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  • Writer's pictureDannielle K Pearson

Big Tech’s Influence on our ability to Think Critically

A few weeks ago, I was listening to a Ted Talk with Ian Bremmer the Founder and CEO of Eurasia Group, one of the world’s most preeminent Political Risk Consultancies. The topic was typical for someone like Ian, “The New World Order.” For Ian, this talk is standard the type of discussion he gives regularly, with one noticeable difference; the role Technology Companies play in cultivating the emerging “New World Order.” Where the distribution of Global Power is not solely dependent on the actions of a Nation but the proclivities of Alphabet, Microsoft, Meta and others alike. Bremmer noted, “Today our identities are determined by Nature, Nurture and Algorithm,” a comment that was stated “haphazardly” but chillingly accurate with profound implications. In just 20+ years we have introduced a series of technologies that have fundamentally changed the way we interact with and perceive the world around us. This spans from the activities we seek out, our political and social views, the relationships we build, and most importantly the dependencies we form.

The “Might” of Big Tech

The pace of technological innovation is significant. The computer was introduced in the 1940s and took roughly 40 years to evolve into the personal computer, now innovation cycles take 5 - 10 years to evolve. With the advent of Artificial Intelligence these cycles will eventually transition from years to months. This pace of innovation has birthed the largest companies in history. The Big 5 Tech Companies: Meta, Alphabet, Amazon, Apple and Microsoft hold a collective market cap of $7.5T (USD). In “Nation-State” terms that makes the Big Five the third largest economy in the world, just behind The United States and China and outpaces Japan by $2T (USD). These companies and their products are embedded in our daily lives. Amazon accounts for 40% (approx. $400B USD) of all online spend in the United States. Approximately, 44% of the world’s population is on at least one of Meta’s platforms. Its 3.5 billion user base is roughly, the same size of the top 5 most populous countries in the world combined (China, India, US, Indonesia and Pakistan). While the macro trends are significant, the micro trends are staggering. It is estimated Google collects roughly 40 data points per user. This may not sound meaningful but German news outlet DW, was able to accurately replicate an entire person’s life, just off several years of search history. Having never met their “subject,” they were able to piece together and create a frighteningly accurate avatar. The avatar was not only able to effectively speak to the “subject’s” life story, but also included her most intimate thoughts and struggles. For instance, their subject had suffered from an eating disorder, information she had never made public. While Google’s pre-eminence in search is known, social media’s reach and influence is still unfolding. The UN estimates that in 2023, 5.3B people globally, or 66% of the world’s population have access to internet. Unsurprisingly, 90% of people with access to the internet engage with at least one social media platform. When Ian said our identities are shaped by “nature, nurture, and algorithm” he was not joking. Social Media platforms are powered by algorithms, and they are equipped with one focus, boost user engagement. This results in a daily consortium of curated posts designed to get your attention. A study conducted in 2018 by MIT students found that a false news story is 70% more likely to be retweeted than a true story. They also found that truth spreads slower than falsehoods. A true story takes six times longer to reach an audience of 1,500 people than a false one. The influence of these algorithms is everywhere, from varying viewpoints on Climate Change, Political views, and evident in COVID 19 vaccination stances. Scientific American, a popular Science based publication, coins this effect as “Algorithm Amplification,” which leads to a whole host of problems, from distortion of reality through to interrupting social learning, and intelligence.

What does this have to do with Critical Thinking?

I have a common talk track as it applies to “Critical Thinking,” we are not taught to, or encouraged to think critically, which means we have a universal dearth of critical thinking skills and a confused attitude towards it. We are universally indoctrinated into an education system that judges intelligence by the selection of the correct answer, rather than debating the subject and the ability to draw conclusions. The average person is exposed to 74GB worth of information per day, that is roughly enough content to fill 16, 90-minute movies. That’s a lot of information to process, making it easy to fall victim to biases, and following status quo. Notable impacts of interacting with large volumes of information, much of which, is designed to create engagement, include distortion of social learning and intelligence, diminished problem-solving skills, and an absence of the perceived “need” to think critically due to having all of the “facts” available.

How can we minimize this influence?

The first part of resolving a problem, is to acknowledge that you have a problem. Fortunately, we have the ability to regulate our own thoughts through metacognition or mindfulness. Simply being aware that algorithms are designed to drive engagement can be enough to thwart endless scrolling and mindless “liking.” Often asking yourself simple questions like “how does this make me feel” or does this “stack up,” can be effective tools in minimizing unfounded influence and restore the balance of your identity to “nature and nurture” minus the algorithm.

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