BY SRISHTI MUKHERJEE ’21
I was one of the last people in my age group to get a Facebook account — or so I felt, at the age of 16 --— a fact that I felt greatly hindered my placement on the scale of coolness. I joined Instagram only a month before graduating high school, and I still only have 4,601 snap points on Snapchat. Despite this, I can no longer remember a time when I didn’t turn to these same social media platforms at the slightest boredom — for example, the boredom encountered while sitting on the toilet. I have begun to wonder whether it is time to delete my Facebook page entirely and relearn how to turn the lights on using a thumb and a switch, without any help from Alexa.
I was first introduced to Alexa upon visiting my uncle’s house last year. I was astounded by the ease with which Alexa was able to hear and respond to our needs — whether we wanted to know how many nanoseconds there are in a second or listen to an old Taylor Swift song. Alexa, while being an extremely useful assistant, fails to make conversation: but can she still hear our conversations?
Amazon and Google, who monopolize the market on such devices, claim that their products only record and process audio once they have been triggered using phrases such as “Hey, Alexa” or “O.K., Google.” However, according to The New York Times, both companies have filed patent applications that lay groundwork for how this technology can be used to monitor more of what users say and do. That information can then be used to determine a person’s wants and interests, and be used to deliver appropriate ads and product recommendations.
There have already been instances in which Alexa and Google Home overheard more than users expected or intended it to. For example, an Arkansas prosecutor issued a search warrant to see if a suspect’s Echo contained evidence in a murder case in 2017, according to CNN. This makes one wonder whether these devices are the realization of the spying “telescreens” that Orwell envisioned in his novel, Nineteen-Eighty Four. The Telegraph confirmed that researchers themselves have discovered that it is possible to turn an Echo device into a “wiretap,” which means that cybercriminals — or the government — can potentially listen in on the microphone recordings as well as take over the device.
Social media presents many of the same problems. The most recent, and perhaps one of the biggest rebounds against Facebook came recently with the Cambridge Analytica scandal — in which the political data firm was accused of harvesting the data of millions of Facebook users and using it to manipulate and influence groups of the electorate on social media --— most notably during Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential election. This led the CEO of Tesla and SpaceX, Elon Musk, to delete his companies’ Facebook pages on Instagram and post the hashtag #deletefacebook on his twitter account.
Social media can, and has been used to, profile our interests and give us what we want. This limits one’s ability to come across views other than their own. Over time, this could result in obscuring the distinction between what we want, and Facebook’s version of what they think users want.
We can argue that technology has made our lives better. We can also argue that all our problems lie in the past, and it is the future that will solve them. However, it is also necessary to acknowledge the potential new problems we may be creating with the introduction of new technologies.
Humans have previously underestimated the destructive power of their creations. For example, in 1945, the physicist Robert Oppenheimer, glimpsing at the destructive power of the atomic bomb, famously referenced the Bhagavad-Gita — a book of Hindu scripture -— by saying, “Now I am Death, the destroyer of worlds.” Everything has a trade-off and, for the convenience of technology, it is our privacy; while seemingly fine for now, it may not be once the control of it falls into the wrong hands.