Teri Orr: The revolution is a live feed
If you want to understand quickly how we got here with democracy being threatened almost simultaneously around the globe, you need look no further than the palm of your hand. Where you hold a super computer that can access information in seconds and show you live feeds of revolutions as they unfold. And also ads for the dumb blue sweater you clicked on and lingered over but eventually decided not to buy. And suddenly ads from other companies with blue sweaters that show up mysteriously at prices higher and lower and with different fabrics and designs. You just keep seeing more ads for more blue sweaters. Am I right?
The algorithms have been carefully designed to engage you and keep you on sites for longer and longer periods of time in hopes of convincing you to buy something — the sweater or a belief system. We have been radicalized to the ease of shopping online with Amazon at the same time we have been radicalized about what to believe and what to see as real and normal and true and fair. It’s all there on the screen.
Don’t take my word for it — watch the film Netflix recently released, “The Social Dilemma” — a docudrama explaining how the internet is using your time to influence not only what you buy but who buys you. And it interviews some of the folks who have been warning us of the gross misuse of the internet and the platforms — we see as casual or informative. And we come to realize that while we have been celebrating birthdays and posting pictures of graduations and recommending books to read or places to visit, we have been seeing those ads we did not pay for and depending upon the choices we make and the clicks we click, we are led down different rabbit holes until the whole world looks … curiouser and curiouser.
Tristan Harris and Jaron Lanier are featured in the film — both TED speakers and ethicists who have worked for and helped create platforms at Google and others sites. They have warned of the dangers of the internet for years. They have tried to be voices of reason to have us question everything about those tools. One of the great lines from the film is “If you are not paying for the product — you are the product.” Watch the film — especially watch it with the young people in your world. Let them understand the toy/super computer/video camera they hold in their hands can also be radioactive if they misuse it or allow themselves to be used.
At our TED Summit in Banff in the summer of 2016 when our friends from Europe were flying to a small gathering of the tribe, they were in shock to learn the turnout of the Brexit vote while they were in the air. And they warned us — the very same thing could happen to us and our upcoming election. “You could end up with Donald Trump,” they told us. And it just seemed too fantastical to believe.
The manipulation of minds had been underway for years, carefully researched and funded and actualized and optimized by the geeks in Silicon Valley.
No one understands this better than Carole Cadwalladr, who was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for her work in revealing how Cambridge Analytica was responsible for flipping the election in the European Union — the election known as Brexit. It was done with help of Facebook and funded by a bunch of rich, mostly European thugs and puppeteers — and you can see in the photos — Donald Trump. It was a test run in how to run his own bid to be president.
Carole was basically a features writer in her early 30s and after the Brexit vote was sent to a little town in South Wales to try and understand why they voted 62% to leave. They had gone from a failing coal mine town when she was younger to a place with a new college and sports center and transportation all paid for — hundreds of millions of dollars worth — by the European Union. When she asked a young man why he voted to leave, he told her “They have never done anything for us. And … the immigrants and refugees.” She inquired what refugees (seeing none) and he told her all the ones that had come and were coming because of the EU. So she started doing her homework and what she discovered was a web of misinformation that had been fed them and all EU countries to flip the election and create a different level of trade that would benefit a handful of billionaires in Europe. Ads paid for in the guise of information by mostly Facebook.
She was a feature writer who had stumbled into and over one of the most critical stories of our time. And the link between Donald Trump and European despots and gamblers and well-pressed crooks and Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey. She was also working quietly on a film: “The Great Hack” that would play at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival .
By the time she spoke boldly from the TED stage in April of 2019, what she had said about Brexit was, “We are what happens to 100 years of democracy when disrupted by technology.” And then this tall thin young woman called out by name — on the tiny TED stage — “I am here to face you directly — you gods of Silicon Valley — Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook and Larry Page and Sergey Brin of Google and Jack Dorsey of Twitter. What are you going to do about it?” You can hear the thunderous applause we gave her at that point. What you don’t see is our extended standing ovation.
Carole appeared as a surprise speaker at our TED Summit later that summer in Edinburgh. A handful of us were invited to meet with her after her talk and have a glass of wine. She was still shaking. She knew who she had just addressed and she knew the potential cost. Knew it because I learned from her that night in a quiet corner of the bar — she was moving from house to house around Europe that summer. Changing burner phones and writing for both the New York Times and The Observer. She would leave our conference and end up spending weeks on the East Coast here with a mutual friend who offered her a literal safe harbor to sort things out.
In a year of apocalyptic stories and behaviors, this past week has felt as surreal as any. In the days ahead we will need to examine how we have chosen our news feeds and therefore our reality. We are just starting to understand the powerful global tool in the palm of our hand. It is up to us to figure out how and when to click our triggers. And is both our individual and collective responsibility — all hours of all days including this Sunday in the Park…
Teri Orr is a former editor of The Park Record. She is the founder of the Park City Institute, which provides programming for the George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Center for the Performing Arts. She has been a member of the TED community since 2007 and founded TEDxPark City in 2009.
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