The invention of social media could cause human society to fail ‘catastrophically, unexpectedly, and without warning’ if it continues down its current path.
That’s coming from a cross-disciplinary team of ecologists, biologists and sociologists.
The team, led by Joe Bak-Coleman, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Washington Center for an Informed Public, warned that we still know little about what causes complex systems, like human society, to collapse.
‘One of the things about complex systems [like human societies] is they have a finite limit to perturbation,’ said Bak-Coleman in an interview with Vox.
‘If you disturb them too much, they change. And they often tend to fail catastrophically, unexpectedly, without warning.’
Big Tech companies have received a barrage of criticism for allowing misinformation, hate speech and trolling to go viral on their platforms – and lawmakers are looking to crack down on the companies in both the US and UK.
But scientists like Carl Bergstrom, a biology professor who contributed to the paper, warn that time is of the essence, and that academics should be treating human interaction with social media as a ‘crisis discipline’.
This would place human social media use in the same category as climate change and ecosystem conservation, as disciplines that are not fully understood but could have catastrophic consequences if left to fail.
Bergstrom compares the arrival of the internet and social media to the invention of the printing press, both in its capacities for good and upheaval.
‘The printing press came out and upended history,’ said Bergstrom.
‘We’re still recovering from the capacity that the printing press gave to Martin Luther.
‘The printing press radically changed the political landscape in Europe. And, you know, depending on whose histories you go by, you had decades if not centuries of war…’
Though the paper, titled ‘Stewardship of global collective behavior’ and published in PNAS, recognises how high the stakes are, it has less to say about potential solutions, apart from greater ‘stewardship’ in the form of better regulation and oversight of social media companies.
Whether regulators will succeed in reining in the worst excesses of Big Tech still remains an open question – this week, a US federal court threw out an antitrust case brought against Facebook for ‘lacking facts’.
The UK’s antitrust unit the Competition and Markets Authority opened up a division to examine Big Tech’s potential shortcomings earlier this year.
Whether we’ll come out the other side with our societal faculties intact is still up in the air, according to Bergstrom.
‘It’s still possible to mitigate harm as you go through a transformation, even if you know you’re going to be fine,’ said Bergstrom.
‘I also don’t think it’s completely obvious that we are going to be fine on the other end.’
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