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Is social media tearing us apart?
Jun 24, 2019

Is social media tearing us apart?

Author Neal Stephenson argues it is and has imagined the worst possible outcome.

Science fiction author Neal Stephenson is not a fan of social media. In his 2015 book “Seveneves,” almost all humans die after the moon disintegrates and Earth is destroyed. And even the last humans left in the universe manage to tear themselves apart by blogging.

Stephenson’s new book is called “Fall,” and it has two major themes: one is the end of death, because tech lets us upload our digital consciousness, and what happens then. The other is what happens to America when truth really, finally, collapses because of the internet. When “Marketplace Tech” host Molly Wood last spoke with Stephenson in 2015, he said he thought social media would get better. But now, Stephenson tells Wood he was too hopeful about the power of the truth. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Neal Stephenson: I think I was proven horribly wrong. A thing that I missed is there have always been people who had differences of opinion about politics and other controversies. But in my mind, it was always based on differing interpretations of what the facts were. What actual reality consisted of. And it didn’t cross my mind until pretty recently that people could just have a complete breakdown in their beliefs about what reality is and not care, not be seemingly troubled, and that companies would spring up to profit from that. 

Molly Wood: It gets real bad in your book. Misinformation really wins. And this whole swath of the country just rolls with it seemingly because they want to. Do you see that as a warning or closer to a prediction?

Stephenson: I’ll tell you that when I originally wrote that chunk of the book, it was in 2015/2016, and I was really patting myself on the back for being Mr. Futurist, predict-the-future guy. And then I found out that I was years and years behind. So I had to pull back for a while and rewrite that part of the book, but more in the vein of kind of metaphor or a way of thinking about where we are now. So it’s not so much a warning or a prophecy as just an enhanced or intensified present. 

Wood: There’s also a pretty strong theme of inequality — the idea that good information is the province of the rich, and that inequality then even drives the building of the kind of virtual world, the after-death world. 

Stephenson: The way that the big social media companies developed is that they came up with algorithms that would automatically serve up content without humans being in the loop. And the way things are now I think is that you can pay money to buy an online subscription to a newspaper or magazine, and you can sort of get curated information. But if you rely on the free platforms, which are basically marketing you and statistics that they’ve gathered on you as their business model, then you have no idea what you’re getting. 

Wood: Do you ever have an idea that you don’t want to be born? Like, you’ve obviously explored some pretty dark scenarios, but I wonder if you ever have a moment where you go, “I don’t want to put this up. I don’t want to create even the shadow of this potential reality.” 

Stephenson: I actually have one of those that I’ve been thinking about for a couple of years now. It’s exactly what you’re describing: something that would be kind of interesting story to write, but I don’t know if I really want to go there. Actually, I’ve got two of them. Who knows? Maybe if I kept thinking about it … 

Wood: And you just have to sit with them.

Stephenson: So those are out there. It’s funny, though, there are people who’ve written material that seems just incredibly dark, Stephen King being an obvious example. And yet the overall impact of writers like that on the culture and on the world isn’t dark, it isn’t negative, particularly, so it’s a little paradoxical. 

Related links: more insight from Molly Wood

I gotta be real with you guys. This book is so upsetting. Because every story I read about misinformation on social media leads me straight down the scary sci-fi rabbit hole from Stephenson’s book — where a huge portion of America has become a whole other America where people almost deliberately believe (just as one relatively spoiler-free nugget) that a city in Utah has been destroyed by a nuclear weapons attack when the city is still literally right there, with people living in it, while some of the people who are insisting it’s been destroyed have stationed themselves right outside of it.

And if you find it hard to believe that that might be possible, I mean, people are actually getting killed because of lies on social media in Myanmar and India.

It’s a little depressing.

Let’s go even deeper into the dark place, shall we? There’s a CNET story about deep fakes, those videos that are doctored so well and so convincingly that humans and sometimes even computers can’t really tell the difference, and how those videos will only get more common and more convincing, and basically no social media platform is ready to actually deal with them.

A German newspaper, DW.com, has a story about how educators in Germany are coming up with curriculum to teach kids how to spot disinformation, because kids are showing up there with wild ideas about American politics that they saw on Instagram, because propaganda is global.

Speaking of which, a Brookings Institution report from last week notes that while governments in Europe and the United States finally recognize that online interference in elections is a real thing, Europe is way ahead of America in terms of crafting a plan for dealing with disinformation and creating policies based on that plan.

The U.S.? Not so much. I would very much love it if Neal Stephenson were wrong again about social media, but so far, yikes. Happy Monday!

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