Wednesday, 21 November 2018

The Risk of an Invisible Future

I love technology.

I'm not a specific fan of "gadgets", but I absolutely adore technology. For my fourth birthday, I wanted a typewriter. When I was five, we received our first home computer (Christmas '84). I was fascinated by it. My Dad would buy the old computer magazines and type the code in to make a game or a program. Within a year I was experimenting with simple programs myself.

I look around the world today, and I am excited by the technology around me. I laugh, too, because I am sure that it will not be too many years before people will laugh at how primitive it was.

I think about recording videos to show my (hopefully future) children what technology is like today. They'll marvel at how ridiculous and simplistic it is.

I said that I'm not a specific fan of gadgets, and sometimes it may take me a while to decide to adapt to a new technology depending on the benefits I see. Just because something is new and exciting doesn't mean it's worth pursuing.

It was a while before I could bring myself to care about Facebook, and it was a while before I could bring myself to care about Twitter. And even then, it was a few years before I really started actually using Twitter.

But now I do. And the people I follow, the people I interact with regularly, they are my "Twitter friends". I've been to a number of tweet ups. I love so many of the people I see on there. It makes me laugh, it makes me cry, it makes me think, it helps me to explore my own thoughts. Twitter helps me to grow as a person.

Plus it's a great way to waste some time when you're sitting on the loo, so, everybody wins.

But I have recently found myself silenced on Twitter. Invisible to my friends. Unable to send congratulations, condolences, or commiserations.

It upsets me. To see a friend say something funny that you can't join in the joke with, or to see someone share something painful and know you can't offer any support. Twitter is at its best when you see love and joy and support, and to be apart from those things is sad.

I do not know why or how I have become silenced on Twitter. I do not believe I have done anything wrong, and I do not know whether it is intentional. All I know is that my friends there can no longer see me.

We live in an age where technology surrounds us and is fast becoming a part of every day life. I shun cash for contactless. I'm happy to order from my phone at a certain well-known chain of pubs if I believe it will be faster than ordering at the bar.

We also live in an age where spam has advanced. We still get the odd Nigerian banker in our emails, but as the Internet and technology has advanced, so too has the spam we endure. I've received messages on Instagram, on the PlayStation, and on Twitter from ladies begging me to look at their dating profile on [whatever website they're trying to sell]. And we've all (probably) heard by now of attempts to manipulate voters during the American presidential elections and Brexit by bombarding us with fake news, fake accounts, and fake people, designed to try to influence us, or to waste our time arguing with a computer.

I have thought nothing of companies such as Twitter and Facebook trying to fight this behaviour. Weed out these bots and make our lives that little bit easier. If this is the situation today, what will it be like in twenty years time? When Facebook and Twitter and Google and Microsoft all work together to try to combat spam, and bots, and fake accounts?

Computers analysing all of our content, trying to decide what is a real person and what is not. Trying to work out when to close an account down, and when to silently ignore it.

And what happens when those computers make a mistake? What happens when, instead of silencing another computed program, they silence a real person?

If Twitter detects a likely bot and tells Facebook and Google and Microsoft, what happens then? If you send emails and they silently disappear? You try to speak your friends and are discreetly silenced? You contact support departments for those companies but are automatically weeded out as spam?

I have experienced but a few days of not being able to interact with my Twitter friends as I normally would. But when I consider the same problem happening to someone in another twenty years time, when technology will be even more pervasive, when it is so much more essential to our every day routines... For the first time, I am not excited for the future of technology, I am worried for it. Not due to some AI like Terminator or the Matrix, but due to a simple cockup, quietly silencing a real person, isolating them, restricting their communication with their friends.

I hope we find a better future than that.

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