Facebook outage serves as a reminder of human dependence on technology

After the outage of Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp the question is whether we are aware of our dependency on social media or if, conversely, it is social media that are aware of us and of our fragility

On 4th October 2021, Facebook and its Instagram and WhatsApp siblings suffered an outage that lasted for six hours. The crash threw millions of its users into digital darkness and marked a significant moment in our peculiar age of globalized interconnectedness. For many around the world it was as though time had stopped. Now the only question is whether we are aware of our dependency on social media or if, conversely, it is social media that are aware of us and of our fragility.

Last year, as part of a parliamentary question, the European Commission issued a report on the addiction to social media amongst young people. According to the report, in Europe alone the use of social media rose by 23% in the five years prior to 2019. The report subsequently goes into further detail and points out that ‘some children and adults even spend up to nine hours a day on social media. 71% of young people sleep next to their smartphones and 10% look at their phone more than ten times per night. It has also been proven that teenagers who spend more than five hours a day on their smartphones are twice as likely to develop depressive symptoms.’

It is not only a matter of concern for public health that should be addressed. One day after the outage, the Guardian published an article highlighting global overreliance on Facebook services in the financial market. This could be exemplified by the disappearance of more than $13m in revenue from advertisement, which is ‘the lifeblood of the company,’ every hour the platform was offline.

But does the gigantic company affect us only as far as our mental health and business are concerned? Was the six-hour outage only a reminder of Facebook’s dominance in our lives or did it also dredge up one of Hitchcock’s ominous, metaphorical statements in the opening shot telling us what will happen in the next six hours?

‘I am seen, therefore I am’

This outage can be seen from two perspectives: an individual one, from which we can wonder what will happen to our identity, and a socio-political one. On an individual basis, if we recall René Descartes’ extraordinary philosophical statement ‘I think, therefore I am’, we may realize that today, in our globalized world of communication and interconnectedness, this argument could easily be replaced by ‘I am seen, therefore I am’.

In other words, the more one is seen by other users, the more one exists, regardless of the content or the form in which they engage in social media. As Polish philosopher Zygmunt Bauman articulated, the desire for the omnipresence of the virtual dimension is a reflection of the deep fear of forgetfulness that affects the modern human. Why does the virtual world appear much more compelling a raison d'être than reality?

Reality is crumbled by fake news

On the socio-political level, plenty of research and numerous reports have already revealed how algorithms and filter bubbles used in social media apps foster the spread of radical ideas by placing us into echo chambers. Not only does this lead us away from peaceful coexistence, but it also causes us serious harm. Some political decisions with far-reaching consequences have also been affected, such as the Cambridge Analytical case in Brexit.

Besides this rather philosophical debate, 21st-century human life is thus, in one way or another, captivated by social media, and the social media ecosystem is heavily embedded in people’s everyday life. Whether there is any way of escaping from it or our concerns are just a product of French apocalypticism, and there is no significant threat for our liberal democracy, is a question that we may pose to ourselves.

The case of Covid anti-vaxxers explains how polarizations are exacerbated by ‘fake news’ websites. What is worrisome about this is the loss of a common perception of reality between those who believe in science and those who celebrate conspiracy theories. Our society thereby appears to be split in two like Teresa in Milan Kundera’s masterpiece, “The Unbearable Lightness of Being”.

Back to silence

In this void our interactions in the mediatic world become self-reflective, linguistic, semantic and fear to be the quaint concerns of another age. At its most provocative it asks questions, the location of our stranded selves. Nothing less, in short, what makes us concerned citizens in democracy in the digital age? Perhaps ‘to be engaged in that silent dialogue between me and myself’.

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rivista di geopolitica, geopolitica e notizie dal mondo