In the next book on technology and national security written together with professor Raymond Wacks, we examine the consequences of what we called ‘social singularity’. Social singularity is the pretence (or the delusion) of being part of an online ‘community’ while being not.
Being a community member means sharing values, being ready to help and work for the common benefit, protecting each other. By contrast, living in a social singularity condition (favoured by social networking platforms) turns an individual into a part of a swarm whose only reason to team up with somebody else is personal motive. Once the need is satisfied, the swarm disappears, only to resurface with different members to pursue a different goal. There are plenty of examples of this social singularity phenomenon, from the various rabid outbursts of cancel culture to the Reddit traders Wall Street take over in the Gamestop case.
I defer to experts of sociology and psychology to assess whether social singularity is an actual issue or not. However, from a national security point of view, social singularity does represent a problem. There are acts of treasons —like conjuring against his own country for money or other mundane drives and acts of revenge against the administration— that are just that: acts of treasons. By contrast, the first and foremost line of defence of national security is the self-restraint coming from the allegiance to the country’s values. As soon as the State fosters national values, they make people impervious to foreign intelligence services and less prone to leak critical information.
Of course, this (trivial) conclusion is neutral because it is valid for a democratic and an authoritarian rule. The difference, though, is in the actual way it works. An authoritarian rule needs a robust set of values that —willingly or not— must be engrained into citizen’s behaviours. Hence, the essential role of propaganda and social control. Even a liberal country feeds its citizen with its own (often subtle) propaganda (hence the resort to pathological social control techniques like ‘nudging’ to induce compliance). However, there is no way to force people into ‘believing’. Rebellion against State-imposed values is a core component of a democratic society. Values are accepted. They do not fall from the sky.
However, if one part of the social contract —society-at-large— disappears and its place is taken by the ‘swarm’, individual pretences occupy the place of (fundamental) rights that are the core of the modern social contract. In other words, rights as a way to secure a peaceful social interaction are turned into selfish, greed-powered demands. The loss of physical interaction is possibly the main responsible for this social change. As soon as we stop talking among humans and defer our daily activities to a web interface or a face blinking from a computer monitor, we lose the sense of other people’s actual existence. For all we know, when involved in a video call, we might be talking to a CGI animation rather than to a living person.
In short: losing the ‘touch’ with fellows humans means losing the sense of being part of a community. It fuels greeds and individualism. It ignites the social phenomenon known as the bystander effect. One may argue, against this conclusion, that the bystander problem is a significant problem in China, a Country where the Confucianist ethos is supposed to lead people into behaving as a community according to a precise set of rules that must be worshipped, not just followed without actually ‘feeling’ them. However, as The Guardian article suggests, it is precisely the loss of values that flaws the modern Chinese society, inducing these selfish behaviours.
Blaming ‘social networks’, however, would be simplistic and just wrong. It is not the technology which created this problem. It is the business model designed and imposed by big tech companies that caused these consequences. Social singularity is an economical and political need. It turns a people from an anonymous herd into single entities. Each individual is lured into believing that he is ‘unique’, while this is obviously not true. This false belief is just instrumental to ease people’s profiling and better sell them goods and political messages as we have explained in the book COVID-19 and Public Policy in the Digital Age. However, people started believing this ‘uniqueness’ fairy tale and started behaving accordingly. Hence, the end of the community and the social disruption.
It is hard to talk about —and protect— national security, when there are neither a nation, nor a community.