Former US President Barack Obama seems to think that the point of technology and the internet should be to unite the public, and criticized them for failing to achieve that.
Obama spoke at a Salesforce conference in San Francisco on Thursday, to express his dissatisfaction with the central role of technology in people’s lives, and accuse it of producing “greater inequality” in addition to divisions, along with being responsible for the current “trouble” in the US political culture.
He sees even more problems arising from technology, such as frustrations related to social status, and “pursuit of the wrong things.”
Obama also seems to have discovered the algorithmically determined recommendations feature on YouTube. In his own words, “If you follow one rabbit hole on YouTube, the world can look different than if you were to go down another one.”
And he doesn’t have much faith in people’s ability to process information and form their own opinions. “People don’t know what’s true and what’s not, and what to believe and what not to believe,” said the former president.
He, at the same time, referenced the phenomenon of echo-chambers, where, often prompted by tech giants and their platforms, users are rarely if ever exposed to a different point of view, being instead encouraged to consume more of the same content. Obama said that depending on the source of information – such as Fox News or the New York Times – people will hold very different views.
He is also nostalgic for the “good old times” when the US had only three TV networks, “and people who watched the same shows would have common ground.” An argument can be made that the very same thing is happening today, only with a greater variety and diversity of sources – but Obama did not belabor this point any further.
The growth of independent online media means that a handful of networks no longer have a monopoly on truth. Recent stats from the recent Democratic TV debates show that ratings are dropping as the Primary continues and a single interview between Bernie Sanders and podcaster Joe Rogan got more views than the entire Democratic debate.
And although technology is a powerful industry that has generated vast amounts of wealth and jobs, and created new ones that never existed several decades ago – Obama believes it is also deepening the problem of inequality. He thinks that those who made a lot of money should now be giving back, to cure ills such as inadequate access to education and even homelessness.
And the way to do that, according to the former president, is to “adjust” institutions to make sure that the society benefits from tech money.