Scrolling Our Way to a Reckoning

Órlaith Roe

 

 

The other day I found myself mindlessly scrolling through various social media apps, jumping from one to the other, and ending up on Twitter. I clicked into a Variety article: “Twitter Targets 315 Million Daily Users by End of 2023, Expects to Double Revenue”. The article goes on to explain Twitter’s new long-term targets and revenue projections for the coming years. In that instance I became acutely aware of the many other millions currently scrolling through the app, jumping from article to article, tweet to tweet. Like sheep, we were being herded by the addictive algorithms of Big Tech companies, and with dwindling self-control, toward the direction agreed upon by social media CEOs and profit-driven projections.

From the self-confessing tech magnates of Netflix’s 2020 documentary The Social Dilemma to the almost banal use of the words Big Tech, we are increasingly surrounded by an abundance of awareness around the issues of encroaching social media. Yet it continues to envelop us in a restrictive hold; we seem unable to shake its addictive nature even when we acknowledge the negative aspects of its daily use. There are undeniable upsides to social media: connectivity, education, and global outreach to name just a few. But the all-consuming environment of the current tech monopolies has reached unprecedented and worrying levels. Questions about privacy and ethics have entered into the public sphere at an increasingly alarming rate; the politicisation of technology has further bolstered the dicey nature of right from wrong, blurring the lines between what society deems as necessary progress on the one hand, and an infringement of the privatised realm on the other.

In 2018 the European Union’s new data protection standards (The General Data Protection Regulation 2016/679) came into force and have been lauded by EU officials as the global benchmark for solid data protection; Europe regards it as a major achievement. Its proponents highlight various aspects such as bottom-line savings, mapping and expedited response times to data requests, and brand benefits as the upsides to the GDPR.

Data protection within the EU differs greatly from that of its American counterpart across the Atlantic. Indeed, while the EU’s new data protection rules are far stricter than before, the actual enforcement of fines and penalties for breaking those rules is meek compared to the US. The Federal Trade Commission in the United States (the regulator in charge of enforcing America’s privacy rules) has been historically far from sparing in terms of handing out hefty penalties. In this aspect, the EU bases itself more around regulation, while the US focuses on enforcement.

The room for growth and monopolisation for Big Tech companies in Europe has been allowed to flourish in recent years; corporate tax havens such as Ireland (12.5%) and The Netherlands (19%) have only encouraged the European expansion of American technology companies and the establishment of their various HQs outside of the United States.

While WhatsApp, a Facebook subsidiary, is currently pending a fine between €30 million and €50 million from Ireland’s data protection agency in a decision expected later this year, Europe has been chronically slow in clamping down on privacy breaches and abuses of power from its Big Tech community. Perhaps the change of tone (harsher penalties and tougher enforcement for America’s tech monopolies) that is expected under President Biden’s new administration will translate across the Atlantic, but Europe’s leniency in this regard could prove fatal.

 

“‘Breaking into’ the skillset of technology and social media never had to be obtained for our generation, but perhaps the ‘breaking out’ of it is the necessary response.”

The thriving development of Big Tech and social media use seems to be eternally omnipresent. From the board rooms of Brussels to the village peripheries of Europe, the flourishment of online dependency is only growing, and so too is our inability to reckon with and rebel against the encroaching nature of social media. However, there is a paradoxical essence to this dilemma: a growing number of younger people, of Generation Z, are ‘logging off’.

The thriving development of Big Tech and social media use seems to be eternally omnipresent. From the board rooms of Brussels to the village peripheries of Europe, the flourishment of online dependency is only growing, and so too is our inability to reckon with and rebel against the encroaching nature of social media. However, there is a paradoxical essence to this dilemma: a growing number of younger people, of Generation Z, are ‘logging off’.

“The awareness of the internet’s cruelty and addictive nature has manifested itself into the psyche of Gen Zers with alarming speed”

Swathes of Generation Z are acutely aware of the watchful eye of Big Tech, of social media apps breathing down our throats and removing our ability to say ‘no’ to their advances. The allure of a tech-savvy lifestyle does not hold the same appeal for younger generations as it did a decade ago or so.

The awareness of the internet’s cruelty and addictive nature has manifested itself into the psyche of Gen Zers with alarming speed (in most cases due to first-hand experiences). Pollsters continue to reveal the steady decline in the number of young people who say that ‘social media is important’ to them. But can these trends manifest themselves into something greater? A revolution of sorts against Big Tech from the bottom-up? In our current frail capacity to turn away from compulsive scrolling, soaring procrastination, and dwindling self-esteem, one would certainly hope so.

For many, social media was something that had to be learned and improved upon, a new novelty of sorts. Gen Z did not have to acquire any such skills – they grew up with the concept of smartphone apps and online lives. ‘Breaking into’ the skillset of technology and social media never had to be obtained for our generation, but perhaps the ‘breaking out’ of it is the necessary response. To suggest that younger people would become totally averse to the presence of technology is absurd. We are fully aware of the necessary and positive contributions it has made to society. However, it is the highly addictive algorithms utilised by profiteering tech companies, the invasion of personal privacy, and the pressures of an omnipresent internet culture that has driven large groups of younger people to mount a rebellion against Big Tech.

The manifestations of new anxieties and a dependency on social media make it difficult to remove ourselves from its hold. While we may acknowledge our addictions and the evils of certain online applications, we still struggle to take the leap and rebel.

The seedlings of new hope have been planted by those youngsters willing to go against the trend of conforming to Big Tech’s grasp on our daily lives. After all, we are the generation who contributed in leaps and bounds to the flourishing of social media. Who is to say we cannot be the ones to simultaneously transform it for the better? Keep scrolling, and perhaps we’ll find the answer.

 

First published Online, March 2021. Volume 16, Issue 3. Image: Feminine Stereotypes, Romina Bassu, 2017