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The price of our digital ecosystem

U of T’s Ron Deibert delivers 2020’s Massey Lectures
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Every year, the CBC Massey Lectures invite prominent public voices to deliver a multi-episode lecture series on a particular topic of interest to the general public. Past speakers with an institutional connection to the University of Toronto have included Margaret Atwood and Michael Ignatieff.

This year, the speaker is another local — Ron Deibert, political science professor and director of the Citizen Lab at the Munk School of Global Affairs & Public Policy.

In his 2020 CBC Massey Lectures series, Reset: Reclaiming the Internet for Civil Society, security expert Deibert sounds the alarm on what the internet is doing to our psyches, our civility, and our planet. The title is borrowed from a new book Deibert wrote, which came out earlier this year.

There is a price to be paid for our communications ecosystem, argues Deibert.

The online world has infiltrated the real world. As Deibert said, we have never been more attached to our phones, “You carry it around with you wherever you go,” he wrote in a conclusion to his lecture series for the CBC. “You sleep with it, work with it, run with it, you play games on it. You depend on it, and panic when you can’t find it.”

In the first lecture, “Look At That Device In Your Hand,” Deibert outlined the issues spawned by social media, including privacy breaches, behavioural manipulation, digital authoritarianism, and the climate crisis. Deibert lamented over what the internet was supposed to accomplish: “Dissolving human conflict into unity… [and] facilitating the emergence of a common ideology based on science.” 

Instead, he said that social media is “spreading ignorance and falsehoods, polluting the public sphere, and subjecting us to wholesale surveillance.”

The real consumers

In his next lecture, “The Market for Our Minds,” Deibert discussed the commercialization of private data. Every time we use a ‘free’ app on our devices, we are simultaneously handing over private information — or what Deibert calls “raw materials” — to tech companies. Digitizing human experiences allows companies to collect data on a massive scale. In their world, “we’re the livestock of their farms.” Our data is their profit. 

Mass surveillance is not just a breach of privacy — it also has the power to shape our choices. Businesses rely on surveillance information to predict human behaviours and influence purchase decisions. 

Illusion of choices

To ensure that the flow of data never stops, social media platforms need to capture and retain users’ attention. In the third lecture, “Toxic Addiction Machines,” Deibert explained why it is so hard to stop scrolling. 

Since January, public health officials have not only had to deal with COVID-19 in the real world, but also the infection of the digital world. Even with the swift pace at which the ‘communication ecosystem’ operates, Deibert wrote in an article with the CBC that “the circulation of information about the coronavirus on social media was flooded with conspiracy theories, misinformation… deliberately propagated false information, known as disinformation, racist memes, chat censorship and surveillance, and even viruses of another kind.” 

Users are aware of the ill effects of social media, but most cannot stop looking at their phones. These platforms are designed to exploit human psychology and alter behaviour. Furthermore, social media does not just manipulate our emotions, it also affects our physical beings. “Social media are addictive because they stimulate us in a powerfully subconscious and hormonal way,” Deibert said. Using social media mimics the experience of falling in love by releasing oxytocin, or the ‘love hormone.’

Appropriation of the internet 

The fourth and fifth lectures discuss the far-reaching consequences of social media. 

In lecture four, “A Great Leap Forward… For The Abuse Of Power,” Diebert discusses the connection that the internet creates between authorities and citizens. 

“Social media and our entire communications ecosystem… radically erase the distance between those who exercise authority and the human subjects of their control, both domestically and abroad.

We need not look further than China to see this kind of censorship. Diebert said in the lecture, “China’s cybersecurity law requires private companies to police their users, censor communications on their platforms, and hand over user data to authorities on request.” 

An example is how the Chinese government deploy digital surveillance systems to oppress the Uyghur Muslim-minority group in the Xinjiang region of western China. A New York Times investigation published in 2019 revealed that police in the region track data from the city’s inhabitants to reveal when they enter or leave certain neighbourhoods.

Offline damages

In his fifth lecture, “Burning Data,” Diebert discussed the digital world’s costliest expense — our planet.

Contrary to the green narratives perpetuated by tech companies, our digital consumption has a very real effect. A typical smartphone consists of around 62 different types of metals, according to the lecture, each of which needs to be extracted from the earth, resulting in massive environmental stress. This all happens before the phone even makes it into the consumer’s hand. 

Perhaps the most damaging part is the immateriality of it all. “Our consumption of social media… generates a kind of hidden tax on the natural environment that we don’t feel, see, smell, or touch, as we blithely swipe away at a text or tweet,” Deibert said in his lecture. 

Moving forward

In his sixth and final lecture, “Retreat, Reform, Restraint,” Diebert outlined the steps needed to reclaim the internet for the civic and global good.

He said that we need to have restraints on the internet — policy restraints that curb what companies and governments can do as well as personal restraints for our emotions and internet habits.

“Let’s face it: it won’t be easy, nor will it happen overnight” Diebert wrote in his conclusion for the CBC. “But fatalistic resignation to the status quo is no real alternative either. The principle of restraint can be our guide.”