TikTok, Memes, and A.I.: Losing Ourselves in Technology

Well, obviously I haven’t had the time to write blog posts this semester, so I thought I’d share here a couple of posts that I wrote for my class. The class is “Technology for Information Professionals,” and over the course of the semester each student must post on the semester-long forum on “Applying Technology.” Our posts are either supposed to be about a recent technology article, or they are supposed to be about “tech in the wild” – using technology in real life. Our posts are supposed to be no longer than 500 words, which has been a challenge for me to abide by… 🙂

Here is the first post that I wrote for the forum, in early October:

I just finished reading a fascinating article “The Meme Factory: How TikTok holds our attention” by Jia Tolentino in the current issue of The New Yorker. The article begins by discussing the app TikTok, but then expands in an ever-growing circle to discuss current app technology and how it uses A.I. to influence what we see and experience, and, finally and most disturbingly, the article discusses the parent company for TikTok, ByteDance, which is based in China but has influence worldwide. According to Tolentino, there are questions about the information that ByteDance accumulates as it uses A.I. to tailor its apps (TikTok worldwide, Douyin in China) to provide its users with content that they respond to. Tolentino states: “Although TikTok’s algorithm likely relies in part, as other systems do, on user history and video-engagement patterns, the app seems remarkably attuned to a person’s unarticulated interests. Some social algorithms are like bossy waiters: they solicit your preferences and then recommend a menu. TikTok orders you dinner by watching you look at food.” (Tolentino, p. 36)

Though the content on TikTok tends towards mindless, fun, short fifteen second videos created by and enjoyed by mostly teenagers, the fact is that there is a huge amount of money and power lurking behind the fun, and that the A.I. used to tailor the app could potentially be used for nefarious political means. Tolentino questioned a ByteDance representative about the possibility of the Chinese government making use of “the massive trove of facial closeups accumulated on its various platforms,” or “what if a third party got hold of the company’s data?” In other words, a seemingly innocuous app is able to collect facial recognition files as well as “pose estimation” that helps A.I. to learn human body language.

This is an extremely interesting article about a complex topic, and I can’t even begin to touch the surface here of what Tolentino addresses in her piece. Simply put, though, it put chills down my spine as I thought long and hard about the role that technology plays in our daily lives, and how we are gradually becoming immune to privacy worries. In Week One of this class we read the article “Library Tech Trends for 2019” by Jim Lynch which discusses assisting patrons with privacy concerns on social media, and also discusses the ALA’s worry about ethical concerns with facial recognition. As Lynch states, “[facial recognition] technology is already raising ethical concerns that might go against the core values of libraries, including intellectual freedom, privacy, equitable access, and diversity.” As more forms of technology accumulate data on our unique facial characteristics, there is more possibility of such information being misused as it has in China to find and imprison Uighurs (a Muslim minority). Frankly, I’m now a bit terrified about our future, but I’m very grateful to Tolentino for writing this excellent article.

Lynch, J. (2019, January 14). Library Tech Trends for 2019 [Blog post]. Retrieved from http://www.techsoupforlibraries.org/blog/library-tech-trends-for-2019

Tolentino, J. (2019). The meme factory: How TikTok holds our attention. The New Yorker, XCV(29), 34-41. Retrieved from https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2019/09/30/how-tiktok-holds-our-attention

Also worth checking out: Christoph Niemann’s cover for this issue of The New Yorker (the technology issue): https://www.newyorker.com/culture/cover-story/cover-story-2019-09-30

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