There are major issues which face us as citizens as we, like Van Morrison’s ‘Dweller on the Threshold’, hover on the brink of a new decade with a beguilingly pleasing and symmetrical ring to it. 2020. Twenty Twenty.
Are we done with the Millennials? Is this now Generation Z, to be known, fortunately, or unfortunately depending upon your perspective, as GenZeds? Or will there be some other nomenclature to describe a group of people apparently different from those who have gone before, and those who will follow?
What is certain is that our problematical, and ever more psychotic, relationship with personal technology, and the companies which provide it, needs to recognised for what it is an increasingly dangerous love affair which threatens to subvert independence of thought, judgement and research. More damagingly it has ushered in a surveillance society which no one voted for with consequences which are as yet uncertain but appear unlikely to be benign.
Since this summer applicants for US visas have been asked to submit social media data from accounts they have used in the past five years including personal information which they have commonly shared on those platforms. This goes further than the request for voluntary disclosure which was introduced during the Barack Obama administration and marks the enhancement of a broader, and more sinister, policy than previously. One, incidentally, that would have been at home in a Stasi-regulated regime which would have loved access to a record of friends, families and business associates.
Meanwhile this incursion into the rights of all of us is accelerated by the preening ambitions of Big Tech. Apple, Amazon, Google, Facebook and Microsoft enter the 2020s as trillion-dollar enterprises whose net worth exceeds the GDP of some of the world’s most important economies.
Politicians, thus far, have proved incapable of dealing with this challenge. Indeed the most ambitious of them, starting with Obama, but copied by Trump and Johnson have credited social media with easing their way to power.
The most pronounced governmental response in Europe to-date, the introduction of the general data protection regulation, has raised awareness but in Ireland a tariff of penalties is yet to be established although it is expected imminently through some landmark decisions.
With an election coming down the tracks in 2020 we can expect a more febrile atmosphere in terms of social media and commentary. There were several dirty tricks during the recent UK election which included parody websites, fake newspapers, false manifestos, Facebook ads with misleading claims, a so-called “fact-checking” service which promulgated lies, orchestrated attacks on genuine news stories and hoaxes. We like to think we are more sophisticated than this, but it is as well to be on our guard in 2020 and remember that at times of political fury it is worth checking with more than one source that you trust.
But because there is clamour and an abundance of noise it becomes important to burrow deeper.
A respected commentator said this month that we are “witnessing is a collision between two conflicting ideals of truth: one that depends on trusted intermediaries (journalists and experts), and another that promises the illusion of direct access to reality itself.”
Next year it will be important for readers and voters to choose the reality that they wish to follow. Upon that decision may rest the immediate destiny of Ireland.