Now, in 2012, there are over 900 billion users of Facebook, and a smattering of other social networking sites that operate with tetrabytes of user-generated data every day. Legal analysts show an exponential increase in the use of social networking records in the courtroom for everything from divorce settlements to criminal prosecutions. Employers in both the private and public sector are using social networking access to research and evaluate current and potential employees. Social media companies have provided the tools by which millions have freely publicized their personal information, often in easy-to-consume superficial slices of pictures, text, and video. Whether social media has created a culture of complicity within our society, or whether it was always there and social media allowed it to flourish, we are now a society in which our identities are as much a manifestation of our real life as our online imprint. Whether we think that’s OK or not, almost every one of us is complicit in it.A recent legislative push by the Obama administration has been to create a “user’s bill of rights” to protect individuals from what’s perceived as an increasingly ominous attempt by advertisers, marketers, and “other nefarious types” to steal out personal information and somehow use it….possibly to sell us stuff. The problem is that this has already been happening for a very long time, and most of the information that they would “steal” is clearly out there for anyone to see. That’s because, although we generally try to acknowledge privacy settings, for the vast majority of us it’s far to easy to just point, click, and post and not worry about what’s happening to the information. This is the other side of the modern society coin: complacence. Within our digital consumerism, be it shopping, researching, getting our news, or just generally “surfing” the net, we are absolutely complacent in what we retrieve. Eli Pariser calls it the “Filter Bubble”, but whatever mysterious algorithms that guide those convenient search query results to our Google page, we use. No questions asked. In that was, as Pariser would say, we are complacently consuming information that reflect our own biases, prejudices, and tastes without ever having to be subjected to something new or challenging.
In Andrew Keen’s new book, Digital Vertigo, he laments the kind of slavish devotion to social media that the tech industry preaches, and the rest of us more or less follow. His contention, and many others agree, is that social media is actually making us more isolated, more insulated, and less able to think for ourselves. However, at the same time, we have a greater intrinsic need to share with others in this very insular fashion. Even the word “friend” has a new kind of meaning, and if that friend shares something on a Facebook update that we don’t like, we simply “unfriend” them. Extrapolate this complacency/complicity phenomenon out a few years, or decades, and I can see a very dangerous sort of America emerging; it’s one in which citizens are split by their special interests and so insulated one from another, that there is no communication. One in which the communication, even if it were to happen, would be so retarded by disuse that it wouldn’t be effective anyway. One in which people are so uninhibited within their virtual reality that those insidious forces that would use information to control hardly have to work to get it; a crowd-sourced apocalyse.