruited dozens of men and women to live underground and broadcast their lives online. The men and women were offered access to just about everything they needed, and then some. After New York Officials shut the experiment down, Harris took another take and broadcasted his life online with his girlfriend, which quickly took a wrong turn.

Like the Panopticon, it teaches us to behave in a certain way through hidden rules and regulations embedded in infrastructures. With the Panopticon, you feel you’re constantly being watched because of the structure of the prison. As such, you behave in a certain way when you’re within the line of vision, and in this case, you constantly are. This design was crucial in ensuring that there were as few disruptions as possible, and this idea is used today as well. The notion that someone is always watching is scary, but most importantly, it is a tactic to ensure you behave in a certain way. Which does begs to question of how this relates to social media? In the documentary, We Live in Public, even though people were constantly being watched, literally with everything they did (there were cameras in toilets), people became a lot more open regarding how they interacted with each other and other social norms. Harris aimed to bring to light this idea of overconsumption and illustrate the dangers of the dot com rise. Instead, it ended up taking over his life, and he too became invested in sharing his life with the world to see. Both iterations of the experiment showed the same thing. When we are being watched online, there’s this notion to “smile for the camera,” in other words, to do whatever is possible to receive as many likes as possible or simply just to stay relevant. In the documentary’s case, the idea of fame on social media caused a ton of personality shifts and changes with their initial values for the damage social media could cause to humans. It also brought up some interesting questions regarding whether we are indeed ourselves online or just an artificial version of what we want people to see, which also raises questions about our intentions regarding using social media.

Additionally, I think it’s important to consider how dominant media industries monopolize messaging and communication to the public based on the user’s individual preferences. The fact that you can simulate a hard left, hard right, political preference on FaceBook or Instagram, or any social media channel is hugely problematic. It leads to the rise of fake news, as certain beliefs are attributed to specific values you may have as a person. And regardless of whether those values are true or not, you can always find in your NewsFeed something that illustrates those values. I, for one, think it is essential to think about who owns specific media industries and the role those other factors have in influencing the way specific stories are told to the public. But with social media, there’s a lot more openness in that, while there are stakeholders at the top that control messaging with algorithms and screening, it’s more so of a free-speech space unless it bothers specific stakeholders. There’s definitely a question of whether it’s ethical to have these industries dominate the message, especially when you think about just how accessible social media is.

It also highlights an important role — the designers. As designers, it is essential to consider the institutions we aim to disrupt and evaluate how our solutions might perpetuate problematic ideologies or create new ones. In social media, we really should think about the role we play in creating algorithms based on users’ interests at the expense of truth. Yes, you can have fact-checkers, etc., but if there are false truths spread, we must think about the harms those can have on society. I’m not necessarily proposing that we regulate speech. Still, I think if media is being more and more accessible, we need to think about the dangers of false truths and their effect on society. We’ve already seen one example with the Capitol attack, but I’ll imagine there will be many more if we don’t get a handle on this issue.

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