DUBAI: If asked, most people would likely admit that they would have struggled to survive the mental toll of isolation brought about by the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic without access to social media, online shopping, and video conferencing to make up for the loss of human contact.
And yet, these very same technologies, which have accelerated globalization and brought distant cultures together for the first time at the tap of a keypad, have in fact left many feeling more lonely, alienated, and inward-looking than ever before.
Far from making societies more tolerant, cosmopolitan, and sociable, the addiction to mobile devices, “likes” as a form of validation, and the instant gratification of streaming and home delivery has left many people aggressively intolerant, proudly parochial, and unhealthily introverted.
“Globalization has brought us all together in one world forum, where we are all assembled,” said Amin Maalouf, one of the world’s foremost modern Arab writers and author of Adrift: How Our World Lost its Way among other books.
“But being assembled didn’t make us closer to each other. It made us look for what differentiates us from the person next to us.”
Participating in this year’s Dubai-hosted Emirates Airline Festival of Literature, the Paris-based Lebanese-born French author described the situation as “the great paradox” of our time.
“We are more and more like each other, we have the same vision of the world, and the same instruments in our hands, and we know the same things. We have the same aspirations. Yet, at the same time, we want to think that we are very different,” he said.
Anyone who has ever shared an unpopular opinion on social media will tell you how tribal and dogmatic internet users can be from the safety of online anonymity. Political disagreements can take the form of personal, vitriolic attacks, while facts are often brushed aside in place of tropes and conspiracies.
These disagreements may not be such a big problem if they remained online. But as was demonstrated by the US Capitol riots on Jan. 6, unsubstantiated claims about election fraud were enough to incite real-world mob violence.
With so many sources of biased information and agenda-driven news on the world wide web, all of them competing for hits, clicks, and shares to shape the mainstream narrative, it is hard to know who or what to trust.
As a result, members of the public often fall back on familiar narratives and imagined communities in place of rigorous fact-checking and openness to differing viewpoints.
“I think it is very normal, because we have been brought together very quickly by the acceleration of science and technology and we have not yet assimilated,” Maalouf added.
“But one can be confident in the long run. The main trend is a trend toward unifying the world, unifying humankind, which will eventually, one day, become a nation of very different people, but having a sense of common destiny.
“But, in the short run, the affirmation of specific identities is more and more aggressive, and it will take time to accept the reality created by new technology.”
The Middle East and North Africa are among the world’s top regions for internet penetration. According to Internet World Stats, which tracks global internet usage, social media engagement, and online market research, almost 67 percent of the region was plugged in by 2019 compared to the world average of 58.8 percent.
Saudi Arabia, similar to other Gulf states, scored especially high by this metric. The Kingdom’s internet penetration among its 35.3 million-strong population stood at more than 90 percent, exposing Arabs to a world of ideas and identities, but also its divisions.
The paradox explored by Maalouf was widely acknowledged by the literary community that participated in the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature.
Saudi novelist Badriah Al-Bishr, the first woman to win the Arab Press Award for best newspaper column in 2011, told Arab News that although the adoption of new technologies was a major achievement for humankind, it had led to an information overload.
“Information is not knowledge. We formulate knowledge from data, the same way we bake bread from flour. Technology is a positive for humanity — the issue is how it is used,” she said.
To sift through this ocean of data, tech firms have created sophisticated algorithms based on interactions to target users with relevant content. However, the algorithms used by social media giants, such as Facebook, can “lock” users into a narrow, blinkered worldview of “what it thinks they want to see. This is the danger of algorithms,” Ahlam Bolooki, director of the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature, told Arab News.
In August, five months before the US Capitol riots, data scientists working for Facebook warned the company’s top executives that the platform was playing host to a worrying number of groups promoting hate speech.
Internal documents seen by The Wall Street Journal in January said, “70 percent of the top 100 most active US civic groups are considered non-recommendable for issues such as hate, misinformation, bullying, and harassment.”
Executives were told one of the groups with the highest level of engagement “aggregates the most inflammatory news stories of the day and feeds them to a vile crowd that immediately and repeatedly calls for violence.”
The researchers added: “We need to do something to stop these conversations from happening and growing as quickly as they do.”
Facebook has since pledged to overhaul its algorithms.
Al-Bishr noted that the pace of change was also causing a generational rift.
“The millennium generation, which was born during this period of technological advancement, believes this is what life is — they don’t know what they are missing. But we, the older generation, can see the gaps,” she added.
Naouel Chaoui, an Algerian-Italian who runs a popular book club that was forced online during the COVID-19 pandemic, pointed out that technology, despite its practicality, was no substitute for human contact.
“Because of technology, we are losing the need for contact, real contact, human contact; a tap on the shoulder, a hug. Body language is a huge part of our communication, which, when missing, loses its authentic expression,” she told Arab News.
“I feel that the new generations are missing this crucial part of getting together. They meet through games, over screens, or through their phones.”
Perhaps one solution, once the pandemic has passed, would be for people to unplug a little more often, challenge their preconceptions, and expand their horizons.
Elif Shafak, a prominent British-Turkish author, whose work has been translated into 54 languages, said experiencing a diversity of viewpoints was vital to the learning process.
“We humans don’t learn through repetition. We don’t learn as much from sameness as we learn from differences,” Shafak, the author of 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World and The Forty Rules of Love, told the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature.
“When people from different backgrounds with different stories come together, they challenge each other, and they help each other’s cognitive flexibility, shifting perspectives.
“I am a big believer in the importance of cosmopolitan encounters, in the importance of bringing people with different stories together and letting them talk to each other.”