How to be human in the age of social media | Michael Casey | TEDxLausanne

How to be human in the age of social media | Michael Casey | TEDxLausanne


Translator: Jim Taylor
Reviewer: Denise RQ Are we living in a post-fact society? Sometimes it seems
like we’re never going to agree not only on all the problems
that we face in this world but even on whether they exist. Think about all those arguments over climate change and crime statistics. I think this inability to establish facts stems from the divisiveness
of social media which whether we like it or not has become the most important forum
we have for public debate, and it has changed mass media forever. The constant trolling,
those endless online arguments – they impede our ability
to reach consensus, and without consensus,
society can’t co-create knowledge. I say co-create because knowledge
has always been the outcome of a communal process, of dialogue,
and constructive debate, but it requires an openness to new ideas, a willingness to consider opinions
that are different from our own. Knowledge needs empathy and humanism. I guess that’s what’s bothering me
most about this current moment. I feel as if we are on the verge
of losing our humanism. If that’s the case, we just allow those in power
to dictate what the facts are. I’m reminded of my time living and working
as a journalist in Argentina, and this guy, the late
Néstor Kirchner was in power. He wasn’t happy because the National
Statistics Agency, INDEC, was reporting rapidly rising inflation,
so he took swift decisive action. He sacked the senior staff,
the upper echelons of INDEC, and installed a team of loyalists
to write in lower numbers. Voila! Inflation problem solved. Of course, anybody walking
into a supermarket could tell that prices were continuing to rise. Private economists were estimating
the inflation was running at 25%, but INDEC kept insisting it was 8%. And this may be
uncomfortable as a journalist because every time I reported
the government’s facts or numbers, I felt like I was complicit
in the propagation of these lies. My headlines on Dow Jones Newswires
came out looking like this. But for all I cared,
I might as well have just said this. Néstor Kirchner it’s not
the first nor the last leader to disseminate dubious information. American journalists are grappling
with a very similar problem right now, but Argentina’s experience provides a stern warning
of what’s at stake. Kirchner’s wanton disregard for the truth destroyed all confidence
in the Argentine economy so much so that inflation got worse. Now, ten years later, the new government
is confronting rates as high as 45%. It’s a stark reminder of the lasting damage
that gets done to society when governments abandon
empirical sources of information and instead, peddle in alternative facts. But what is a fact
in the social media era? In the old era, mainstream media
played a filtering role. It would dictate and determine the narrow range of ideas
that were acceptable for public discourse
and knowledge creation, so if you were an extreme right-wing
white supremacist, for example, or maybe an extreme
left-wing Marxist revolutionary, your views typically didn’t get heard. Now no one’s in charge;
everyone has a voice. Anyone can claim anything is news, and anyone can claim anything
they disagree with is fake news. So now it’s up to us, the general public, and not mainstream media to decide what to believe
and who to trust. I think this new chaotic
online society needs for its culture to evolve. Offline, civilization had millennia with which to develop its norms and mores, when to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you, ‘
when to speak, when to listen, which words are appropriate
and which ones are so offensive that they kill all prospect
of constructive dialogue. If we want this new society
to move forward in the 21st century, I think we need a similar process of evolution
to occur – albeit more rapidly – within this new online society in culture. But if we can do that, if we can build positive feedback loops
of open-mindedness and respect, I think that social media
can be a powerful force for freedom of thought,
innovation, and prosperity. How do we get there? The answers may lie in the fields of digital currencies
and blockchain technology which is the field
I happen to work in now. There, the research focuses on how we might use
software algorithms and incentives to guide communities toward consensus, and the hope is
that with that, maybe one day, we’ll create some algorithmic system where social media is fairer,
more democratic, and more open. But let’s face it; no single technology alone
can build a better society. This is a human problem. It’s up to you and me to fix this. So where do we start? One of the right things
to think about starting off is how much this new system
of mass communication is fundamentally different
from the previous one. In fact, I would say social media
is the most disruptive change in our system of sharing information
since Gutenberg’s bible. Just think about
what the previous industry system was when traditional news organizations
would distribute information. They would use physical infrastructure,
printing presses, TVs, radio stations, cables, satellite dishes,
that sort of thing. Now distribution is all
about psychological connections. If you want your social media messages
to reach a wide audience, you not only have to have
a large social network you have to craft
your messages in such a way they make an emotional connection
with those people so that they will retweet,
reshare them, reblog them. The pathways of which information
now travels are built upon an intricate fabric of synapses, emotional connections,
and biochemical triggers. It’s a completely different
media architecture. We just need to understand it. It’s a massive amorphous network. There’s no editor-in-chief in charge dictating which content
should go where at any given time. There’s a billion autonomous actors deciding on what to do
with each other signals, and in the process, producing new messages, new pathways,
new signals, and so forth. It’s really difficult
to visualize this system, it’s also really difficult to master it. Yet, some people have mastered
this new system, it’s just that if we were to choose which people we want to lead us
as we are braving these new worlds, these people wouldn’t necessarily be it. If the number
of Twitter followers you have is the gauge of your power
and influence in the world, then perhaps the most important person
in the world right now is Katy Perry. She has 97 million Twitter followers. That’s more
than the population of Germany. Meanwhile, the rest of us congregate in these echo chambers
of like-minded views, we share each other’s opinions
and confirm and reaffirm all these views, but we don’t converse
with those outside of our group, and as a result, we’re not
co-creating knowledge. But I do believe this platform
can be a situation in which everyone
gets a seat at the table, in which we, the majority, get to drown out
power mongers like Néstor Kirchner. It can also be
a very powerful driver of innovation. I like to think of social media
as a giant global bazaar of ideas, each of them competing for our attention. The British author
Matt Ridley likes to say that when ideas come together like this they have sex and produce
interesting new offspring. We’re actually seeing this now
in the open-source software world where computer engineers,
scientists, entrepreneurs are tapping this large
global pool of brains to come up with new ideas
and scientific breakthroughs at a pace we’ve never seen before. The biotech futurist Andrew Hessel
formed something he called the Pink Army Cooperative which is a global volunteer network
of genetic engineers who are collaboratively codifying
a new open-source cure for breast cancer. The possibilities are incredible here
when we tap into this innovative pool, but the key is to figuring out how this information travels,
and changes, and moves around in this really complex leaderless system. Where is the order in all this chaos? It turns out the best template we have for understanding things like this
in a leaderless complex system is that of the most important
leaderless complex system we have: nature itself. When Oliver Luckett and I looked at the seven basic
biological laws of nature that living things
have a cellular structure, absorb nutrients, respond
to stimuli, maintain homeostasis, grow, adapt, and evolve, we discover there are some remarkable similarities
with social media. In fact, these laws can show us how information grows,
how networks expand, and how this online community
that we’re forming is behaving like a living organism,
a social organism. One of the key lessons
that we took from this was that we must resist the temptation to censor content
that we find distasteful. So we can think of our culture
a little bit like the body’s immune system which needs to be confronted
with harmful bacteria and viruses if it is to learn how to recognize them as a threat,
develop antibodies, and then repel them. The same thing can be said for society. We need exposure
to a full range of ideas – even really bad ones
like xenophobia and racism. In fact, I would say that if we are to block out
the bigots, censor them, they’ll just come back stronger
like those antibiotic resistant superbugs; but it’s really hard
to resist this temptation to censor. This was evident last year
during this huge Twitter fight between Leslie Jones,
an African-American actor and comedian, and Milo Yiannopoulos,
this alt-right provocateur. Jones was subjected to
the most horrible torrent of abuse from 300,000 of the Yiannopoulos’s
rabid supporters on Twitter. The language and the things
that was said to her was so horrible that she quit Twitter
that day with this message. If you are like me, you too
would have been left wondering what it means to be human
in the wake of an episode like that, and you might also have applauded when Yiannopoulos was banned
from Twitter because of this. But that act of censorship backfired. Shortly thereafter,
a ‘freemilo’ hashtag began trending. He became a martyr,
a free speech cause celebrity. He even got a 250,000 dollar book deal
from Simon and Schuster. It’s as if sexism and racism
had won the day. If you are like me, this is
really difficult to accept. So what are we supposed to do, those of us who want
openness, tolerance, and diversity in our online world so that we can build
this huge pool of wonderful ideas? Do we just have to sit back passively
and wait for a culture to catch up? No. There are proactive things that we can do – in fact, we must do – to help build a healthier online culture. We need to learn how to use
this interconnected emotional system to promote pro-social ideas
around diversity and tolerance so that they can compete
with their anti-social rivals in the marketplace of ideas. We need to build empathy machines. What do I mean by that? Let me close by telling you
about my favorite social media site, one that means a lot to somebody who spends a great deal of time
in the wonderful city of New York. “Humans of New York” is a Facebook page that’s made of a compendium
of photos of ordinary people, each accompanied by text
in which the subject talks about their life’s loves, victories,
failures, hopes, and fears, and each item is typically met by thousands of comments
from people all around the world, complete strangers wishing
that person goodwill and support. HONY as it’s known,
has 18 million followers. That’s what I mean by an empathy machine. Brandon Stanton, the founder of HONY
is your kind of everyman hero. Why? Because he’s not exactly the sort
of person you’d expect to do this. He was formerly
a bond trader on Wall Street, and when he lost his job
in the financial crisis, that big dehumanizing global event, this is what he decided to do. Society needs to figure out how to absorb new ideas again
and co-create knowledge, it needs many more empathy builders
like Brandon Stanton. So consider this an appeal to all of you: each of us has a responsibility
to be a humanist. We must be agents of change. We need to build empathy in our world,
in the digital world, in social media. And the time to start doing that is now. Thank you. (Applause)

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